On Sunday June 17 I set out for Jaji in Kaduna State to keep a week-long appointment to deliver some lectures to the class of Senior Officers Course 34 of the Armed Forces Command and Staff College under the Executive Conversion programme organized by the Nigerian Institute of Management. It was a most memorable journey.
On arrival at Kaduna Airport, there was a palpable sense of unease in the air. Passengers were having a tough time getting their flights confirmed. The car park was unusually full for a Sunday and it did not take too much effort to find out why. Many cars were coming into the park but only few were leaving even as passengers disembarked from their flights. It turned out that earlier that day, possibly while we were boarding or mid-air, three churches in the town had been targeted by suicide bombers. Our arrival apparently coincided with the onset of reprisal attacks said to have been organized by Christian youth. After an interminable wait for the military escort who was to lead us to the College, we set out for Jaji but were advised to avoid the Kaduna-Zaria road, which was one of the epicentres of the hostilities. It later transpired that our escort had been held up by the fighting in town and he never showed up until we arrived at Jaji. A full three hours after our arrival at the airport, we were all thankful to be within what we considered to be the safe confines of the Cantonment. Ordinarily, the trip takes less than an hour. Safely ensconced in our living quarters within the Officers Mess, we prepared for the week's work.
Things went rather smoothly afterwards in the circumstance. The avidity of the officers to learn was something that struck me. And I must say that I found this to be in sharp contrast to the outlook of politicians amongst whom I had recently operated. But that is a story for another day. The killings and reprisals reportedly continued but the military had been deployed all across the known trouble-spots in Kaduna and the State Government had resorted to the extraordinary exigency of a 24-hour curfew. Life went on within the College and I guess we all felt safe.
Tuesday evening was to jolt us all back to the reality unfolding just a few kilometres away from us. News had come that fleeing townspeople from Jaji town had massed at the gates of the College in search of a safe haven as the hostilities spread. They were being refused entry as the authorities of the College ordered the gates shut. That Tuesday evening we were at the mess for a review of the day's activities when someone informed us of the situation at the gates. One of the officers with us, probably a Lieutenant-Colonel, then intoned that here we were all feeling safe and then asked: what if shooting started in the barracks? What if people started noting the ethnic or religious affiliation of those being stopped at the gates? It was food for thought and I doubt that many of us civilians in their midst slept comfortably that night.
I was due to travel out of the country that Thursday and although I had planned to stay in Jaji after my last paper on Wednesday to take in the sights, after that meeting, I found myself making plans to leave. Thus, after my presentation on Wednesday, I set forth. I was not alone. The College authorities were gracious enough to arrange a military escort to lead us to Abuja as the Kaduna Airport had been shut. I doubt that I had ever travelled with so many armed men in the same vehicle. Getting out onto the highway, one was quick to note that Kaduna was in a lockdown the like of which I had not witnessed since the March 2000 religious riots. Bodies littered the streets and there was a particularly gory sight at a checkpoint near the gates of the Army 1st Division with a writhing body with wounds in a military vehicle and a couple of youth being whiplashed and frog-marched. I am sure my colleague, Opeyemi Agbaje, was as relieved as I was when we eventually got to the airport in Abuja.
Jaji came back into my recollection with the suicide bombings of last Sunday. This time it was the military cantonment itself that was the target of suicide bombers, or even more ominously, a religious worship centre. The immediate thought that occurred to me on hearing the news was: What if there are reprisals at the Jumat service? It then occurred to me that while we were being ferried off to Kaduna on that June day, none of us entertained any doubts that we were in safe hands. Are we likely to be heading for that day when, similarly circumstanced, it would matter what faith the man escorting you professed or what language he spoke?
When national institutions such as the military become the theatre of contests, things can get very messy indeed as the ensuing wars are no longer impersonal. I was not old enough to know what happened in 1966 and 1967 but those who were tell of strange and gory things happening in the army barracks, especially in Abeokuta and Ikeja in those days. There is really an eerie feeling about while we all carry on as though we were in a trance. As we continue to share allocations and purchase our private jets and play games with subsidy money and jet out on expensive holidays, a huge battle is raging for control of the Nigerian state. I get a sense that we are being baited towards a denouement of sorts and that the attack on Jaji is meant to raise the ante.
The Chinese poet Li Xian once warned that "Thunder erupts amidst silence". As we continue to work and pray for the downfall of our political enemies and busily strategize over whether the 2015 elections produce an Ijaw president or a Kanuri or a Fulani or an Igbo and, life seemingly goes on. But let us be warned that there may be some people, some place pushing for a theocratic reconstruction of the Nigerian state where that question may no longer matter. And for those who may think they are on top of the game as sponsors and puppeteers of the on-going violence, let them ponder the fate that befell Americans who sponsored and armed the Afghan mujahedeen. For after all is said and done, Osama bin Laden was a creation of US policy in the final battles with the Soviet Union. We must all beware of the law of unintended consequences. Anyone who had seen footage of the last moments of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena before their summary execution would know that when some battles are joined, no one - not even the most powerful - has any control over the outcome. We all need to beware lest we find ourselves taking a medication that could turn out to be a lot worse than the ailment.
Samuel is a Visiting Fellow at University of London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies.