16 Days In Northwest Nigeria: Excerpts From A Conflict Reporter’s Diary 1
16 Days In Northwest Nigeria: Excerpts From A Conflict Reporter’s Diary 1- HumAngle Media
The day is Sunday, May 30, 2021. I’ll be going to the field again. And this time to another part of the country entirely facing a different, yet similar, set of challenges. It’s exciting. But a bit terrifying too. The region has changed a lot over the past months. Bandits, it seems, are spreading by the day. And nowhere is safe, not the roads, not the schools, not the communities. So, one has to be careful.
I read Abdulkareem Haruna’s kidnapping experience chronicle and realised I just could not afford to have any pictures on my phone that could portray me as having a lot of money. I hope my potbelly does not betray or paint a misleading picture of me.
There was a story on FIJ I read too about how the kidnappers just kill their victims and sell their body parts if they’re unable to raise a sizable ransom. By the time I land at the Abuja airport about three weeks from now, goodness! I will be so glad. Can’t afford to give my rent money to any bandit. Or maybe I’m overthinking all this and it’s really not this bad if you stick to the safe routes (which I plan to do). Wish me luck.
Sokoto — The glass in the cabin wasn’t very clear and I had the bad luck of being assigned to the middle seat, so I couldn’t see much when the plane started to descend. But it was mostly desert land, with shrubs and occasional neem-like trees. There were streams too. Or were they stagnant lakes? The ride in the last 10 or so minutes was quite rough and turbulent. It seemed as though the pilot started descending for a minute and then the next he changed his mind. I accommodated the playful thought that he was perhaps trying to avoid being shot down by terrorists.
Checking WhatsApp, one of the first things I see is a message from Zainab. It’s a Nigeria Travel Advisory developed by PR24 for the month of May. The report classifies 12 states in Nigeria as high-risk places and I happen to be visiting three of them. Only three states are riskier: predictably, Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. I thank Zainab, who has no idea I was travelling, for the thoughtful gesture.
The heat in this city is scalding. My phones were overheating almost every minute I spent outdoors. I have no idea how I’ll conduct interviews successfully if they’ll be done outside, without my phones going to sleep or shutting down.
Good morning. Time to delete my bank transaction alerts. Good enough, I just found that there’s a way to archive the SMS thread, so it’s hidden but still available to the patient, knowledgeable eye.
About an hour into the journey, we sighted a group of young men, about a dozen, on both sides of the road, holding all sorts of machetes and cutlasses. Suspecting my fear, my fixer, Hamisu, quickly explained they were loggers, looking for trees, not humans, to amputate. “But where are the trees?” I asked, seeing mostly desert land and shrubs in the landscape. “Oh, they are inside inside,” he replied.
So, let’s see how many security checkpoints there are between Sokoto and Sabon Birni town. Around Achida, at 8:15 a.m., we come across the first one. One potbellied Mobile Police (MOPOL) officer with an assault rifle is on the road and there’s a patrol van belonging to Operation Puff Adder close by. “We have security on this road,” says Hamisu. Till Sabon Birni? He answers yes. At 8:28 a.m., we meet the second checkpoint. This one has fit-looking military personnel that number at least 10. At 8:58 p.m., we get to another place that’s supposed to be a MOPOL checkpoint but no officer is there. “They comot,” Hamisu explains. “They dey for house.”
One of the men I met in Gatawa, one community in Sabon Birni LGA, passes a snide remark about people living in the state capital. They are afraid to travel down to areas like Gatawa, he said, because they have an exaggerated perception of the crisis.
You know what is frightening here? Sudden motorcycle movements, first of all. Then when a crowd of people start shouting, especially during an interview.
It’s 6:37 p.m. and we’re just leaving Kurawa. It’s rush hour for people running for their lives. It seems the later it is in the day, the more frequently people tend to wish you “safe journey” and “Allah ya kiyaye” (May Allah protect you). It’s the most ominous “safe journey” I’ve ever heard.
We’re no longer going to Sabon Birni town, it’s simply too late. We’re heading directly to Sokoto! Apparently, that alone is still two to three hours long. Allah be with us. We came using the shorter Isa Road, but we’re returning via the Sabon-Birni-Guronyo Road, which is safer.
At 7:15 p.m., I receive a text that welcomes me to the Niger Republic from the local telecoms network, Zamani. We’re still in Sabon Birni, but the road is said to be just about 1 km from Niger, which is on our right side.
At 7:21 p.m., Hamisu takes his hands off the wheels, utters a silent prayer, rubs his palms together for a second or two, and then rubs them on his face. Maybe I should pray too.
At 7:25 p.m., we’re back at the military checkpoint before Goronyo. The personnel on duty is listening to “Ariwo Ko” by the artist formerly known as Adekunle Gold. He flashes his light and approaches to see who is in the vehicle. “Yaya hanya (how is the road)?” he asks before waving us off.
At 79km to Sokoto, the road is extraordinarily lonely. It’s a literal ghost town. Occasionally the headlight catches a fly or a bird swimming in the space before us. More rarely, we see a frog struggling to cross while avoiding getting crushed by the tires. Even more rarely we see a rat darting across. And then humans. Maybe settlements.
At 9:30-something in the morning, it is time to set out again from the 16°c comfort of the hotel room to the over 30°c discomfort of the harsh Sokoto weather. I imagine the sun is the reason a lot of cars here have tinted glasses. They probably don’t even need permits to have them. The heat is enough license.
Looks like today is market day in Achida, the community in Wurno LGA before Goronyo. No wonder I’ve been seeing trucks after trucks and cars and bikes full of cows and goats and people and watermelons and firewood and raffia palms and hefty sacks containing farm produce. We had to take an untarred alternate route to avoid the traffic.
The police are the same everywhere in Nigeria. Just saw one doing that sleight of hand thing with the driver of a truck full of firewood. There are more security checkpoints today, obviously illegal and mostly set up by men of the Nigeria Police. They’re everywhere. It’s 11:43 a.m. and I’ve counted about five already (before the junction leading to Rabah), some without vans, some with unpainted vans, many wearing ill-fitting uniforms. Hamisu confirms that the multiplication is because of the market day. That could be because they are providing more security for traders or simply to seize the opportunity to extort commercial drivers on the unusually busy road.
Hamisu’s elder brother, who had seven children, was killed by bandits last year. Now he is the one taking care of his descendants. He himself has five children of his own and two wives.
“How many people were killed in Gatawa?” he asks rhetorically. “Past 20! They just come and fire everywhere. Gaga-gaga. Everywhere there is bullet.” We sigh and shake our heads.
After we pass a military checkpoint, I comment that it is not easy to wear army fatigue under the hot Sun, and Hamisu says: “It is only soldier that can go to the far side of Gatawa. If you pass Gatawa into Burkusuma, wallahi you can die. Even for afternoon. You will see bandits everywhere, on their motorcycles, with all types of guns hanging on their necks.”
I saw the camels up close for the first time during my visit to Rabah. There are tons of donkeys too. And cows. A camel trudged along at least five times while I was there. They were either carrying leaves or multiple sacks tied together. A boy who could not be more than three or four was even pulling one along. Camels are a mighty animal to behold. Though super slow. But, no one here is really in a hurry to do things anyway.
To be continued….
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