A bomb expert and Professor of humanitarian management, Bala Yakubu, in an interview with Tobias Lengnan Dapam, said he destroyed 17, 683 bombs, 685 landmines abandoned during Nigerian civil war. He added that there are also stockpile of 1,600 bombs awaiting destruction. He also spoke about the challenges it caused the people of the South East. Excerpt:
Sir, how many bombs have you destroyed so far in the cause of your demining in the post-civil war region in the country?
I have destroyed 17,683 bombs and 685 landmines. I destroyed them in three years. The demining started from 2009-2011 and part of 2012. Currently, I have a stockpile of 1, 600 live bombs awaiting destruction.
Sir, these bombs having stayed this long, don’t they expire?
They don’t expire. They live longer than man. I also have 75 kilogram bombs and some 50 kilogram. I have to look for land to destroy them.
What are your challenges in carrying out this job?
The challenges are enormous and the 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, up to parts of Imo, Anambra to Rivers, the vegetation changes – it is lighter and rains all through in south east and the south south, which means there are over-growths which makes it hard to detect a bomb.
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 bomb. It is when we see the bomb physically that we lie down to carry the removal. Another problem is that we have stopped demining for about 5 years now, so we have to upgrade our equipment.
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 20 dollars 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 transportation to the hinterlands is trouble. At times we park cars about five to six kilometers and trek to remove the bombs.
The good thing is that the communities are accommodating. Some give us food and accommodation. Some of the state governors also help us immensely. But the support from the Federal Government was not coming.
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 you 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 proposed 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 too old. I also have to teach them about new inventions.
The retraining will take three 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.
What are the dangers that the people are facing?
In Imo, 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 since after the war come from landmines.
There are serious dangers; the government needs to win the mind and hearts of the people. There are schools where Nigerian soldiers used as barracks and where Biafran soldiers used as barracks. Some of the schools don’t have full capacity. Example is St Acquinas in Isa-ala Mbano. Half of the school is left because of bombs. There are also homes we destroyed because we had to evacuate the people before destroying the 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. Some of my staff also died.
Considering the level of mistrust, will the people allow demining to continue?
The mistrust is because of the time it took the government. 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, but it is because of 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 a lot of awareness on what we need to do so that the people will know. I am happy that the president always shows love to his people and am sure he will not allow them to suffer.
What is the source of your motivation?
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 what the bomb did. That was how I started developing idea to save people from dying.