The flight to Maiduguri, last week Tuesday evening, had been delayed for more than three hours. And at a point, not a few passengers had become apprehensive that it might be canceled. Eventually, though, we took off and one hour and ten minutes or so later, we landed
When the pilot announced that the local weather stood at 41 degrees Celsius, it really felt that we had truly arrived in Maiduguri. It was a near-full flight, and as I would gather over the next two days, all hotels were fully booked, and it seemed that a lot of traffic is coming in this direction: NGO types working on the food emergency, and I saw a few of them inside the Government House, as well as others, coming to explore business opportunities. The traffic jams are there on the streets and on the days that I have been here, solar-powered traffic lights were being installed at busy intersections and are up working. Although military vehicles still speed through streets, people feel more relaxed now, because the past year has seen a serious degradation of the Boko Haram terror; and when I have spoken with ordinary people in Maiduguri, they say that President Buhari’s greatest achievement as far as they are concerned, is the fact that they can afford to live as normal a life as possible again, in Borno. From the visitor’s perspective, I still felt that tightness in the belly, when I am driven around, especially in crowded parts of the city. You just never know who might be hiding a device under a dress.
But not much can be taken for granted in Borno. Just when I was beginning to relax a bit and agreeing that hope was truly springing forth, a suspected Boko Haram suicide bomber, dressed as a woman, attempted to enter the state secretariat last Thursday afternoon. A policeman accosted the suspicious looking “woman”, who promptly detonated a device that took his life and the patriotic policeman. We returned with a thud to the soil of reality! After visiting the injured, that same afternoon, the governor invited me to accompany him on a visit to Gongulong Lawanti, on the outskirts of Maiduguri. It is the homestead of the wife of former governor Ali Modu Sherrif. Boko Haram had burnt the housing estate, hospital and school there. They are now being reconstructed, with the cottage hospital being upgraded to a 50-bed hospital and the school, completely modernized. There was a huge crowd of school age children running after the convoy of vehicles, and when we alighted, the governor was surrounded in what was certainly a crowd control nightmare for his security people. But he wanted the close contact with the children; he patted heads, shook hands and spoke directly. Eventually, the elders came as we inspected the new classrooms; he reminded that education was not only free in Borno but also compulsory! The problem is real and a huge one, and when I looked at that huge crowd of very poor and disadvantaged children, it worried that despite the governor’s declaration, many of them would still not attend school. They reflected in their dresses and unkempt looks, the poverty of the households they came from. That was on Thursday, last week.
I am writing these lines on Tuesday night. I had received two visitors early this morning; drivers who, at different times, had driven me during my various visits to Borno. In 2010, Malam Shuaibu had taken me on a whirlwind trip to Bama, Damboa, Chibok, Gwoza and Askira Uba. Our discussion had, naturally, centered on the Boko Haram crisis. The palace we visited in Askira Uba, Shuaibu told me, was burnt; Bama (hometown of one of my late aunties) was completely destroyed, and nothing was left. Even wells were filled with dead bodies and they lined heads of people beheaded, on a bridge at Bama. So many other places that I had visited over the years and made stories and packages from, either for the BBC or RFI, such as Monguno, Gubio, New Marte, Banki, Gamboru-Ngala, had also suffered, even when life has begun to return to many of these places with the clearance that the Nigerian Army effected over the past one year. As we discussed, I tried to explore the minds of the Boko Haram terrorists through their actions. There were gory videos of killings and beheadings; they would enter a town or village, steal food; abduct women and girls; force young men to join them; execute the reluctant; then burn houses as well as food. Every manifestation of modernity and the symbols of state power seemed to particularly incense them! I thought of the atrocities of the RUF in Sierra Leone, with the chopping off of limbs and the LRA’s abductions of young girls in Uganda, but they don’t match Boko Haram’s brutality. There are cases of PSTD that we have not done too much about; how does society heal the trauma people have witnessed over these years? What about the generation of young men and women lost in the violence and those damaged, almost beyond redemption?
I did not have to wait for too long to see the brutal reality I had been mulling. Because this Tuesday evening, I joined Governor Kashim Shettima and his Deputy plus a host of officials, as well as Dr. Fatima Akilu and a team from UNICEF, to meet a group of women recently liberated from Boko Haram. At the center of the group of about 35 women and over two-dozen children, was the 8year old, that everybody called “AMARYA” (newly wed). She could be any 8year old anywhere on earth, except that she had been married off to a Boko Haram husband, the day before she was liberated. The “husband” was killed that day, and this young girl has been withdrawn and non-communicative. All she had said was that she wanted to return to her husband in the bush! The group even had a leader, a young lady that might be 20 or thereabouts, who alone they listened to. There was one that the family had rejected and one whose father saw and just cried! The government has a team of counselors working with them; there are plans to gradually return them to their families and also talks of empowerment. But there is a very bumpy ride ahead. Fatima Akilu and her team chose to stay behind with the group as we drove out late evening. That just brought together so poignantly, all that I had thought of all day, about the Boko Haram insurgency, the associated tragedy and how long communities and the people will take to recover normalcy.
Depressing as those scenes were, there are, nevertheless, green shoots of growth on the soil of Borno. A few days before I arrived in Maiduguri, Aliko Dangote had visited. It was a visit that people here appreciated very much. He offered assistance at a premium! He donated Two Billion Naira to the relief effort, and also pledged to feed the IDPs during Ramadan. People told me how grateful they felt that he came, reminding that he had been here before! I sent him a text expressing happiness that the Social Responsibility element of his work has become almost as important as the business end. And the optimistic tone to life was only slightly dented by the bombing that took place early on Thursday. As I reported earlier, life is gradually looking up and even the local football team, the El-Kanemi Warriors, have returned to Maiduguri to play their league matches. They had been exiled to a different location at the height of the insurgency. Nobody would take chances, because Boko Haram would almost have certainly targeted a football match, with thousands of people massed inside a stadium! Well, last Thursday, Kano Pillars, certainly one of the best organized teams in the Nigerian Premier League came calling, and in further expression of the theme of hope in this community, El-Kanemi Warriors won the game by two goals to nil!
Yet, I was so overwhelmed by the sight of the 8year old “AMARYA”, who could just have been my daughter or anyone else’s! Governor Kashim Shettima, in introducing the group to the team led by Fatima Akilu, had reminded that the women liberated from Boko Haram, were actually victims of a deep-seated problem. He identified the failures of leadership in Northern Nigeria in particular, which had led to the severe consequence of a brutal insurgency. We have managed to create one of the most unjust and most unequal societies on earth! Choices made by the ruling classes have condemned millions of people in our society to a marginal existence and a desperation, which made it easy to become prey to the recruitment that Boko Haram offered. Millions of young people have no hope, and hundreds, maybe thousands, found space inside an insurgency which armed them with weapons of death; drew them into an ideological vortex that emphasized a most bizarre explanation of Jihad as preying on the communities that they came out of; and indoctrinated them that the more brutal they were in the violence they unleashed, the better their fidelity to their absurd interpretations of Islam. The abduction; rapes; defilements and forcible marriage of minors and other women, was also part of a perversity that has not been systematically studied as a central element of the Boko Haram insurgency. Many of these are sexually repressed young men, whose economic conditions, as part of a marginalized underclass, a lumpen urban mass, are often without skills to be profitably engaged in the world of 21st work. They are often also unable to afford the economics of marital life. It was therefore no coincidence, that before his killing, the original leader of the group, Muhammed Yusuf, was said to offer financial assistance to start small businesses and to get married. With the commencement of the insurgency, and with the power of the gun, they could abduct girls and women, and also force them into marriages, and there have also been reported rapes of women and girls. So the power over helpless girls at gunpoint, helped in a perverted manner, to solve many problems; they found sexual fulfillment and also had the gun to ruthlessly reinforce a macho image and a domineering masculinity. There are also tales of drug use within the insurgency which only added fuel to the fire of everything that had gone wrong, to make Boko Haram one of the greatest tragedies to ever plague this corner of human society!