For a second time, I have visited Maiduguri under this state of emergency. I will divide this reporter’s diary into two portions namely, military life and civilian life I saw, heard, experienced or witnessed while there. There were other journalists too from Nigerian Television Authority, Silver Bird TV, the News Agency of Nigeria, TVC and myself from Voice of Nigeria on the trip.
The Director of Defence Information, Major General Chris Olukolade, led us and others in the entourage were Colonel Sani Usman Chief of Staff, Directorate of Nigeria Army Public Relations and Dr Fatima Akilu from the office of the National Security Adviser to the president. Colonel Mohammed Dole, Spokesman for the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army and Squadron Leader Chris Erondu the Spokesman for 79 Composite Group, Nigerian Air Force, Maiduguri were also fine military officers we met there.
We had a workshop on Military-Media relationship which also dwelt on information management in the face of terrorism in Nigeria which was attended by journalists who cover the north east of Nigeria. Before the workshop how however, remains the crux of this reporter’s diary.
So, here we go. From Wednesday 23 to Saturday 26 April 2014, I was not only in Maiduguri, I visited a frontline, by this, I mean I visited fighting Nigerian soldiers in their trenches in the forest. Let me not be too vivid – I will not describe spots in order not to expose these gallant soldiers. Later when it was dark, I also followed another group for a night patrol and take off was 9PM till early hours of the morning. The soldiers were armed with their military hardware and I armed myself with a recorder and camera. Instinctively, my fingers were almost at all times on the recording button with the belief that firing could come any moment from any direction and I will record and snap the action. Armored tanks, heavy guns infantry and artillery personnel rolled out for the mission and campaign. I hoped into one of the hillux vans in the convoy. There was dead silence with intermittent radio communications from walkie talkies. Most of their communications were coded and meant for the soldiers to decode.
The soldiers were combing some of the roads to make them secure for travelers because terrorists were in the habit of attacking, killing and doing away with belongings of people along the roads. Along the road, a vehicle was heading towards the convoy there was a communication from the walkie talkie. The vehicle was stopped and the occupants ordered out. Some soldiers jumped out of their vehicles to meet them. There were three occupants, a driver, one other passenger and an elderly man. They all came out but the elderly man was so sluggish in coming out, but finally he struggled came out with his left hand having bandage and blood stain.
On interrogation, it was realized the man was being taken to Maiduguri that night as a result of an accident he had in the evening. Imagine these three meeting terrorists on this bushy road! The soldiers sympathized with him and wished them a safe journey into the town.
After some hours of night patrol, it was back to base, BTB, as they call it so we returned to town. These soldiers do it every day and night moving from one road to another, especially major roads coming into or going out of Maiduguri. These soldiers stay awake so that the rest of us can sleep well and have nice dreams as civilians.
The day patrol was also a very nice experience. Before takeoff, we visited the Garrison and the Headquarters of the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, the Maimalari Barracks Maiduguri.
Major General Olukolade took us there and we met the General Officer Commanding, GOC, Major General Ahmed Mohammed. This dark complexion friendly very tall, mustached officer shook hands with us full of smiles as we did general introduction. Very soon, we took off for some forests to visit and see how the soldiers were doing. The GOC led.
As we drove on, we kept passing some real villages and I realize they need social amenities – water, schools, health and recreation centres, feeder roads, and security. They are always vulnerable to attacks as their grains, animals and vehicles are attractions to the sect.
We reached one of the camps and soldiers had just returned from operation, they arrested two boko haram suspects approximately in their 30s during the operation. The soldiers all gave the senior officers there compliments and he had some time to do one- on –one chat with some of the other ranks.
General Mohammed identified a very fat soldier and called him, he stepped forward and saluted. “How are you?” The GOC asked him. “Fine sir”, the soldier replied. “How was the operation you just returned from?”, asked the GOC. “ Very successful sir, but we were recalled too early when were pushing deeper into the forest. We should be moving on sir” this soldier man with an Ibo name suggested. “I like your fighting spirit”, the GOC said tapping the soldier on his shoulder and ordered him back.
The GOC went round from one spot to the other comprising of soldiers either in tens or so, talking to and listening to their complaints and suggestions before meeting them in an enlarged group.
“How is the fighting spirit and morale?”, General Mohammed asked the soldiers. “very high sir”, they chorused in loud voiced. “Good, the nation is proud of you. Keep it up”. He said and the journalists were told to stay some metres away. He had an interaction with them for about thirty to forty minutes and their commander ordered them back to their trenches.
In the middle of this visit, there was an explosion, the soldiers remained calm, the GOC turned to the journalists, “that’s a mine explosion. The terrorists mined some areas with the hope that they will get at us. An innocent civilian must have stepped on it”. He said.
I realized that there were very many dogs in camps and in check points only to be told the animals detect bombs and usually alert soldiers of enemy advancing too.
I saw ladies in full combat gear and one proudly said “we are here to protect the nation”.
Unofficially and on a sideline of this visit, two corporals told me there were foreign mercenaries fighting for the sect. They said some of them do not speak any Nigerian languages neither can they speak common Pidgin English. One then added that some arrested boko haram members have confessed to being trained by white skin people in the mountains. The other soldier corroborated it but could not say if the so called whites were Europeans, Arabs or Asians or Americans.
As usual, the ever present vigilante groups, the Civilian Joint Task Force were ever present. They feel they know some of the terrorists and could identify them for the security operatives to arrest. They actually arrest some and hand them over to the security agents. These civilians are always armed with charms, sticks, cutlasses and machetes. They also have dogs as companions in doing the job.
In the midst of this, what is the civilian life back in the city of Maiduguri? The following day, I visited popular streets and markets to see what life looks like to the ordinary person in the town.
Many Banks were opened for business the commonest means of transportation is the try circle, since motorcycles were banned in the town because they were often used for drive- by shootings and killings.
At the Monday Market along Airport Road, hawkers of sachet water or popularly called pure water made brisk business due to the hot weather.
I met Mr Vincent James Shebenyan from Kaduna State and his friend from Kogi state in their NYSC uniform opposite the gate of El-Kanemi College of Islamic Theology. They said even when they had some fears, they were serving humanity.
At a different market near Bank of the north where there are also very many banks, I saw what I can call “the usual united nation”. Muslims and Christians sell side by side irrespective of where they come from. For example, Standley Godwin from Enugu state, a Christian, sells motor spare parts while his neighbor a Muslim, Mohammed is a panel beater. Uche Success also sells spare parts but wishes that the crisis will end soon so that life will become normal. Madam Joy from Abia state deals in soft drinks in this market her husband is a pastor and of their five children, three were born in Maiduguri. She says she has not seen reason to leave Maiduguri and prays for peace to reign in the region.
As expecting of haggling, once someone appears, these traders behave the same way. They rush to woe such a prospective customer telling them what they sell. I met Mohammed Kaka, interstate commercial driver at Ngomari area with his mechanic, Mohammed Kugar. They all complained of lack of customers and hard life they were facing. Mohammed kaka complained of insecurity in some highways as sect members often dispossess them of vehicles and property, with many of them and their passengers killed irrespective of religion. He wants more soldiers deployed to the roads to save travelers.
Active political parties have flags, photographs of aspirants adorning their offices and roundabouts. I met a man who simply identified himself as Shehu and claimed to be a civil servant and wanted him to comment on politics in Maiduguri and he said he never discusses politics because he does not like politicians, stressing that “they caused this problem in north east Nigeria”.
In the metropolis, there are many big bill boards of the state Governor, Alhaji Shettima Kashim, praying to God to grant the state peace and appealing to everyone to live in peace with one another.
On Thursday night, April 24, boko haram sect went on the offensive in attempts to release their arrested two colleagues I earlier mentioned above. Unfortunately, they met their waterloo. Forty of these terrorists were killed, some wounded and many arrested while four soldiers were killed in this Bulanbulin attacks.
When finally I told General Olukolade that I enjoyed the trip, his response was “we wanted you journalists to have a feel of the real thing”.