I Am A Stranger In My Town,By Suleiman M. Dikwa

Maiduguri, or Yerwa Fato, as popularly referred to by the indigenes has become a grave, deadly place. It now seems like eternity since the last time I visited Maiduguri. My daughter has never been to my home town, Maiduguri due to the incessant crises. I and my immediate family have tried to avoid the town as much as possible. I got married in 2009 and I took my wife home to see my parents only to see the whole town explode in unimaginable violence on the day we were leaving. In fact, we narrowly escaped attack as the Force Head quarters was attacked by the adherents of late Mohammed Yusuf barely minutes after we drove past the place. I will rather refer to them as such as I do not believe in their version of Islam .

Following my younger brother’s scheduled marriage on the 5th of January, 2013, it became inevitable that I had to travel to Maiduguri. Unlike in the past, going to Maiduguri now is no longer about the wherewithal to travel but rather, it’s about how to get there alive. Therefore, we decided to go through Biu through Gombe State instead of the normal route of Bauchi, Potistkum and Damaturu. Another issue was to wear no beard. My friend Sani came in with his “Lagos gemu” but admonished him to shave immediately to avoid undue attention. The JTF could have issues with your “gemu” whereas the insurgent radicals, called Boko Haram may target you for being clean shaven or a suspected spy. So, often, it is like finding oneself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Having decided what to wear and the route to follow, we set out on a very cold morning from Jos, another place that is regaining peace. On approaching Bauchi the gate way to the north east the security presence increased and the effect of the crisis has led to the main route to both Adamawa and Gombe being shut down so we had to do a detour in order to access Gombe road. We did not have any prior knowledge of this, reflecting how much of strangers we have become in our land .

I have traveled through over 20 states by road all through the regions of Nigeria in the past year. The full forces of the military are back. Never before, in my lifetime, have I witnessed such military presence on the streets of Nigeria, road blocks have become a feature of our lives. Prepare to spend at least two hours of your journey at the road blocks. “Where are you coming from?” “Where are you going to?” That seems to be the standard question by security personnel on the road from Jos to Gombe and the intermittent “oga happy new year”; “we dey under sun”; “we wan buy pure water”. As I have observed on my many trips anything you carry in your vehicle from bread to firewood attracts some obligatory levy. You wonder how such disposition helps in catching the criminals.

The questions change when you enter Borno state. “What do you do?”;  “I am an entrepreneur”, I answer. “Do you have an ID. card?”; “No, I have a business card”. You no longer drive through at the same time. You only approach the checkpoint if you are directed to do so. There was relative calm in southern Borno from Bayo, Kwaya Kusar to Biu . We got to Damboa around 3.00 p m. We have ran out of cigarettes. We stopped at a kiosk and asked for water and Benson. Benson? No Benson in this town. “No you can’t be serious” I protest. “Allah babu, kalu ka yarda?”  We could not find any cigarettes. Later I leant through a friend from Damboa district in Borno state that insurgents have stopped the sales of cigarettes, alcohol, Hausa movies in most parts of Borno.

Growing up in the ‘home of peace’ in the heart of the town along the Dandal neighborhood, the Igbos were some of my best friends. They lived among us. I learnt a bit of Igbo language from my friends. Their shops are along the famous Dandal way. They deal in books, electrical materials, beverage stores and other services. I know the town well and can find my way around. Anyone can go anywhere years back. But today I cannot find my way to my sister’s house. The way that I know has been blocked by soldiers. I had to seek another way to my destination. So much has also changed architecturally in Maiduguri. There are many new big buildings thanks to the ring of noveau rich changing the landscape but unable to dwell and do business. I can’t recognize my town. The neem trees are disappearing. Good looking, but deserted buildings are springing up. The big men are on the run in Borno .

I had to ask questions to navigate streets in the old GRA. The military are everywhere. Fear is palpable in the air, you can feel it. You can see it.  Maiduguri where people like staying outside in the evenings to enjoy the air and allow the rooms to cool down because of the scorching heat. People no longer stay outside. We can’t hang out in ‘down town’ a place many youths in the area are fond of. Everyone is afraid of becoming an easy target of either Boko Haram or the Joint Task Force. People stare at you with suspicion. It could be dangerous if you are a stranger in the streets of Maiduguri. There’s always the warning from apprehensive family members: “Do not go where you are not known”.

I got home and the gist is about the crisis in town. I could not go and greet anybody or catch up with old friends. Despite the curfew being 9pm people leave for their homes as early as 6pm. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the guns. We have to design a strategy to be at my brother’s wedding fatiha. It has to be a hit and run thing. People no longer have dinners or elaborate weddings. We decided to meet at a designated point by 8 am. It was just outside the old GRA. I picked my security guide and we headed in the direction as advised. He tells about young boys of 18 or so killing and maiming people with their AK47 riffles. We waited outside. I ask, “but why will they kill me, am a Muslim”.  “Religion is no longer the only issue”, I am told. The oppressed have revolted and are killing the rich especially those in government. Thieves and robbers have taken up arms and are stealing and killing at will. Boko Haram sect members are killing and soldiers are killing as well.

Many are tortured to death every day, the outcry by the international human rights organization is evident to me and everyone in Maiduguri. Many have deserted their homes and moved to the villages. Still waiting at the junction and when all were around we proceeded to the wedding. I saw a young boy who fits the presumed profile of the dreaded sect members. My heart jumped to my mouth. We were in a Boko Haram strong hold. The groom cannot advertise himself because he may be shot by an envious lover. His close friend was killed the same way so we planned that he leaves Maiduguri immediately after the wedding.

They were late and suspicious looks are being cast our way. We called and we were told that the Dandal neighborhood from where he was coming from has been cordoned off by military personnel and they can’t come out. The groom had sought the permission of the sector commandant to do his wedding. We were pondering whether to go ahead and do the wedding without the others when a call came that the sector commander has given them right of way.

We lost the trail of the car we were following. I hope we are not lost. Suddenly, we were at a junction and there they were, what a relief. The fatiha was quickly said. We drove out quickly and headed to my sister’s enclave now. The youths of the area have all nearly been arrested she states, on suspicion of partying close to the quarters of the insurgents, we headed back to town. There were gun shots, which has become normal to the residence. We got back to the hotel and were talking about the situation.  My big brother is in to see me, why the violence I ask “hauchi ne”(anger of the oppressed) he said . My friend, a bank manager had to use a beat up car to attend a wedding, very soon there will be no big man in Borno, no big cars, because it could get you killed.

It was morning. We had to leave town. I could not go to Lamisula for my Kanuri delicacies. It is too dangerous for a culinary delight. I threw my hand out of the car window, and I got a stern warning. This is much worse than I thought.  The Boko Haram phenomenon started by adherents of late Yusuf has become a monster. And it has turned me into a stranger in my town.

Dikwa can be reached at [email protected]