‘If Jonathan can’t go to such a small village, why should anyone stay there? Why is he afraid?’
‘That visit had to be called off because of the serious security implications, and the visit was publicised’
President Goodluck Jonathan on Friday was bashed for cancelling his planned trip to Chibok, where over 200 girls were abducted on April 14, because of the dicey security situation in Borno State.
The Northern Elders ’Forum and leading legal activists in the country have criticised the President for cancelling the visit, saying the development was ‘completely embarrassing’ as it portrayed Jonathan as a ‘push around’ leader.
Saturday PUNCH gathered on Friday that while the President was bent on making the journey, his security managers believed it was not safe to do so following the widespread publicity given to the visit.
It was learnt that senior officials of the nation’s security outfits persuaded the President to shun the planned visit.
A security source said the mutiny by some soldiers of the 101 Battalion, who attacked the General Officer Commanding, Maj.-Gen. Abubakar Mohammed on Tuesday also heightened fears ahead of the visit.
The source said it would be ridiculous for the security handlers to expose the President without first addressing any issue of suspected disenchantment among troops in the area.
It was further gathered that the military and other security agencies were taking painstaking steps at protecting the President from being harmed, a situation that could plunge the country into crisis.
The source said, “That visit had to be called off because of the serious security implications. Yes there are security issues because the visit was publicised.
“The story is everywhere, in a situation like this; you don’t announce when he is visiting, you issue a statement of the visit.
“You talk of visits by the United States President Obama to places; let me tell you that the situation is not the same here.
“You know, the kind of insurgency we are dealing with, you don’t take anything to chance.
“Do you know what would happen to this country if anything goes wrong there? We don’t want the threat of a civil war on our hands, “the source said.
The decision to shun the visit, our correspondent learnt, was taken in the early hours of Friday.
Security operatives had earlier been deployed in the Presidential Wing of the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, early in the morning in preparation for the visit.
After the security agents were informed of the cancellation of the visit, they were, however, asked to stay back at the airport in preparation for the President’s departure for Paris, France, scheduled for 1.0pm.
He is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from Benin Republic, Chad, Niger and Cameroon in Paris and he is billed to return to the country on Saturday.
Members of the President’s advance team, who left Abuja for Borno on Thursday, were already on ground in the state before the visit was aborted.
Our correspondent learnt that local and foreign journalists were already on ground waiting for Jonathan’s arrival before the decision to abort the trip was taken.
While reacting to the cancellation of the visit, the Deputy Chairman of the Northerners Elders’ Forum, Paul Unongo, said the cancellation was a sign that the President could not take decisions on his own.
He, therefore, advised the President to think through on the matter and stop portraying the country in bad image.
Unongo said, “Well, I don’t know how the President handles his things and I don’t know why his advisers always try to portray him as somebody they are pushing around. He doesn’t think on projects before embarking upon them.
“As the President, he is supposed to take upon himself the responsibility of handling things well before doing them. He should have thought of everything before making the announcement. It is very bad for the image of the President as well as the image of the country.”
He added that the cancellation of the visit showed that the President’s advisers were inefficient in their duties.
Unongo said, “It is bad for the people who handle the itinerary of the President and arrange things for him. I am concerned about the handling of this issue. He should be able to think through before making decisions and announcements to the public.”
Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, described the cancellation of the visit as embarrassing and scary.
Aturu said, “The President of Nigeria is not just a political leader, he is also the cultural leader, whose presence in a place like Chibok would instill hope in the people.
“If the President is just thinking about visiting Chibok one month after the abduction, that itself is embarrassing. If he cannot go to such a small village, why should anybody stay there?
“I am beginning to see that President Goodluck Jonathan has a complete misunderstanding of what the role of President should be. The media has visited that community, why is the President afraid of going there?”
Speaking about the possibility that the failure of the President to visit Chibok was fallout of the ‘cold war’ between Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima and the President, Aturu said, “that would have been very petty if it is so.”
He said, “Shettima is not from Chibok and neither is his child among those abducted. There is simply no word to justify or explain the failure of the President to visit the community.”
Another Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, said cancelling a long-overdue visit to Chibok “exposes the hopelessness of the situation.”
He said, “If a man who has all the apparatus of the armed forces at his disposal is afraid of visiting a place like Chibok as a result of security concern, how about the people living there?
“It is just unfortunate that the President is not just overwhelmed, he is completely scared about the situation. One day after the attack at Nyanya, the President threw caution to the wind and visited Kano State for a political event. It simply shows the hopelessness of the administration’s fight against insurgency.”
Ugwummadu stated that it would have been better to tell the parents that their children were dead rather than knowing that they were held captive by a particular individual, who might be subjecting them to excruciating sexual slavery.
He condemned the rhetorics that have been going on back and forth between President Jonathan and Shettima.
Meanwhile, the Presidency on Friday said Jonathan was never scheduled to visit Chibok as widely reported.
The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, made the clarification in a telephone interview with our correspondent.
Abati said every movement of the President was documented and that in this case, there was no record indicating that Jonathan would visit Chibok.
He added that his office always issue press statements when the President was travelling and the only one he issued on Thursday was that of Jonathan’s trip to France.
When confronted that his office only issues statements on the President’s foreign trips, Abati said any visit to Chibok was an important one that would have attracted a formal statement from his office.
He insisted that the trip was not on Jonathan’s schedule for the day.
He said, “Every movement of the President is documented and backed by press statement. Chibok is very important; such a trip would have been backed up by a press statement from my office.
“We never announced Chibok trip. It was not on the President’s schedule. All the reports about the so-called trip quoted some unnamed government officials. Let the journalists identify the officials.”
Shortly before the interview, Abati had claimed on his Twitter handle that reports of the President’s planned visit to Chibok were mere rumours.
He said it was wrong and malicious to allege that a “non-existent trip has been cancelled.”
The presidential spokesman wrote, “Every trip by the President is usually pre-announced. The Presidency did not at any time announce a trip to Chibok today (Friday). Ignore rumours.
“The statement issued by my office yesterday (Thursday) indicated very clearly that the President is scheduled to travel to Paris today (Friday).
“It is therefore wrong and malicious to allege that a non-existent trip has been cancelled.”
Jonathan, according to military sources, was earlier expected to visit the troubled town to see for himself, the carnage done by the insurgents and hear from eyewitnesses.
Members of his advance team, it was learnt, had left Abuja for Maiduguri on Thursday evening.
Also, human rights activist, Femi Falana, said it was understandable if the visit was cancelled for security reasons, considering Tuesday’s mutiny by some soldiers, which was not envisaged by the President when he planned the visit.
“If the soldiers on ground could shot at their commander, it means it is a serious matter. So the government would need to ensure that the matter is sorted out before the President could go there because it is an internal problem which is very serious. I mean it is not a frivolous reason.
“To avoid such mutiny, the soldiers should be treated with respect and dignity. If government tells us that soldiers have died, don’t they have names, are they given decent burials, are there entitlements paid to their families on time, are those who are fighting the war well equipped and well motivated. These are serious issues that are not being addressed,” Falana said.
An expert in constitutional law, Prof. Itse Sagay, said it was obvious that the visit could have been cancelled for security reasons, if it was not safe for the President to go.
“Chibok is about two to three hours drive from Maiduguri and there is no airport there, which means he has to go by road. The whole world, including Boko Haram, knows that the President announced that he is going there.
“It is also possible that they might have received information that his convoy could be ambushed. so I have to, in good faith, think that he got such information. We should avoid a situation where his life would be in danger, and then the whole country would be mourning the President while mourning the absence of the abducted girls.
“I don’t think it is because of the mutiny, because the commander has been replaced and the people involved have been arrested. His influence wouldn’t have affected the search for the girls, it could ameliorate the feelings of the residents that the President has come to visit them. It would have made them feel better. It is a sentimental journey,” Sagay said.
The BBC reported that the cancellation of the visit underlined just how fragile the security situation is in the North-East.
President Jonathan has been criticised for not visiting the town – more than a month after the girls were seized.
The BBC further reported that the Director for African Affairs at the United States Defence Department, Alice Friend, said Nigeria’ security forces had been “slow to adapt with new strategies and new tactics”.
She also said the US was unable to offer aid to Nigeria’s military because of “troubling” atrocities perpetrated by some units during operations against Boko Haram.
“We cannot ignore that Nigeria can be an extremely challenging partner to work with,” Ms Friend said.
In similar vein, the United States Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Robert Jackson, said that Washington had been urging Nigeria to reform its approach to Boko Haram.