19 July 2012

Nigeria: Loud Sound of Silence - An Ex-Homeboy's Account of life in a Peaceful Nigerian City That is Now Blood-Soaked


While military action may quell the eruption of violence and killing in northern Nigeria, effective action to tackle poverty is needed to rebuild a lasting peace.

My first discovery as I disembarked from the defunct Nigerian Airways Boeing 737I that July evening was the heat. It was around 6pm but even at that time of the day, the heat could, permit the choice of words, 'fry an egg'. Maiduguri, capital of the north eastern Nigerian state of Borno is famous for its heat. But for someone coming from the equally hot North West, the heat should pose no problems. However, the four years spent in comparatively temperate Zaria, on the southern tip of the north west, had 'weakened my immunity' to heat. Maiduguri posed initially challenges but then, I quickly adjusted and roused myself to the reality on the ground. Not that I had any choice, anyway: I was in town for the mandatory one year national service after graduating from university. That was in 1981.

Maiduguri of those days was, like any average Nigerian town, where you could go out to have some fun, if you are the adventurous type, till the wee hours of the morning. And fun was always in abundance in Maiduguri. Indeed, one of the major attractions of Maiduguri for most fun lovers was the daily rendezvous at various joints where you get traditional Sudanese music aplenty. A trip to Maiduguri then would be incomplete without a visit to some of these tourist attractions the town boasted of. No Boko Haram, no gun-toting security personnel kicking down doors in hot pursuit of insurgents; and you need not steal glances across your shoulder, because nobody was laying ambush to spill your blood in the strange belief that murder was the certificate to unlock the doors of paradise.

But then, there was more to Maiduguri than the love for traditional Sudanese music or mere adventure or any of those things capable of catching the fancy of a young man. One thing that struck me early in the day was the healthy mix of religion and ethnicity. Like Maiduguri, the state capital, other towns in the northern part of the state could be termed, for want of a better adjective, predominantly Islam and Muslim. The southern part which is home to indigenous Christian populations of the state, and, indeed, there are many of them, enjoyed and still enjoys a good mix of indigenous Muslims. Which explains why Maiduguri, the state capital has a large concentration of indigenous Christians as well as Christian settlers from other parts of the country. No one was threatened on account of religion or ethnicity. On a personal note, top on the list of long standing friends I made in Maiduguri 30 years ago, and who I still relate with, are non-Muslim indigenes of Borno state. Until three years ago, no resident of this beautiful city could have imagined that Maiduguri would be turned on its head. How sad!

Under our very eyes and, Maiduguri and other towns in the north east have changed from places where first timers felt at home into a huge killing field where you visit at great risk. Young graduates deployed to Borno state, some of whom, like myself 31 years ago, would have considered opening shop there, have now been denied that chance. Last year, youth corps members deployed there were hurriedly evacuated. The scheme has been suspended in Borno and the adjoining Yobe. Another hurried evacuation took place at the University of Maiduguri, which served as our orientation camp 30 years ago, when scared administrators were forced to send students home. These evacuations were necessitated by repeated threats by some people that claim Western education is sinful.

The main fall-out of the poverty driven violence across the north is that, today, it is constantly on the radar of security agents because some people, on the misplaced assumption of fighting the cause of Allah and Islam, could throw bombs at worshippers. The upsurge in anarchy in hitherto peaceful and harmonious Maiduguri and other parts of the north east, in spite of a state of emergency, has got to the stage that some traditional, religious and political leaders who summoned the courage to condemn this deadly and misplaced campaign were dubbed apostates and killed. The killing of Modu Fannami, a colleague in the 1981 Graduating Class of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and governorship candidate of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) quickly comes to mind. Other moderate voices, for fear of being killed, took the cue: they either clammed up or hurriedly sneaked out of town.

Some individuals and groups have taken the initiative to get round the problem. One group, now moribund, goes by the acronym, BELT, or Borno Elders and Leaders of Thought. Hurriedly formed to find a political solution to the anarchy and made up of some of the most authentic patriots you can get in the land, BELT, for very obvious reasons, never found it appropriate to condemn the curious style propagating Islam, a religion of peace, through non peaceful means. Peace will return to the north east but not on the terms and conditions set by BELT and similar groups.

It will also not come on the terms and conditions set by gun wielding revivalists. Like other Nigerians, they may have one grouse or the other against the state or its agents but the idea of taking up arms, ostensibly to Islamise Nigeria, issuing ultimatums, killing innocent citizens and creating a fear and terror induced atmosphere is the least of the options available to the average Nigerian to seek redress. As it is today, there is no state in the so called 'Muslim north' that has no non-Muslims who are indigenous to that state. It is even safe to say that Borno has the largest indigenous non-Muslim population of any state in the entire Muslim north. Killing them and bombing their places of worship is not a passport to paradise. And for those who may, for some reasons, be inclined to suicide bombing as a way of pressing their case, it is assumed we all know the clear Quranic injunctions that talk of an abode in the hottest part of hell for those who take their own lives. We are not even talking of taking the life of others, be they Muslims or non Muslims.

Mark my words! Sooner or later, the military will succeed in dislodging the Boko Haram, kill or arrest its leadership and disperse what remains of its followership. But this will not restore peace, be it lasting or short lived. Real peace, which will guarantee the regular pilgrimage of those of us with strong emotional attachment to Borno and her wonderful residents, will come through pro-poor developmental programmes that will take the wind out of the sail of potential trouble makers and render violence less appealing. With the right leaders, Nigeria has all it takes to keep potential insurgents out of business and reverse the foolish but avoidable march towards becoming a failed state. This is certainly impossible when the treasury has been hijacked and is being mindlessly looted by a privileged few.

Abdulrazaq Magaji is a writer, journalist and former history lecturer, living in Abuja, Nigeria.

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