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In praise of and doubt about Victim Support Fund

In praise of and doubt about Victim Support Fund
August 03
11:21 2014

After enduring (what seemed like) the eternal mismanagement of the consequences of the Boko Haram onslaught on Nigeria, the extremely mortified people of Nigeria woke up recently to perhaps one of the most brilliant initiatives of the Federal government in the circumstance so far: Victims Support Fund. Simply put, the fund, as the name clearly suggests, is intended to provide support for victims of the unrelenting insurgency in the Northern parts of the country, particularly the North East which, if care is not taken, might be annexed by the terrorists. A very laudable initiative indeed, it is headed thankfully by the hard-headed former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Theophilous Danjuma (rtd). I say thankfully and hard-headed because the old man, it appears, does not tolerate nonsense and does not need the money personally. I shall return to the role and import of Gen. Danjuma and the fact that he doesn’t need the money.

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According to media reports, over N80b was realised at a fund-raising dinner held last night with the “usual suspects” (Dangote, Adenuga, Ovia, Danjuma, Otedola, Elumelu and co) pledging N1b and above each. President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly anchored the event himself and ensured all the invited guests (as we say here – as if all the guests were not invited) dropped something reasonable in the begging bowl. Whether the fund raising looked like subtle coercion of Corporate Nigeria or another occasion for individuals and organisations to display their support for the president openly, what matters most is that we now have N80b in the bag. Or more. To sort out the victims of the mindless carnage being prosecuted by Boko Haram.

It is pointless to recount here the widely known need to support these hapless Nigerians who have lost family members, lost their businesses and properties or just have been displaced by the activities of the terrorists. As the president said, in what has been described as one of his most moving speeches in recent memory, “it is a privilege to give to those in distress, as the givers could as well have been the victims”. The fund, Dr. Goodluck explained for emphasis, will be used to rehabilitate those who have been orphaned or widowed while those whose business premises and places of worship have been destroyed will be assisted to rebuild them. Now that’s where I personally see a big challenge, and I speak my mind and that of quite a few people in this regard.

Nigerians have been so badly treated over the years that they have become an incredulous lot. They view every good gesture with justified suspicion. Not a few were vindicated when, recently, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, an erstwhile aide of the late President Umaru Yar’adua, narrated how people pledged huge sums of money at a fundraiser organised by his boss’ wife, then First Lady, Mrs. Yar’adua, and disappeared without redeeming them. That’s my first concern here: I hope these “usual suspects” will not step up the podium, announce big donations, take presidential handshakes, get front page media mention and then vanish with their private jets till another fundraising event. I really hope so, because if they so behave then they would have hit the victims a second time-after what they have already experienced from Boko Haram.

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The other point is even more critical. Do we have a register of the victims already or are we going to open victim registration centres. Unwieldy as it may seem, it is possible to register the victims but the challenge is the character of the average Nigerian as well as the character of the North East. While the one (character of the average Nigerian) will make it difficult to contradistinguish between the genuine victims and the fake ones, the other (character of North East) will make it difficult to manage the logistics of the registration exercise. Danjuma and his team must ensure that the fund serves those it is meant to serve with minimum risks to their lives. I foresee Boko Haram even storming the registration centres with suicide bombers, especially now that they have started using women.

The other point of doubt is the predictable proclivity of government to make very flowery statements of intention without any clear roadmap for achievement and sustainability. Someone reminded me of the Flood Victims Relief Fund set up by this same government a couple of years back, when floods devastated several parts of the country. Pardon my ignorance here because shortly after the pomp and panoply that attended the fund raising event I didn’t hear much about both the fund and the victims much less their rehabilitation. I will never forget how corporate organisations were rushing to the “refugee camps” for photo opportunities with the victims armed with truckloads of mattresses and bags of rice. I am not the one to deride the altruistic effort of public-minded people and organisations, but the fact that we (including the donors) don’t follow these initiatives to a logical conclusion is rather demoralising.

Now, let me address the issue of Danjuma’s legendary stubbornness and the fact that he doesn’t need the money. By all accounts, including all the stories about his coup-making days, Danjuma is believed to be a no-nonsense man. It is believed that if you are planning something bad (perhaps except coups) you must not let Danjuma know or he will expose you. In short, he is reputedly very courageous and can speak truth to power. He did to his friend, President Olusegun Obasanjo, and quit his government unceremoniously. I also hear he has spoken many times to President Jonathan. As a matter of fact, conspiracy theorists claim Danjuma was tapped for the job in order to bring him closer to the president and the government. We hope age and other things have not taken a toll on the otherwise fearless man of great candour. He must not fail to deliver this time around.

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Also, Danjuma, by his admission, is extremely rich. Aside being a retired army general (a magna carta for stupendous wealth), he was reportedly gifted some oil wells by the late Gen. Sani Abacha, which he, in turn, sold to the Chinese and made what Igbo boys call “stupid money”. Apparently over-burdened by the heavy load of cash he had at his disposal and considering his age, Danjuma commendably set up a foundation, with which he has been touching the lives of needy and indigent Nigerians. The assumption, therefore, is that the old man will not help himself to the funds. Good. The only caution here is that he must avoid the “Kolade Syndrome”, which is a situation where you are used to confer credibility to a project or initiative while others are “running things” and running rings around you. I coined the name for this syndrome from the good name of the former Chairman of SURE-P, Dr. Christopher Kolade, who many suspect was too old to understand most of the things that went down in the organisation set up to manage the immediate economic consequences of the removal of subsidy on petroleum in 2010. Danjuma had better keep his eyes and ears wide open to avoid this syndrome.

All that said, I still believe that this Victim Support Fund will be a very difficult project considering the rising spate of insurgency in the areas where the victims live. So, while it sounds good to want to help the victims, it is yet to be seen how possible it is going to be with the circumstances that made them victims in the first place still prevalent. I am wondering how any sane pastor or Imam will commence the reconstruction of his church or mosque, as the case may be, when Boko Haram is still laying siege in those areas and even expanding their footprint. Can anybody attempt rebuilding the schools and markets bombed by the insurgents? Going by reports of increasing attacks and daring expansionist tendencies of the insurgents, it will be difficult to consider any rehabilitation effort beyond giving the victims cash to feed their families and relocate to safer places to mourn their loved ones and pick up the pieces of their lives.

I refuse to believe the hunch that this whole Victims Support Fund in a political gimmick, what one of my friends calls a “political scam”. It may seem so, going by our past experiences, but it should not be considering the seriousness of the situation, passionate appeal made by the president and the FG’s donation of N10b to open the floodgate of donations. Beyond the passionate speeches and donations, however, the best support the victims will most appreciate will be the ending of Boko Haram’s reign of terror in Northern Nigeria. So far, it seems the insurgents are gaining the upper hand in both the guerrilla war and propaganda war. They also appear to be winning the psychological war with the recent introduction of female suicide bombers and the scary videos they routinely upload online. Meanwhile, those who speak for the FG struggle to match Boko Haram’s evil rhetoric with convincing updates on the war on terror.

How bad can it get before Nigerians start seeing a more co-ordinated and determined effort to curb the excesses of the insurgents and bring lasting succour to the orphans, widows, widowers and those who have lost their businesses and places of worship? Perhaps, Danjuma, a retired general (and other retired generals), can also share a few ideas beyond sharing the billions of naira on how to deal with this huge rampaging monster. Politicians, on both sides of the divide must urgently stop playing politics with this issue. May be, just may be, when Boko Haram starts targeting politicians, like they did Gen. Muhammadu Buhari last week, then they will come together to fight the fight of their lives. In closing, I want to state unequivocally that I am unrepentantly of the school of thought which believes that Nigeria needs more than advisory assistance from the United States in this war against insurgency. We really do.

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*Oparah writes from Lagos.

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