Professor Bala Basque Jack Yakubu of the Nigeria Mine Action Center is a bomb expert and a Professor of Humanitarian Demining and Management. He spoke to Journalists on a wide range of issues; stockpile of bombs awaiting destruction, number of landmines/bombs destroyed after the 1966-1970 Civil War and the challenges faced by affected regions, especially the South- East. CHRISTIANA NWAOGU was there. Excerpt:
Sir, before the judgement delivered by ECOWAS Court in a suit against the federal government on negligence to remove remnants of landmines and explosives from abandoned areas, your Center was initially engaged to carryout the demining exercise. How many bombs have you destroyed so far and why did you suddenly disappear ?
I have destroyed 17,683 bombs and 685 landmines. I destroyed them in 3 years. The demining started from 2009-2011 and part of 2012. Currently, I have a stockpile of 1, 600 live bombs awaiting destruction.
Given the fact that these explosives have been stockpiled for this long, I mean , well over 46 years , don’t they expire?
No, don’t bombs don’t expire. They live longer than man. It might interest you to know that among the ones to be destroyed, I have bombs that weigh 75 kilogram and some 50 kilogram and so on. I must admit that am so bothered about the safety of communities where these dangerous weapons are stockpiled. Once we are mobilised by the federal government as directed by the ECOWAS Court, we will re-mobilise to site and immediately look for land to destroy them. We have to acquire fresh land because, the last time I visited our destruction site in Imo State, I saw that it has been developed into residential area.
Can you pinpoint the major challenges identified with this task?
The challenges are enormous and cardinal amongst them is vegetation. We started in semi-Sahara in the part of Benue, but the vegetation is not as that of the Eastern part.
In the East, particularly in parts of Imo, Anambra up to Rivers states, the vegetation changes – it is lighter and rains all through in South -East and the South -South, and by implication, these vegetations are over grown and hence, makes it very difficult to detect a bomb.
Again, the equipment we use only locates where a bomb is but doesn’t tell you if the bomb is lying one foot above the earth, which means we have to clear that high vegetation. We risk our lives to remove the long growth of grass, cut them to the floor to see the bombs.
It is when we see the bomb physically that we lie down to carryout the removal. Another problem is that we have stopped demining for about 5 years now following lack of fulfilment of agreement in the part of government, so we have to upgrade our equipments in order to achieve concrete results.
We also have the problem of funding. The number of states involved in the war is more than 270,000 square kilometers. That translates to about 2.7million meters of land. And if we say we want to charge the federal government twenty dollars ($20) per square meter, it will be a lot of money, that is why I ruled it off and asked them to give me what they can offer.
The ground that is contaminated is about 69,000 square kilometers that covers Anambra, Imo and Abia state. Getting easy access (transportation ) to the hinterlands is very difficult. At times we park cars about five to six kilometers and trek to remove these dangerous explosives.
The good thing is that these host communities are very accommodating and hospitable. Some give us food and provide accommodation. Some of the state governors also help us immensely. But i must emphasise that we got nothing from the federal government.
So if mobilised by the federal government, how long will it take to clear the bombs?
I am always on ground for the job. Ordinarily, it would have taken me between six to nine months to complete what is left, but in humanitarian demining, we have rules and regulations because of the lives involved. If you stop, you cannot come and continue from where you stopped. You have to go back again and rescan the places you completed, and then hand over the areas to the communities before continuing from the new place. Now that we have not worked for 5 years, we must go back to the communities where we started. Based on this, I propose that I am going to spend 12 months to finish everything. I have to employ and train new staff because some of my deminers are now old. I also have to teach them about new inventions to avoid tragedies.
The retraining exercise will take 3 months. As soon as the federal government acts, we will mobilise to site. I know the president loves saving lives and if his attention is drawn to this problem, he will act immediately.
According to your Slogan which is; Making Land Safe for Use and as a bomb expert, what dangers are these affected communities facing?
Actually, they are in danger as these dangerous weapons explodes without warning. In Imo, to be precise, a woman took her son to the farm and suddenly heard an explosion. On her way to see what was happening, another explosion cut off her leg. The son lost his right leg and the mother lost her right leg. 90 percent of injuries people in the South East sustained after the Civil war are from landmines.
These dangerous abandoned weapons are serious dangers; the government needs to win the mind and hearts of the people. In fact, there are schools where both Nigerian soldiers and Biafran soldiers used as barracks. Some of the schools don’t have full capacity. A good example is St. Acquinas in Isi’ala Mbano. Half of the school premises has been abandoned due to u covered bombs. There are also homes we destroyed because we had to evacuate people before destroying discovered bombs. There are several areas that people can’t farm because of the level of contamination. Also, lots of people have bombs in there farmlands. There is serious danger because the people are now aware that those things exist so they are scared. In fact, I lost some of my staff in the course of carrying out this humanitarian task .
There seem to be so much mistrust, between the people and government. Do you think you will be allowed to continue the demining exercise having left for so long?
The mistrust is because of the time it took the government to respond to their cries. But the issue we presented to the court is that government loves the people and did not just abandoned them but was making arrangement to come and clear the bombs. Though these communities on their part were impatience. If we resume now, there is a lot of work to be done. We must make them know that we will finish the work that brought us and not to pick some and leave others.
Humanitarian demining needs lot of awareness on what we need to do so that the people will know and be prepared to cooperate. I am happy that president Muhammadu Buhari holds the safety of this nation in high esteem. He’s a man who always shows love to his people and am sure he will not allow them to suffer.
What is it in life that drives you; you exude so much energy in carrying out this humanitarian exercise?
I was a mortar officer in the army and my first encounter was in Lebanon against the local forces supported by the Israeli. When I was asked to fire, the propeller charges of the bombs were in Nigeria and the cartridge was also in Nigeria but the bomb had a nose fuse. I wondered how I could fire that against the Israeli forces. When the Israeli fired at us two days in a raw, I went and took samples of the bomb they had shot. I discovered that their bombs were 120 millimeter while ours was 81 millimeter. Simple arithmetic tells you that there is no how 81 could stand against 120.
We lost five soldiers in that encounter. It was because of that encounter that I swore to save the lives of people having seen the magnitude of destruction carried out by that singular observation. That was how I started developing ideas on how to save people from dying.
It will interest you to know that though , this the most dangerous job to do, am been driven by passion and will stop at nothing to keep both Nigeria and the society at large safe.