Growing up as a child in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State left me with vivid memories. There are clear memories of affinity, of love, of trust, of sharing and good neighbourliness. By the way, I was born a Christian, and raised as one. But I also had among my very closest friends, Muslims; and in no way was any sense of difference amongst us highlighted. The adopted official lingo of “home of peace” seemed very fitting.
Today, that epitaph mocks at the state, its people and government. On a recent duty tour to Maiduguri, what I saw showed how easy it is for society, indeed, for civilizations to die. Maiduguri, indeed what was known of Borno, the Kanuri civilization, has died a painful, shameful death; with no loved ones at the funeral. If you live in Abuja as I do, and pick the official lines from the media you will go with the impression that “the economic life of Borno State” is in comatose but that with the gallant efforts of the security forces, things were returning to normalcy.
To associate Borno State with any form of economic or social life today is to engage in an ugly, nauseating joke. The soul and personality of the Borno under which I grew up died unsung. Among my friends, when Borno lived, we played together. The Muslims were friendly, generous and accommodating to non – Muslims. We lived together, shared each other’s clothes. What determined who wears the best shirt and jeans amongst our group of Muslim and Christian friends is not the ownership of these clothes but rather, who has the most important date that day.
I remember with nostalgia how I used to hold a container of water and pour it for my Muslim friends to perform their ablution and the same set of friends will always wait for me by the gate of the local church that I attended with my parents when it was closing time so that we could embark in our desired exploits. This became such a line of routine that sometime in 1997 I found myself converting to Islam. No one gave an ultimatum that if I or anyone for that matter did not convert the heavens was going to collapse. One thing was evident then, my conversion neither unsettled any Christian families that I know, nor did it affect my relationship with my friends.
As fate would have it, I am now a Muslim; and one of my good friends, who grew up a Muslim, met an enterprising Idoma lady who converted him to Christianity. They are married and live happily with their children in Abuja. Maiduguri was very peaceful until February 2006 when the first major crisis broke out; then again, in July 2009 when the Islamist insurgents declared war on secular institutions. Now death and its fear dominate the space all across Borno. As Chinua Achebe’s legendary character noted in the celebrated novel, “Things Fall Apart” ‘they have put a knife in the thing that bound us together …”
While it was obvious that the 2006 crisis in Maiduguri was mainly an attack on Christians and their institutions by rampaging Muslim mobs, the 2009 uprising led by late Mohammed Yusuf had a slightly different motivation. Today, there are many faces of the calamity in Maiduguri. There is the ugly face among Muslims, there is the pathetic face of the calamity among the hapless Christian community, and there is a troubling, complicated face created and stoked by government forces.
Maiduguri is flattened and ridden with chaos, grief and fear. People are afraid to talk about anything not only to strangers but even to their neighbours because some have pitted against one another or served as informants to either sides of the conflict. Security agents that should be responsible for safeguarding lives and property are apparently turning against the people they are paid and trained to protect.
The ‘operation restore order’ in Maiduguri, by the Joint Task Force, seems to be producing more terrorists than it eliminates. When children witness the brutal killings of their parents, with little or no consolations, they grow up to become spiteful of every representation of civil obedience; and vend violence.
According to Sadiq Abba, a teenager, seen with a bullet wound on his leg in Maiduguri, his only crime when soldiers shot at him was that he falls within the age group of the insurgents.
In Maiduguri, if you are close to a scene of violence, two things happen: it is either you get blown by the bomb or bullets of the insurgents; or when soldiers arrive the scene, you assume the status of an enemy even if you are not one. If you are saved from any of these two evils then pray to be far from another scene of an attack.
On a seemingly normal day, when there is no attack at a given time in the city, the fear and trauma of people wondering whether the car next to them at a traffic light or security check point would explode; or whether they would be caught between cross fires, can be devastating.
According to a Pediatrician at the University of Maiduguri, most Maiduguri residents, especially children in the most violent areas, are likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or prolong grief; yet there is no consolation for them. And nobody is interested in these problems especially when the bombs and assassinations are still going on. Instead, how to eat and survive the day is everybody’s preoccupation.
A nine year old boy that goes by the name Ahmed (surname withheld) told me how his father was beaten for throwing a sachet of water from his car window on the floor, close to a check point.
“My father was asked to roll on the ground while me and my younger sister watched how the soldiers flogged him,” he said.
Children, whether of suspected insurgents or not, have been killed or have seen their parents killed before their eyes. The insurgents, in revenge apparently, are killing women and children of government officials, as if these children are at fault.
Another teacher got people scampering for safety when the tyre of his rickety car burst close to a military check point. Sadly, he was beaten to coma by the soldiers. Some say, he is lucky to be alive. Where is the rule of law in this city?
More complicated is when Christian places of worship are bombed, and Christians, especially Igbos, are slaughtered like animals. Their only crime being that they are Christians, even as the Muslims that condemn these killings are not spared either. For many Muslims, a sealed lip is the only guarantee of staying alive, while the average Christian views the silence as cold complicity.
Most security agents, civil servants, and politicians, serving and retired in the state, that have fallen by the bullets of the insurgents are Muslims; that is why it is difficult to convince most Muslims that this war is being fought on their behalf.
In Maiduguri, apparently, the only people the security excuse most of the times are Christians just like the way the insurgents have also spared some Muslims at the very instance of an attack. These have further increased suspicion and animosity between adherents of the two religions. One religion is seen as having the sympathy of the JTF and the other as having the sympathy of the insurgents.
Apart from the people, the once serene and beautiful environment of Maiduguri that welcomes you with the sweet fragrance of Churai or turarai wuta, locally made perfumes, now bears painful memories of loved ones that have died and continue to suffer. The infrastructure are in ruins, many schools are destroyed, businesses are grounded, and many residences are deserted. Many Christians now bury their deaths like the Muslims because there is hardly any space in the mortuaries.
Where are the memorable traditional eateries in the city, like the Gudum local restaurant in Abaganaram, where we use to feast with tasty Kanuri dishes such as Ndalai, brabusko, Karasu, and miyan kuka with a lot of traditional spices?
Can I ever go back to Dikwa to eat burtutu, aquatic frog? Can I ever move freely in Hausari to buy danwake in the morning? I miss the way the people don’t play with wedding festivities, such as the wushai wushai in the nights.
Alas! Where is ‘Ba masaha’, the late Shehu of Borno, Dr. Mustpha Umar Ibn El-Kanemi of blessed memory? When he died, the Igbos did not only mourn him but closed their shops for three days voluntarily. Most of these Igbos have now fled the state.
The majalissa, a common feature in Maiduguri, in which men of all ages seat under trees in groups, has disappeared. It is also practically impossible for people to sleep outside during the scourging heat even when there is no electricity. Even the viewing centres that show English Premiership League matches, one of the few things youth in the region strangely find as a bond or unifying force, are gone.
No one can move freely any longer, at any time of the day or night.
Once the hub of Islamic scholarship in West Africa, that teaches tolerance and hospitality like its welcoming neem trees, where there are abundant opportunities for youth to be pious or go astray, Maiduguri turn to a ghost town.
The reception one will get in Maiduguri in the 80’s and 90’s could best be described in the Islamic principles that admonished Muslims to show an open invitation by their lifestyles, through which people can see the beauty of Islam and find it an interesting code of ethics and teachings for others to follow. This has been bedeviled by the actions of the insurgents.
I would like to see the Maiduguri, where Islamic scholarship is booming, where everyone prays the five daily prayers in congregation. I will like to see the Maiduguri where my Christian parents can go to church every Sunday without the fear of being bombed.
I would like to see a Maiduguri that does not produce orphans, widows and the dead by the hour; causing people to lose count of the dead. I would like to see a Maiduguri where the insurgents will rest their fist, smile, and be smiled at.
I will like to see a Maiduguri where my only brother, an evangelist based in Oshogbo, can come home and feel at home. I will like to see the Maiduguri where my two nieces and nephews, whose father is from Abakaliki, in the South-East of Nigeria, come to stay and enjoy the sweet smell of Churai or the healthy bitter taste of garden eggs.