My last night in Maiduguri. Not a single shot was heard. I listened intently, tense and wondering what will be my fate as I left Borno the next day. Every sound, every scuttle, every bang was magnified into an ominous sound. I summoned the courage to tip toe to my window in the dark hotel room and peeped through the blinds, expecting a sniper’s bullet to crack my skull – but there was nothing –just my imagination run riot. Just darkness, total darkness, a pitch black darkness that reminded me of Biafra, when we used to switch off all lights at night for fear of air raids.All the memories and fears of my childhood in Biafra flooded back as if it was yesterday. Some nights we would not eat and go to bed wondering if there would be an attack and we would have to run again as refugees.In the dark of the night I picked up my phone and tapped out the refrain of a dirge buzzing in my head:
Echoes of Biafra tear through my mind;
Tears of my heart rip through unkind.
I dedicate this piece to Safire S. Musa, a brilliant Nigerian commentator, who I promised to draw out the parallels I see between Biafra and Borno. I take poetic licence to call her Safire because her incisive writing reminds me of fire and her name of the precious stone sapphire. I told Safiya that Borno reminds me of Biafra because it takes me back to my childhood in Biafra, and by looking through that experience, one can better understand what drives Boko Haram, and its methods.
Maiduguri is now a war front and the people of Maiduguri have now learnt to retire early to their homes and switch off lights so as not to attract the assassins of the night. I found myself listening out for the rat tats of machine guns that used to encircle us in Biafra. We were always so near a war front all the time, but it was the crickets chirping.I remember the furtive looks, the wondering who was a saboteur and who was not. You can feel it in Borno as they follow you to check who the stranger is. You could see it in the tense politeness, smiling whilst wondering; in the itchy fingers of the soldiers, ever ready on triggers whilst using hard faces to hide the nervousness of the boys they were, with loving families somewhere.
Echoes of Biafra tear through my vision;
Tears of my heart rip through my illusions.
Maiduguri is surrounded by Boko Haram, the way Biafra was surrounded by Federal troops. We lived in a tiny enclave, just like Maiduguri is a tiny enclave; the rest of Biafra was devastated just like the rest of Borno is devastated. The scorched earth policy of Boko Haram has burned out village after village. Hundreds of villages and the refugees have flooded into Maiduguri, or crossed the Border into Cameroon or just sitting it out in the shell of their towns. It is just like the scorched Earth policy of Federal troops was towards Biafra. My entire village, was razed to the ground. Almost every house was torched except for my father’s, my grand dad’s, and two other prominent people whose houses were reserved for the officers. The 200 Chibokgirls is just the tip of an iceberg that made it to CNN. Hundreds have been abducted. Recently 500 people were slaughtered in one week. The slaughter too reminds me of Biafra, the reckless abandon with which anyone that was left behind was massacred. Some were buried or burnt alive. My best adult friend UjahEgwu died as they defended our village. He was scalped. Boko Haram slits throats.
Echoes of Biafra tear through my dreams;
Tears of nightmares flow down in streams.
There are four routes out of Maiduguri: the road North to Lake Chad, the road Eastto Bamaand the border, and the road South to Chibok and Adamawa. The Sambisa Forest, the stronghold of Boko Haram is due South. They are all no go areas for people in Maiduguri. The road West goes to Damaturu and Kano. It is the remaining route for bringing in supplies. I call that road ‘no man’s land’, because it is as devastated and as lonely as a no man’s land in a war front. It woke me up to the reality of what was going on. Can you imagine all the villages from Abuja to Kaduna or Onitsha to Enugu or Lagos to Ibadan, burnt out? They were ghost towns, except for a few braves souls trying to repair their homes with money provided by the State Government and soldiers stationed to protect them. It reminded me of Biafra’s only life line out – Uli Airport, or the famous route for sneaking in luxuries from Nigeria, called ‘Afia Attack’; (Attack Market).
Echoes of Biafra tear through my thought;
Tears of unnecessary wars we have fought.
So many parallels run through my mind. I have looked at how Maiduguri is like the Biafran enclave and the surrounding Boko Haram like the Federal troops surrounding Biafra. Now let us look at an inverted situation, how the Federal Government created Biafra and Boko Haram through the injustices of the State. That is, instead of Boko Haram and Biafra as the rebels and aggressors, they become the victims that had to fight back with whatever they had to save themselves. Many people in Nigeria will refuse to deal with this truth and will curse and abuse me but it is the truth I am telling. The Nigerian State callously repeats this evil and then blames the victims when they rise up and then call them terrorists and rebels.
Look at the Niger Delta, at the destruction of their environment, the denial of their rights to THEIR Oil, seized by individuals, not by the Hausa/Fulani, nor by the Yoruba, but by individuals, to become their personal Oil Wells – then we blame Hausa and Yoruba, as if the thieves sat down with the Hausa or Yoruba peoples to plan the theft of Oil blocks. Just this fact alone,of such massive theft, the arrogance of individuals from other tribes stealing one’s God given patrimony, to the exclusion of the owners of the land, is enough to cause a never ending war in Nigeria. However, these individual thieves went further – they murdered Ken SaroWiwa and they destroyedOdi. When the Niger Delta people took up arms they were called militants, but they later sold their birthrights for a mess of porridge, in a phantom amnesty, that used a few baits to steal their wealth again. Instead of fighting to take control, or share to the people, they opted for some scholarships and hand-outs.
In the case of Biafra, the story is very well known. Major Nzeogwu and his fellow coup plotters committed individual crimes and a whole tribe was blamed. They never sat down to plan with this tribe but the tribe was massacred anyway. Who did the massacring – individiuals. They may have come from the Hausa-Fulani tribe and other tribes, but the Hausa-Fulani tribe and those other tribes did not murder Igbos. It was individuals that murdered Igbos. INDIVIDUALS. And some of those criminals are alive today in high places but use their power to block justice and their propaganda to turn the victim into the aggressor. That is why fellow Nigerians still erroneously think that the Igbo caused the war. When Igbos, out of sheer terror of the Nigerian State, did what the Niger Deltans have,surprisingly, still not been able to do, they were called rebels.Ojukwu, a courageous leader who used his father’s wealth to help fellow Igbo people was, in the unkindest cut of all, called a rebel leader that needed pardon, as if he should have offered his people to be slaughtered more by the Nigerian State and those individual killers.
Now let us look at Boko Haram. They were a small sect that was located in Yobo State and helped the poor and needy and preached a fiery brand of Islam, but they did not kill. They were known for their sincere charity to fellow Muslims. The Izallasect are fiery but they are not known to be killers. Preaching fiery Islam does not make you a killer. It was the Nigerian State that turned Boko Haram into a killer sect, just as the Nigerian State turned Igbo into ‘rebels’ and Niger Deltans into ‘militants’. How? From what I gather it all started over arguments with the police about wearing helmets when riding motorbikes. Muslims wanted to wear their hats or turbans which have religious implications to some. It is also for that reason that Sikhs do not wear helmets preferring to keep their religious turbans. Police fought Boko over this and killed some haramites. Whilst going to bury their dead, there was another clash. More haramites were killed. This turned to warfare between the police and the haramites. Many were arrested and locked up. To the Police they were trouble makers. To the haramites their people were unjustly killed. Their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, made efforts to secure justice from the Nigerian State but was rebuffed, so they armed themselves and attacked Bauchi prison to free what they believe was their unjustly imprisoned brothers.
Initially the Nigerian State underrated Biafra, just like they underrated Boko Haram. In 2009, Yaradua gave a simple order – wipe them out. For Biafra it was a 48 hour police action. Does that remind you of Jonathan’s deadlines? Wipe them out resulted in over 3000 murdered by the Nigerian Army, with even cripples executed. Hundreds of homes were razed to the ground. Mohammed was captured alive and then executed. Now see it from Boko Haram’s point of view. They and the people of Maiduguri were slaughtered because they demanded for their rights. Now the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) is not like the Christian Jesus Christ who asked his followers to turn the other cheek. Muhammad (Pbuh) was more like King David (Prophet Daoud), a warrior Prophet and King still beloved by God. Muslims are taught to fight those who oppress their religion. Boko Haram was never called people fighting for their rights, or even for revenge. We just thought they were evil people that loved to kill. We did not know they were so persecuted, they became killers. Nevertheless they were at first seen as freedom fighters after that Maiduguri massacre, until their anger and excessed led to atrocities that turned almost everyone against them, and they were driven out of Maiduguri by civilian JTF.
Ojukwu was a brilliant war commander and a master propagandist. Shekau is a brilliant geurilla commander and propagandist par excellence. Ojukwusometimes led his troops to war, till the troops refused to have him, because they could not stand the idea of his death. Just likeShekau. In Biafra, we had no weapons initially so our soldiers had to capture weapons by daring raids on the Federal troops and fought them with their own weapons, just like Boko Haram. Then we started buying and building weapons but still reliedheavily on the weapons captured from the Federal troops. Just like Boko Haram. But the ultimate weapon of Shekauin this war is propaganda. Disinformation has become the most potent weapon with which he is manipulating the Nigerian State and the world, winning battle after battle. Even though he may ultimately lose the war, if we wake up on time, but if we do not, expect Abuja to be over run, before the Americans or the French or whoever come to save the day?Mali and Central African Republic are examples that this type of extreme Islamic insurgency never negotiates, fights bravely and terrifies soldiers, because it is difficult for a man that wants to live to fight a man that is happy to die.
An early propaganda and diversionary tactic of Ojukwu was the attack by Biafra in the Midwest as they headed to Lagos and finally got to Ore. It was done to save Biafra by diverting the Nigerian forces away from the Biafran heartland to go and save the Midwest and the West. That action probably saved Biafra in the early days. It helped Biafra to regroup. I also remember during the exodus from Umuahia, the Federal troops suddenly advanced and their Saracen tanks were barking like dogs. The Biafran soldiers were straggling back, hustling with civilians to escape over the Imo bridge. Radio Biafra went into over gear and announced a phantom division massing in Umuahia. Do you know that the Federal troops could have over run Biafra that night? It was just about seven miles from Umuahia to the bridge and hardly any defence. We were refugees amassed on the Umuahia side of the bridge praying to cross before the Biafran soldiers blew up the bridge. What must have held the federal troops back was the fear of the phantom defenders of Umuahia. The propaganda held back the Federal forces long enough for the Biafrans to regroup.
Shekau is a master of propaganda and using terror strategy. Anybody that underrates him does so at their own peril. With a few soldiers and pockets of terror cells all over Borno and Nigeria, he has given the illusion of a massive army and is winning recruits and fighters to his side who probablybelieve that he is winning, so Allah must be on his side. According to the people I met in Maiduguri, he is a legend amongst his troops. Theircombat cells operate every night burning down villages, but the military are everywhere looking for them. Their protection is the Sambisa forests and other places they are holed up in with the hostages they capture. The brilliance and propaganda value of capturing those 200 Chibok girls is mindboggling. It brought him what he craved for most, international recognition as a leading Mujahedeen group in West Africa. This opens up more Al Queda dollars to him, attracts more fighters and weapons whilst he continues to soften up the army and Bornoand gathering up a true military force. He is just biding his time.
The magic of the Chibok girls is a true conjurers trick. As the world attention is focused on the girls, the hands and feet of the World and the Nigerian army are tied, and they cannot attack for fear of those girls being killed, given the international opprobrium it will bring. BokoHaram under cover of darkness continues to burn down Borno villages with impunity, knowing they cannot be fully attacked. Now they have gone into full scale massacres of hundreds of people, yet the Nigerian Army holds its power so that negotiations will be done to bring back the girls. It will be exceedingly foolish for Boko Haram to surrender any of its hundreds of hostages, including the Chibok girls, till they are in a position of strength. What is probably their intention now is to delay as much as possible till they have a full army for the assault on Maiduguri. They have already attempted to bomb the bridge on the only link road to Damaturu, as they have successfully bombed the bridge on other routes.
Why cannot the army get them easily? Well tarred roads in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa are not necessary for hilux trucks and motorbikes. The terrain is open with little vegetation and they can drive anywhere at night without hindrance. When the army defends one village, they attack another. It is therefore, very difficult to pinpoint where they will be. During the day they are holed up in their strongholds protected by their hostages, or hiding in the ruins of burnt out villages.
From the actions of AQIM, (Al Queda in the Mahgreb), these groups make their money from kidnappings, selling of hostages such as girls, bank robberies and donations from extremists. Those women they capture are too valuable as hostages to keep their group safe; as sex slaves to keep the troops happy, as commodities sold as slaves to raise money, but most importantly, for their propaganda value the give them international status and more donations. I hope Shekau negotiates but I doubt it. Any of the Chibok girls who still remain in Nigeria, along with hundreds of other girls captured nightly in the rural areas, are most effective as human shields. I really hope someone is looking for those girls and most other girls captured but I doubt it. There is just too much wahala on the ground and the army is too seriously overstretched for them to be focussing on finding these girls. Counting the days gone by as if the Government is wasting time is really not understanding what is going on. It is like counting the days gone by since the Malaysian airlines got missing, waiting for the passengers to come back. CNN has stopped that count.
As for what can you or I do? I have to be blunt. Unless you are in the theatre of war, very little.As I listened to the people in Borno talk I came to realise one terrible thing, that although CNN, and other international publicity was helping to draw attention to the Borno disaster, they were also creating the fuel of oxygen that was building Boko Haram into a true international status. All the activities with hashtag or demonstrationsare both positive and negative. They may be helping or hindering or just irrelevant depending on the realities on the ground. But just my hunch, and what I hear people say here in Borno and Yobe that making the world focus on the girls, rather than on Borno, is distracting at best and fuels the engine of global recognition, status and petrodollars for Boko Haram, turning them into a well armed international insurgency, no longer a home grown rag tag army, that the military and civilian JTF cannot defeat, unless the military and civilian JTF are also equally armed.
If you really want to help in this war, you should either enlist with the forces, or put your energy into supporting and boosting the morale of OUR ARMY rather than disparaging them as incompetents; OUR Civilian JTF in Borno and the Borno Hunters. Unless we can immediately change Jonathan, we are stuck with him, and we have to make him believe that the demonstrators want to support his efforts rather than ridicule him. It is such acts that leads this Government to think that every well meaning criticism is designed by its political enemies to bring it down.
We now need to encourage OUR Government, to create and train a local military force of these Civilian JTF and Hunters as Independent Commando Units. They should be free to take on Boko Haram in any way they deem fit with army and America intelligence units supporting them. They should be totally free to decide their targets, whether it is pursuing the girls or hitting Boko Haram as a primary target and if hostages happen to be in the way, then as the Americans say – COLLATERAL DAMAGE.
We are dealing with an extremely ruthless enemy – the worst in the world – who is using the worst kind of emotional blackmail to manipulate us. To succeed, somebody,somewhere must pull of their kids gloves. It is an asymetrical war without a war front, and only the unarmed Civilian JTF has been consistently successful in rooting them out. It is time they were armed.
Echoes of Biafra tear through my soul;
Tears of longing for whom only LOVE can console.
As I finally left Maiduguri into that East Road to Damaturu, my heart hung heavy with fear. We went past the first soldier’s post into no man’s land and the driver sped up with the Jeep. We were going so fast we did not see two deep potholes on the road. The jeep slammed straight into the potholes and bounced badly. Something had damaged as after a while the car started pulling. We went past several burned village, and the terrible carcass ofBenishiek, the midway town between Damaturu and Maiduguri. The pulling of our car increased. Then the fuel cut out and it rolled to a stop opposite a completely deserted, burnt out, mud shack on the right, looking like ancient ruins.No one on the road.
Then out of the corner of the ruins, a motor bike wheel suddenly came into view. I started shaking. We were all silent. Then the half of the bike came into view, and there was a man in military fatigues with a turban and covering his face. He had various weapons on him. The driver got frantic and started pressing the button to start the jeep. It would not start. Then the man in front motioned his hand and another biker suddenly appeared. He was dressed like the first and they were watching. We could not really look at them. We were too terrified. They looked left and right into the road as if to check that no one else was with us. It was as if they were hiding in the building and came out to check on the intruders. They were probably afraid themselves. Someone found the voice to say encouragingly, “They must be hunters”. Then as they began to move slowly to the road, the car sputtered into life and we moved forward slowly then picked up speed. The bikers wheeled out onto the road then sped off.
The car slowed down again then became a crawl. It stopped a few more times before we saw the double McDonald arches of the Damaturu gate. The car rolled on then stopped right at the gates, besides some military men. What a relief. Then it packed up. We waited for about an hour and the car finally sputtered to a hotel and my hosts. We told them the story, they waited for a while then said … that was Boko Haram. I knew it but still I went cold. So I was face to face with death, and I escaped. How did they know? No motorbikes are allowed in Borno because it is the special vehicle they use for their killings.
First published by SkytrendNews