Dr. Benjamin Irikefe is a forerunner in the Niger Delta Amnesty training programme for non-militants and exagitators in the region and a pioneer consultant to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. In this interview with SONY NEME, the chairman of the first Presidential Retreat on National Security in 2001, speaks on his roles in the Amnesty deal and issues affecting the Niger Delta, among others
What encouraged you to venture into the Amnesty project and are you satisfied with the outcome so far?
I was encouraged into the project for me to be able to contribute my quota to the society and restoration of peace in our country.
To a large extent, I am fulfilled because recently I got a call that students numbering over eight million from the nine states of the Niger Delta and those in the Diaspora gave me an award, which turned out to be Niger Delta Personality of Inestimable Value and Role Model for the Young Generation. That for me is a big achievement.
How have you been relating with the group of people you are working with?
It is not an easy thing. You must be honest with them, and treat them like your brothers and sisters. For you to have been called to come and train people with violent tendencies and all that, in the first place, you are being asked to go and rehabilitate and reintegrate this people because they know that you know better than them.
You know that a tree that is not taller than you cannot provide you with shade.
It is a thing that I have been in, so I never had problem in dealing with them at all because for decades I have been involved in dealing with youth matters. That is why I am able to excel compared to some people, who saw it as a normal business.
I saw it as a duty; not a normal business and that is why most of such people ran into trouble with the trainees.
You started as a trainer along with others but you were later called upon to train your erstwhile colleagues, how did it happened?
We were actually awarded the contract because some of the trainers needed to be trained.
In fact some of the trainers commoditised the training programmes; they treated it like goods. Some of them saw the trainees like articles of trade and that is not fair because we are all human beings.
These people were normal initially, but something brought them to the level they found themselves. Something prompted them to behave the way they are behaving. Many of the trainees saw the op- portunity as a commodity to be traded on and that was why they ran into problem with them.
But, when they saw our track records, the authority called on us and gave us the monitoring and evaluation, and even made us supervisors to other trainers.
They gave us the contract and letter of engagement in that regard. So, we set off, spoke with our colleagues on the way to go, letting them know that these people are not criminals and should not be treated as such.
Interestingly, many of them complied and that led to very encouraging results.
How sustainable is peace in the Niger Delta region?
From the way I see things, the way Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu are going, I believe peace will eventually be restored in the Niger Delta because the Niger Delta people see them as being proactive, genuine and honest in their approach.
The Vice President is not resting. He is always on the move in one meeting or another. And when you hear his pronouncements, you get further encouraged.
He is a genuine man and whatever he says, he is going to do it.
Dr. Kachikwu just came on board and he has proven to be a true son of the Niger Delta and he is balancing out the political side of it with the way he goes about issues affecting the region. He is reaching out in a way that in no distance future, the strategy will help in bringing peace to the Niger Delta, working with the Vice President.
Your job requires lots of guts no doubt, but how have you been able to navigate through the trouble waters in the Amnesty programme?
F i r s t and foremost, I have trained thousands of youths and they know us for one thing; we don’t cut corners.
Ask from the authorities at the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, starting with the minister or the director, or better still go to the Amnesty office, we don’t cut corners. We treat these people the same way we treat our families.
You will also discover that doing this job is made much easier than when you begin to take money as your number one priority. That is the problem with most of these trainers as they want to cut corners and maximize profit, which is not the way to go.
For us, we do more than what we are asked to do. We do excess, so that the trainees themselves will be happy as they know this is what we are supposed to do and we are doing much more for them. We make efforts to exceed the expectations of both the authorities and trainees.
Governments have come and gone since the inception of the Amnesty programme, but you have remained with the programme; what is the secret?
I think that it is largely by the grace of God because without grace you cannot achieve anything you set out to achieve.
But above that grace, the Bible tells us that faith without work is dead. So, whatever they give to us, we ensure that we work within the terms of the contract and we have gone to a point that we exceeded the terms of contract by making sure that we make the trainees happy.
The standard of the training has increased. We are training some on poultry farming and because of the present dynamics of the business; we have added two more aspects to it, which are health and safety considerations in poultry farming, and the legal aspect of poultry farming.
Ordinarily, when people hear of poultry farming, they think such aspects are not necessary. That is now the practice in other countries where poultry has become a major source of income.
We are not only meeting costumers’ expectations, we also try to exceed the terms, so that the trainees and the awarding authority will be happy.
What are the real challenges in these efforts?
The main challenge presently is for the relevant authorities to look at the requests and problems of the Niger Delta people, especially on issues that bother on infrastructural development and youth empowerment.
These situations are still there despite the funds pumped into the region. The dearth of infrastructure in the area is a very serious matter that they should look at and the issue of ex-militants, and those of them that were captured in the Amnesty programme.
They must pursue it to a logical conclusion that those people are catered for.
Again for those of them who are undergoing training abroad, many of them don’t get their in-training and school fees. It is not a good thing at all. They must look for money to pay them off because as they graduate that phase is off, before the whole thing dovetails into another programme that is more sustainable than the Amnesty.
You recently authored a book on your experience so far, what do you intend achieving with it?
That book is a blue print for getting out of recession; not just for the Niger Delta but for the whole country because right now, serious countries of the world, even the developed countries depend on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), to drive their economies. In this era that we are in, both white and blue collar jobs are disappearing.
We are talking about a situation whereby you are trained; you create a job and get people employed.
Due to the economic situation and the times we are in, even if you are working, it helps you to get a vocation that can fetch you additional income. So, it doesn’t matter if you are a teacher, engineer, accountant or politician, you must look for a vocation to help your situation better.
One of the major problems of the country is that we are not producing again. And if more MSMEs spring up, monies that are on flight to other countries that are depleting our foreign reserve will begin to circulate within the country. That is why China is what it is today.
They encourage MSMEs. For me, that is the way forward.
You have remained deep in Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) activities. What is your assessment of NGOs as most of them seem not to be transparent in their activities?
NGOs are part of civil society organisations.
There are bigger ones in terms of classification. You have all kinds, even community based associations and there are also faith based organisations. All of them are part of civil society organization, but the civil societies in Nigeria are not doing well, I must confess.
Only a couple of them are doing well. A couple of them are not charity organisations; rather they can be classified as non-government individuals. Those are people who are looking for something to feed themselves with.