- Between Sept. 26 and Oct. 13, 2020, this conflict reporter was in the Borno state capital to cover how the decade-old Boko Haram insurgency was affecting displaced people. Here he shares parts of his on-the-ground journal entries.
The first thing you notice is the difference in vegetation. From the sky, you see a lot more tracts of brown and trees looking like shrubs on the arid surface. It already feels like the early days of autumn, unlike in Abuja.
There are about six choppers at the airport, some with the logo and acronym of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) boldly printed on them. Only two planes are visible: ours and a Max Air aircraft on which passengers had just started to board, heading for God-knows-where. Though called the Maiduguri International Airport, the structure from outside looks quite modest.
You can see soldiers at the airport — another distinct quality — their uniform the colour of the vegetation’s signature beige or faded green. Military vehicles are present too, at the point of departure.
The narrow roads along the major routes are lined either with the colours of the country’s flags or of Tom Tom, the menthol sweet.
“You know Ali Sheriff?” the driver asks out of the blue. “This is their house.”
I am confused at first. For him to ask a total stranger from the south, the person must be popular. “Ali Modu Sheriff?” I ask as I’ve always seen the name written with all three members.
“Yes, the former governor,” he replies.
It is the mosque, which is closer to the gate, I notice first. White. Huge. Elegant. Attention is paid to elegance here, you can tell.
One of the earliest pointers to how lively the city is was the passengers in the plane. About a score of them were dressed flamboyantly, as I later understood, for a wedding. The relatives of the groom were waiting just outside the airport: elitism written all over them.
There are in fact more tricycles than cars, depending on what road you’re on. In some, almost five times more. The streetlights, like many buildings, are also very stylish.
“Exactly. They were made to look like those of the United Kingdom,” a driver-friend agrees the following day. I don’t know if he has been to the UK or if, like me, he has only beheld such objects through movies. Perhaps I’ll ask him later.
Things you see in Maiduguri: A soldier riding a horse in the middle of the street.
I’m at the Dalori 2 IDP camp and I can’t be any more of a stranger than I am now. A child not older than a year crawls in the direction where I sit in a tricycle and something about it excites me. I smile. The driver of the tricycle is however unimpressed and apparently irritated. The young man has phlegm drooling all over his nose and mouth. Sand fills his palms from crawling a long distance from his mom’s side of the camp.
I wonder if my joy is performative. If this is how white men leap for joy and hold refugees and smile at or with them whenever they visit such neighbourhoods with a watermark of poverty. I wonder if I am any better than the white man. Any less a stranger. Like the white man, I speak neither Hausa nor Kanuri and cannot relate with the IDPs except with some assistance. I feel an urge to take pictures but force myself to resist it. I will only take photos crucial to my journalism. I am not here as a tourist. I am not here to gather visual jewels or memories of adventure. I am here to tell important stories. Period.
One thing I’ve observed is the perfect harmony between flies and humans, especially kids. I don’t know if it’s universal but it struck me. A housefly perches on the lips of a girl of about five and she is totally unperturbed. Her lips wide open by at least an inch in fact. The fly dances around the bank of the river and might have considered taking a dive before another set of lips or ear or sandy legs catches its fancy.
The kids love staring. I really must be a white man. I feel that way at least. They like running after the Keke NAPEP [tricycle] too. They must be bored most of the day. Having to do the same sets of things each day and meet the same sets of people. Possibly without school to keep their minds excited. I like winking at them and seeing how they react. Oftentimes, they glow with joy. Sometimes they wink back. But they always stare.
Though there have been no recent attacks on the city, the insurgency is visibly etched on the daily realities of the residents.
Today, while with some senior officials at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital (UMTH), they complained that a particular lorry was allowed into the premises without being subjected to checks by the security guards. “What if it were carrying bombs?” one of them suggested. It seems they know who the driver was and what the vehicle contained, but were still upset because it could as well have been any other lorry on any other day.
One thing about this city is how every minute you see vehicles branded with the logos of various international NGOs such as the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Save the Children, Action Against Hunger (ACF), and so on. Not only vehicles too. Buildings. Boreholes. Handwashing equipment. E.t.c.
I saw more of the IDP camp today and heard more from it too. I saw a little girl with a pink skipping rope. A little boy with a yellow skipping rope. I saw the school. I saw young IDPs playing football (one of them with a green jersey customised with the name Diego Costa) and older guys, possibly with some camp officials and aid workers, doing the same in a separate field. I saw fruit sellers. Another market with more diverse commodities, including rice, groundnuts, and plastic accessories. I saw a beautiful black kite. And traced it to the hands of a young male pilot, about the age of seven. It was one of the most beautiful kites I’ve ever seen, but I’ve really not seen that many.
I saw an old man weaving a mat using raffia; another old man being moved around in a wheelchair. I saw beautiful smiles. One was one of the widest I’ve ever seen. It was from a middle-aged man. His teeth yawned and reached outside his cavity and they had become severely tanned. Yet, his smile was therapeutic. I saw little girls and teenage girls on makeup. Red lipstick. One as young as two or three had her eyelids painted. They want to look pretty. And if it makes them happy, it makes me happy too. But the things I’ve heard about sexual molestation and how girls at IDP camps have to prostitute themselves to get food supplies plants doubts in my mind about the simplicity of these acts.
Two girls play outside a house. One plays a game of hide-and-seek (or is it peekaboo) with me. Hides her face for a second. Then reveals herself. The second takes it a notch higher with facial expressions. I wink at her and she responds with genuine laughter and excitement. I do other things to elicit her laughter. She mimics my movement. Tries to reenact them to her friend. She brings out her tongue to reveal rubber straws from a mat. I stick mine out too. She laughs out loud for a long time. I should do this more often, I think. I call and give her N100. She immediately hands the money to an older woman, possibly her mother, who is knitting a cap nearby.
A police officer stationed on the road to the IDP camp was collecting a bribe and giving change to a driver as we sped by in our tricycle. And I wondered how often criminals have gone unnoticed on the routes because those assigned to spot them are too busy feeding their pockets.
In this town, the footprints of international nongovernmental organisations are everywhere. In the hijabs worn by IDPs. In number plates. And in the blue UNICEF backpack I saw with a guy on a bicycle this morning.
Almost every time I’ve passed by the university gates, the soldiers guarding them were busy pressing their smartphones. Heads lowered. Backs bent. I wonder what they are doing on their phones all the time. Do soldiers often tweet and use Instagram as well? Do they share stories on WhatsApp? What do they say? Are they always neutral on political issues or do they have anonymous accounts on Nairaland where they lambaste the government and complain to whoever cares to listen?
The children at the camp, most of them, especially the toddlers, who are so many, don’t have footwear. Reminds me of the US startup/company, TOMS, that based its marketing strategy on a charity to donate shoes to kids in Africa. Their ads seemed to suggest that providing them with good shoes would solve half their problems. That’s certainly not true. If asked to pick between a pair of shoes and having square meals for one month, most of the kids here would likely go for the latter.
Typically, you see the children wearing the right shoe on their left foot and vice versa. Here, I see children wearing the right of one shoe and the left of an entirely different kind of shoe on the other foot.
I see one girl wearing a hijab, the colours of the American flag, a part of it tucked in her mouth. I wonder what the hijab’s history could be. Possibly made from fabric donated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)?
Commercial motorcycles (Okadas) have been banned in Maiduguri for many years, I understand, because of the Boko Haram insurgency. They used to just drive into a community and gun people down at random. Now, it would seem that the daredevil spirit often associated with okada riders has been transferred to Keke NAPEP riders. Maybe because it is the next most similar thing. Or maybe because many of the tricycle riders are, in fact, former Okada riders.
In Maiduguri, at least once in two days, you hear a chopper thundering loudly across the skies. And if you’re lucky enough, you see it. Other times, it could be a military jet, which is even noisier. For the elites and political class, I guess the primary mode of transportation is the helicopter and the airplane. Especially between states and local governments. Some days ago, I even noticed the newly-constructed Trauma Center at the university teaching hospital has a helipad. I found the idea fascinating.
A lot of things can rat you out as a stranger here. Sweating profusely by just trekking. Looking lost and smiling sheepishly when others speak Hausa. Or covering your nose with a handkerchief as you pass through a dusty road.
Did I mention my discovery about the flies? The reason there are so many of them is the damn pit latrine. Goodness! I’ve used one at the camp about three times now and that thing is a mass concentration camp for houseflies. Can imagine how many people get sick just because pit latrines are the choice of sanitary system, not water closets. But then, they are low-maintenance.
I feel better. My fixer took me to a different IDP camp at Muna today, after (or inside, I’m not sure) Dikwa. It was refreshing passing through a new route in our rugged tricycle. The route was longer; there were many more turns, but it was totally worth it — especially because it’s much less dusty and there, I think, were fewer large trucks.
The drainage along some of the road networks was, however, clogged and full of thick, dirty water as well as refuse. I could not not notice it. I also could not help but notice the irony of one small shop with a sign that starts with “Malaria Services…” I wonder why we have a place established to correct the aftereffects when we can just clear the drainage to prevent stagnant waters and thus high malaria infection rates.
One thing I’ve noticed from my various interviews with the IDPs is their eagerness to speak about their experiences. I think this could well be because of my fixer, an elderly figure who’s been a strong pillar of support for them for years and whom they trust to keep them safe no matter what. Or it could be because they don’t really have many opportunities to share their stories.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the cheerful demeanour of many of them, especially those with the most tragic stories. They would go on to recount how their families were executed and how people were slaughtered before them by terrorists or how they starved and were sexually abused, and I would often have no clue about the texture of their sentences until my fixer translated them. Usually, they tell them with emotionless faces or with smiles even. One wonders if it is a defence mechanism to keep their minds functional. Or maybe it is true, after all, that sadness is a luxury not everyone can afford. When all you have to worry about is making it to the next day with your spouse and kids, the claws of the past become blunter to your senses.
I’m so gutless. When my fixer did not call at the usual time today and then he ended my call without calling back, I became a bit worried. Has he been nabbed by the soldiers who told him to cut contact? Are they coming for me? Should I be backing up files of past interviews? Silly me did not come with a hard drive that’s large enough. The flash drive I bought here has only 4Gb worth of space, barely enough for one video. Abuja seems to be boiling at the moment. The military had recently sponsored some press briefings against my company and my boss has been receiving threats over the phone. He’s even considered suspending his visit to Maiduguri till his security sources guarantee his safety. My colleagues have been told to mostly work from home and reduce hours at the office to the morning. Well, maybe I’m not such a wimp after all. Seemed at this point to have been rationally-induced anxiety. Thankfully, I’d yet to renew my payment at the hotel as I was planning to pay for seven additional nights.
My fixer later answered and said he was on his way. I’m still waiting… Oh, he just got here. And no, there are no soldiers in the tricycle with him waiting to arrest me. Alhamdulillah.
I saw the black kite again today. But the young pilot was not standing right after the entrance as before. He was in the distance, 150 meters away maybe. He had rested his aircraft before we got close enough for me to take a shot. I saw the humbled kite on the floor, spread out like crude oil in the Niger Delta. Our tricycle approached and trampled on it. I could hear the owner screech in pain. I looked back through the transparent cover and didn’t see any damage done, just as little as has been done to clean up the crude oil in Ogoniland.
This evening, I interviewed a former Boko Haram member. I’d met him briefly a couple of times at the camp. And he was one the most cheerful and charming people ever. The first time, in the midst of two of his friends, he was eager to show off his little knowledge of English and greeted me, “Good afternoon.” A woman offered me water in a large container and I declined. He then cracked a joke in Hausa that there’s no way I would drink that kind of water. ‘I am the kind of person who only drinks Faro water,’ he chuckled. (Faro, owned by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, seems to be the most respected bottled water brand in the region.)
This man had killed lots of people and he didn’t particularly seem like he regretted it. I couldn’t ask how many exactly he killed, as the fixer agreed it was a question that could upset him.
It’s interesting. That at this IDP camp, we have nearly all parties to the insurgency living side by side. Well sort of. There are the soldiers and Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) and vigilantes. There are displaced civilians. There are those falsely accused of being Boko Haram members. There are actual former Boko Haram members. And then, there are humanitarian workers.
We could not interview anyone today as my fixer had to attend to a food crisis at the camp. But, yesterday’s session was enthralling and by far the lengthiest we’ve had — close to two hours. Even my fixer was lost in the plots of it all. In previous sessions, his translation nearly matched the interviewees’ energy in words but, this time, our guy would speak for 20 minutes and he would only give a two-minute summary. He even asked quite many follow-up questions himself.
Things you see in this town: army uniform, everywhere, and friendly-looking soldiers. You see a soldier riding a bicycle; two soldiers in a tricycle; four on a patrol vehicle; three manning the entrance to a camp or school; one pricing goods at the market; another riding a horse or carrying a child; or two soldiers, one taking a picture of the second as he poses with a bright blue scarf hung around the neck, his rifle positioned beside him like a staff. They are everywhere. I was leaving the campus today when I beheld the sight of an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) being ferried on a truck. Damn. Not the light versions used by police to protect banks, but a real frontline-battle-ready APC. Before I could say jack, another one passed in front of me in like manner, then a third (or something else entirely, like a huge veiled cannon) all flanked by even more regular army patrol vans.
Oh, the thrill of visiting new places and travelling new routes. We were at a different IDP camp today, the Bakassi Site Camp. There I saw a centre that provided child spacing services, a complaint desk right after the entrance, suggestion boxes placed in the camp, an about-four-year-old girl moving staggeringly about on a pair of crutches, and a mobile court. There was also an ongoing party where hundreds gathered to listen to musicians through at least two large loudspeakers about five feet tall.
The IDPs here take to raising animals for profit. Rams even had sheds created for them. There were sheds for turkeys too. Goats were all over the place. And chickens. And ducks. And ducklings. And doves.
I saw a very lively kid whose striped white and blue pants were too loose for his waist so he had to hold it in place using a white thread.
When you wink at the child-IDPs, their faces light up and they check to see if their friends saw the gesture. Usually, they’re the only audience, so they rush to gossip to their friends and sometimes come back with them, wearing expectant eyes, hoping to get a repeat episode.
Things you see (everywhere and in the unlikeliest of places) in Maiduguri: Soldier’s camouflage net, a row of tyres alternatively painted black and red, and walls made of cement bags… all signalling the presence of military officers and security checkpoints. But it’s not only the military who flourish in this town; there is the paramilitary too, in the form of the Civilian JTF, vigilantes, Borno Youth Vanguard, and maybe some other groups.
Signposts you see in Maiduguri: Foundation for widows. Fatima’s Orphans and Widows Educational Foundation. Federal Government’s Emergency Food Distribution (Centre). “Must Be International Barbing Saloon.”
Saw a signpost with the words “Buratai Laundry Services” on my way to the airport and I could only think of money laundering.
Leaving the town today and, in all the days I spent, I did not collect one single phone number from a young admirer/admiree. Hopefully, that’ll change next time I come, especially if the university has, by then, resumed academic activities.
This article was originally published by HumAngle on June 17, 2021.