On seeing a combined team of police men, uniformed soldiers and mobile police officers stationed at the gate of a major hotel along the entrance road into the city, I alighted from the taxi and walked up to them. Experience has taught me that security operatives could be important allies for researchers and journalists working in very dangerous locations. Not only that, I have come to love and respect officers of the Nigerian Army. They earned my respect following an April 2010 engagement with the 9th Brigade, Nigerian Army Cantonment Ikeja, Lagos. I was particularly impressed by the way the military authorities professionally handled a complaint about an illegal demolition and shooting exercise in Makoko community, Lagos State involving some recalcitrant soldiers.
Continued from last week….Going to Maiduguri Part 1…
One officer asked to see my identity card, while another searched my luggage. They warmly offered me a seat as they listened with rapt attention, to my reasons for coming to Maiduguri. It turned out to be a brilliant way to start my documentations. The initial suspicious glances and gazes melted away as we engaged in very robust informal discussions about the insurgency and violent terror attacks in the state. They gave me a list of communities that were “no-go’ areas. Budum, Gomari and London Chiki communities topped the list.
“Gisting” with the soldiers also afforded an opportunity to learn first-hand, the wholly undocumented struggles, the unspoken pains and gargantuan challenges soldiers and police officers deployed to Maiduguri were facing. Worse still, they didn’t want their stories to be told. Sad#.
A late night patrol round the city center enabled me witness the disappearing social life plus the reverberating cascades of stillness the city exudes at night. More spectacularly, seeing soldiers and uniformed security operatives dutifully standing all through the drizzly night, carrying out routine vehicular searches at checkpoints that criss-cross all major roads, was admirable. At each stop, security forces would demand to know why you are staying out late and request to see a form of identification. Quite clearly, they were in no mood for the characteristic N20 extortions; the trademark of their southern counterparts. Alas, I checked into a very nice, heavily-guarded hotel in the Government Residential Area (GRA) at about 10.30 p.m. or much later.
I left the hotel early the next morning, fully clad in a flowing dress, a hijab, while clutching a hand bag full of camcorder, camera, voice recorders, notebooks, newsletters and a rosary. I removed my hijab shortly afterwards due to a sharp discomfort around the ear region. After quite a fairly long lull in his executive driving business, Aliyu, my driver was very happy to drive me around. But I wasn’t as excited as he was. He couldn’t speak English and we could hardly communicate. I didn’t just need a driver. I needed a driver, a guide, and a friend rolled into one. Aliyu could sense my pains, so he invited his brother Sani to drive me. Sani was a perfect match. By the time of the changeover, it was almost 8. 30 a.m. By that time, nearly all shops, malls, private and public offices, businesses, restaurants within the city were still under lock and key, except a few vendors hawking fuel in bottle jars.
My first stop was at Federal Government Girls College, which surprisingly, was very much in session. The appealing neatness of the school environment sharply contrasted with the gory sight of four female students being whipped violently by a male teacher. The meeting with the principal and vice principal was very brief. Choosing their words very carefully, they enlightened me on the procedure for obtaining authorization from the federal ministry of education before they could speak to me. My next stop, the Federal Polytechnic, Maiduguri, was a ghost town of sorts. Resumption date had been shifted twice due to the security crisis. There were no teachers/officials in sight; a few final year (HND) students wearing worried looks, clustered in different corners discussing in hush tones.
At the neighbouring College of Education, exams were said to be going on. Perplexedly, I peeped into the near empty examination halls and sought explanations from the invigilating lecturer.
“We warned them (students) not to leave the school premises because the exams would still go on with or without them. It’s not the school’s fault that the students refused to heed the warning”, he retorted.
A student I interviewed told how students fled the hostels following intense gun battles and bomb explosions that rocked city some weeks earlier.
Heavily-armed soldiers milled round the entire street leading to the NYSC Orientation Camp. There were even more soldiers inside the camp, sharing bedding and space facilities with more 1500 NYSC members posted to the state. The atmosphere was very calm as corpers busily engaged in routine para-military exercises. The camp commandant was a young handsome, amiable soldier with an excellent command of English Language. Chatting with him was so easy, even though he was quite dodgy in answering questions. He then referred me to the NYSC Camp public relations officer, another young soldier, who regaled me with super stories of their protective exploits in safeguarding the lives of the corpers.
“This camp is very safe…Any attack on these corpers is an attack on the country…and we won’t allow that to happen”, he said emphatically. To buttress his point, he summoned four ajuwayas (popular name for NYSC members) that were passing by to come and speak for themselves. The corpers from Ekiti, Benue, Osun and Abia lavished the soldiers with praises, even though no corper had ever dared to step out of the Camp to test efficacy of the soldiers’ strength. Immediately, I switched to Igbo language so that the corper from Abia State would be freer to talk to me. He hinted that several corpers have concluded arrangements to relocate to other states immediately after the orientation exercise. In fact, a directive from the NYSC headquarters encouraged corpers to either opt to stay in Maiduguri or request to be deployed to other “safer” states. We hardly exchanged a few sentences when the officer insisted that we must converse in English. In fact, he declared the conversation over.
I headed straight to the state ministries of education and health to get official information and records of the impact of the crisis on education and health. Knowing how the incessant road blockades, forced migrations from the city and school closures were impacting on local populations’ access to healthcare and education was a critical component of my research. Finding that an assistant director in the Ministry of Education could not interact in English was profoundly bewildering. Ably assisted by his retinue of aides, our discussion regarding the state’s response to the crisis, saw him defending the school closures, within the context of students’ safety. He gave no statistics and was stingy with details. At the ministry of health, I was told to write long letters that will take days, months to process, before I can speak with state officials.
A few soldiers standing at the gate searched the vehicle again as we exited from the ministries’ premises. Sensing my discomfort, one of the soldiers from Edo State apologized profusely. “Na circumstances make crayfish bend, my sister”, he said laughingly. I was quite surprised to listen to his explanations. All the stories I had read and heard about soldiers in Maiduguri smacked of horror, pain and blood, but it seemed they were determined to prove me wrong. My pre-conceived opinions about the brutish military operations in the city, somehow, began to wane.
Then, I made up my mind to visit the “no-go’ areas. There, the story about the battle to save the soul of Maiduguri, was waiting to be told.
To be continued.