Borno: Not all blood and sorrow – Part 1
Headlines about Borno State and its people are that of bomb blast, kidnapping, destruction and bloody campaign by Boko Haram,a terrorist group that has transformed “Home of Peace” to theatre of war.Borno in the last eight years has become the fixed imagery of hunger, diseases and death, a backwater community living in extremely hopeless state. This imagery, the mainstream media have constantly reflected to the world since the beginning of insurgency in the Northeast in early 2009.But the media representation only tells a single story of a people who, in spite of the long years of devastation of their community, have become resilient, and continue to live a normal life even in the midst of insecurity and uncertainties. The Guardian’s Features Editor, AJIBOLA AMZAT, for the second time, returns to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State to capture the other side of life in the city, the lived-experience of the people which the media has ignored for so long.
Lafiya d’ole (Peace by force)
Maiduguri is a calm city on a Sunday in early June. But for the sound made by locals greeting one another across roads, and the whirring sound of tricycles that ply the inner streets of the old city, all else is noiseless. Or so it seems. The blazing June sun feels like flaming fire on human flesh; except for a short moment when breeze blows through the green branches of neem trees planted on both sides of the road. Maiduguri weather is at 37 degrees Fahrenheit this Sunday. It was a notch higher a few day earlier, reaching 43 degrees Fahrenheit, according to weather report.
Soldiers in military gears stand in the middle of the road at every checkpoint, soaking in all the heat from the scorching sun. The uniformed men glance furtively at motorists as they stop by for checking, in a few seconds the search is over, and the soldiers beckon at the next motorist to drive closer to the barricade – there are several of these roadblocks in the city. But the whole process is calm, and belies the chaos that was Maiduguri a day earlier.“You will not believe it that just yesterday, there was a bomb blast that caused panic around the city”, says Sulaiman Hamza, a Maiduguri-based journalist who reports for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
Bomb explosion in Borno State has again become a recurring event despite the claim of victory by the Nigerian army over the Boko Haram insurgents. In the last eight months, not fewer than 40 attacks have been launched successfully in the state, according to the media reports.
On the Sallah day, when Muslim faithfuls trooped to the praying ground after 30 days of Ramadan fasting, nine worshippers died in the surprise attack launched by BokoHaram on the campus of the University of Maiduguri. Many more residents including soldiers had been killed in the previous months. Between January and August, The Guardian has counted over 200 victims of the terrorist attack reported in the news. And the media – both local and foreign- are awash with the gory tale of humanitarian crisis in the state.
In spite of the precarious condition of living in Borno, the state which the Nigerian army already has declared as theatre of war, residents seem to have grown resilient, in deviance of Boko Haram ideology and their reign of terror. Everyday, people of Maiduguri continue to go to the Monday Market to buy or sell; the same market where bomb attacks have occurred many times, killing people in numbers.
The Christians in the city still attend church meetings in the evenings, or ceremonies on weekends; muezzins still call people to prayer at mosques five times daily; children in uniforms still go to schools or madrasa, or roam the street and neighbours still visit friends to sympathise with bereaved family whose relatives were recently killed by the Jihadists. Some people even get married, like Happiness Musa and William Mark whose wedding takes place on Saturday June 17 at Church of Christ in Nations(COCIN) at Mairi Bakin, near the campus of the University of Maiduguri. And the wedding is well attended by people in colourful dresses and cheerful faces, all doing their best to give warmth to the occasion.
What God has joined together, No Boko Haram can put asunder
At the church, the officiating priest in white robe and green sash asks, “ Will you take care of Happiness Musa in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until you are parted by death,” and William Mark, the groom, a lanky youth in his late twenties, solemnly says “yes, I will”. The clergy then asks the bride the same question. Looking shy and amused, she also says yes. With that exchange of vows, the priest pronounces them husband and wife, and both kiss as the church explodes in applause.
Mark, 29, dressed in white tuxedo suit and black trousers, green carnation flower sticking out of his breast pocket, holds the new bride and walks her gently down the platform towards their seat as choir group bursts into popular local song “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”It is the first wedding of the month at the church, and it is a wedding delayed for so long by insurgency that is yet to be tamed despite fierce campaign of the army against the terrorists.Mark met Musa in 2011, and it was love at first sight, or “likeness at first sight” as Mark puts it. But the two had to wait for six years to tie the nuptial knot.
“I met her on the way to church, and found her attractive, but I lacked the courage to say a word.”Mark chastised himself for being so tongue-tied the first time he saw Musa and promised to speak to her the next time. He fulfilled his promise a few weeks later, and to his surprise, Musa lived not far away from his neighbourhood. Their friendship started afterwards, and grew to courtship. That time, Mark was an undergraduate at the department of Agricultural Science, University of Maiduguri. He planned to marry his lady after graduation. That would not happen because of the ceaseless bomb attacks in the city. “It just seemed awkward to invite people for any get-together in Maiduguri at certain time,” he says.
Six years after their first meeting, the lovebirds called the bluff of the terrorists and decided to go to the altar. On Saturday June 17, the two friends tie the nuptial knot in the presence of family, friends and well-wishers numbering a little above hundred.
Alphin Thomas, the official photographer of the wedding is not surprised at the large turnout at the wedding despite the constant fear of Boko Haram attack. “Attending events such as wedding ceremony has become much like a pastime in Maiduguri than anything else,” he says.
“Apostle of Peace”
Just as Mark and Musa are playing host to family and friends on Saturday, Evangelist Sarah Laraba, wife of the late Archbishop of Maiduguri Anglican Communion, Emmanuel Kana Mani had also played host to numerous visitors four days earlier. Majority of the visitors who come to keep company of Laraba are women in the neigbourhood. It has been five months since her husband died, yet she continues to receive sympathisers almost on daily basis.Many of them still struggle to accept the reality that the late Bishop is no more, for they still talk about him in present tense. When Bishop Mani was alive, his house was also a beehive of visitors. Men and women, Christian and Muslim beat path to his house to share one problem or the other with him. They consulted him even on family matters and he never turned them back.
Tom, the clergy’s son, remembers his father as someone who never discriminated against anyone, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. “Muslim, Christian, Kanuri, Hausa or Suwa people are welcome in our house at any time of the day. My father even employed Muslim workers.” And his disposition did not change towards anyone even when suspicion started growing stronger between Muslims and Christians in Maiduguri, Tom adds.Throughout his 67 years on earth, Bishop Mani lived his adult life preaching about peace, love, togetherness and kindness.
As the former chairman of Forrest, a predominantly Muslim community in the city, Bishop Mani regularly rallied people to participate in community project, and no one has ever refused to support his leadership in the community, says Dr. Ifechukwu Ibeme, one of the community leaders. When the Muslims in the neighbourhood wanted to found a praying ground for Eid and Jumat service, it was Mani who led the delegation to the Sheu of Borno to make request. Initially, the monarch was reluctant to grant permission for the use of another place as praying ground. The Emir felt the city that was increasingly becoming fragmented by religious tension, and he was being careful not to spike the restlessness . But Bishop Mani in solidarity with his Muslim neighbours appealed to the royal father, and the king yielded, “that was how a new praying ground was founded in Forrest,” Ibeme recalls. And anytime the state government implemented a policy that might affect the ordinary people of Borno in a negative way, Bishop Mani would publicly speak against it.
Through many press conferences he organised, Mani had cultivated a good relationship with journalists who regularly reported his advocacy for good governance, peace and tolerance. He would rather debate in the press, than to encourage division among his people, his wife of 44 years says.But members of Boko Haram sect were unhappy about the activities of the clergy and his long standing influence in the community.
Therefore, sometimes in 2012, the bishop received a threatening letter from Boko Haram. They wanted him to leave Maiduguri, or die.But the answer they received was as daring as his Sunday homilies against religious intolerance which Boko Haram ideology promotes.In one terse sentence, he wrote back to the terrorist group:“My life is in God’s hand.”
That was at the time clergymen in Maiduguri were getting killed in cold blood in their homes by the insurgents, and others were fleeing even before death came calling. Mani refused to flee. When threats against his life became recurring and it appeared that he was not going to leave, Abuja diocese, advised him to relocate immediately. But he had a ready-made answer for the headquarters.
“I am prepared to send my family over, but I will not leave the people of Borno.” He stood by his words until he died in February, few hours after a very brief illness. “Baa da mu,” was the last word he said to his daughter, Grace, who called him on phone before his last breath. It was a reassuring statement; so reassuring it still gives confidence to his family to remain in the city where religious-motivated violence and ethnic tension continue to be a daily threat. “We are here to stay. We are not going anywhere,” says Mani’s widow.
The man Yusuf failed to recruit
Idriss Alooma, is another man Boko Haram could neither intimidate or convince to adopt their radical Islamic ideology. And the group has succeeded in recruiting thousands, many of them university undergraduates like Alooma, majority of whom are now dead. Alooma also could have been dead too or become one of the leaders of the deadly group. But he is currently the head of IDP camps in Maiduguri, a position he assumed recently, after four years of tending to the needs of the displaced in various camps in the city. Back in 2009, Alooma used to attend Mohammed Yusuf’s mosque in Maiduguri, and after prayer he would engage the preachers’ followers in mock competition on Quran recitation. Often, he outperformed them. And everyone liked him for it, including the sect leader, Yusuf.
“I enjoyed those moment so much, and my co-contestants did too.” Alooma was then an undergraduate in the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) studying Public Administration, but he spent ample time memorising Quran verses too. Not long after he started attending the mosque, he received invitation to become a member of the Boko Haram. The group wanted him to join them and stop attending the university because Western education is an abhorrence, as they argued. “I could not rationalise that argument because I know that Allah encourages true Muslim to seek knowledge even up to as far as China. ”Aside that, Alooma is the only member of his family who had the privilege of studying up to the university level, and therefore a role model to his siblings. He did not want to disappoint his kinsmen, especially his late mother who was very proud of him.
When Yusuf’s followers would not relent from asking him to become a member, Alooma approached the fiery preacher himself and asked pointedly whether Western education is forbidden or not. He also complained to the Uztas, as Yusuf adherents liked to address him, about his followers harassing him to drop out of the college. Yusuf then allayed his fear and promised to talk to his followers, but he never did. “For three weeks, I sat close to him in the mosque hoping that he would remember his promise and address my concern, but he didn’t.” When Alooma realised the duplicity of the Imam, he stopped attending his mosque. But that decision did not help matters.
Afterwards, Yusuf’s adherents started inviting him to join the morning fitness exercise they organised for the youths on campus, but he suspected the exercise was another ploy to recruit members, so he declined the invitation. That was when his problem started. The gang threatened to kill him if he did not abandon school and join the cause. Alooma was shocked to find out that many of his colleagues at UNIMAID such as Mohammed Karumi and Bakura Tella, both brilliant engineering students had torn their certificates and joined the terrorist group.
When the threat became real, he ran to the neighbouring city, Damaturu in Yobe State for a while and when he returned to Maiduguri few weeks later, he kept a low profile until he graduated from the university.”On completion of his degree programme, Alooma was posted to Zamfara State to do the one -year compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), by then Yusuf had been killed and his followers had become even more murderous, but Alooma felt safe because he was far away from the reach of his assailants.
Another challenge was however waiting for him at the NYSC camp. Despite Alooma’s rejection of Islamic extremism and resistance to join Boko Haram, he and other corps members from Borno State had become object of derision among their colleagues in the camp. Youths from Borno were then perceived as members of Boko Haram. The stigma led to his decision to found a non-governmental organisation, the Concerned Youths of Borno. The organisation’s goal was to promote a counter-narrative about the people of Borno and sensitize the youths to abhor terrorism. By the time he completed his service in 2013 and returned to Maiduguri, many people including his friends had been killed, and many more had been displaced. Alooma therefore volunteered to work with the State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA, in order to assist the displaced in camps. He has never looked back since then. Currently, he is the Senior Head of Camps in Maiduguri and liberated areas within the state. “It is tough being responsible for the welfare of thousands of displaced people. But this is what I love to do,” he says.