Like a victim of a ghastly accident, Kano went into a coma last January when it recorded the most elaborate bomb attack yet in the country. The scale was as devastating as it was elaborate. Over 150 people were killed and hundreds injured that afternoon. The city was thrown into uncertainty about its future. Some felt it was its version of 9/11. Many feared it would go the line of the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno, where all activities remain in constant state of paralysis for more than one a half years. Few – and I was not one of them – entertained the hope that it would overcome the shock and not only forge ahead but also regain its vibrancy in the few months ahead.
That was the physical and mental states of Kano when I visited it last February for the first time after the bombings and before I continued on my tour of the bomb-affected areas of the North then. The old Kano of traffic jams at junctions, of two-million okadas polluting its air, of hundreds of thousands of richly packed shops, of several supermarkets that remain open until midnight, of seven million people each waking up every morning to one commercial activity or another, of clubs and cinemas, “of women and vehicles”, as Shata would put it, was pathetically absent.
The new Kano I met three weeks after the attack was totally strange. It was a patient in the intensive care unit. It was a Kano that very few traders would visit, of few opened shops, empty streets, scarce and difficult movement, checkpoint in every hundred meters, few commercial vehicles, and people trekking on its roads. There were no customers for the few shops that opened even in the large Sabongari market. Few Igbo traders remained after sending their families back to their hometowns in the East. At Kantin Kwari, there were no traders to buy the bulk textile materials. They hardly came. Those who came arrived late due to checkpoints, and leave early to avoid spending the night in their buses and trucks due to same reason. The market had to close at 4.00pm and the scamper for the few buses to convey people to their homes would immediately start. Many would start to trek. At the bus stop along the nearby Ibrahim Taiwo Road, I saw many men and women compete in joining the one or two buses that arrived after a long wait, some getting in through the booth, some through the window, and only few through the door because it was blocked by disembarking passengers. Life, with all the vastness of its space and time, was reduced to few hours and places .My heart appealed to my eyes for tears. I restrained them and allowed it only to share in the sorrow of the departing passengers. I took few snapshots of the scene of despair and confusion at the bus stop before starting to trek back to the hotel.
Back in my room, I sat down to review my experience of that day. My mind remembered Uzair, the prophet who once passed by the ruins of an ancient city and wondered, asking, “How long would it take God to revive this city after its death.” The same question readily came to me: how long would it take the city of Kano to regain its normalcy? And would that path be littered with blood, rape, arson, summary executions and other human right abuses that characterized the path of Maiduguri? How long would the distress last?
The following day, I gave my advice to the authorities before I headed for the epicenter of the crisis, the two states in former Borno State. My experience there made me pray that Kano be spared from the pain and horror of their unending trauma.
Less than six months after the first attack, God in his mercy seems to have answered our prayer. As I now sit in the hotel to write this article, I can hear that the noise of the old city has returned, including that of a train that is filling the air with its siren. In the past one week I have been in the city, I have seen almost everything return to normal except for those things that would require time to heal. I have gone round in the mornings to witness children going to school like it was before and just as in other cities. All schools are open. I have witnessed vehicles take over the streets at dawn and continue to build up their presence as the days grow. Throughout the town, I have seen shops open – all shops, except those that are near police stations. At the peak of activity, I have visited the Sabongari and Kantin Kwari markets, as well as the numerous Igbo spare part shops in the neighbourhood of Ibadan Street. I could breathe freedom and calm in the surrounding atmosphere.
I interviewed a number of traders, each of whom expressed delight at how quick the recovery took place. In particular, I met the family of Ugochukwu, the satellite parts dealer, in his shop. His daughter, Chidimma, told me that they returned to Anambra after the January bombings. Now they are back. With little reservation, she agreed that there is little to worry about now, except that business is still not as much as it was before the bombings. At France Road where last February I listened to traders complaining about the closure of their shops in the whole segment of the dual carriage street where a police station is located, I found all shops opened, though traffic is still controlled on the side of the station.
“We are happy that traffic now flows freely, unlike before”, said Auwalu, a dealer of ceramic plates and other kitchen wares at Sabongari market, when I interviewed him. “Our only remaining problem is the 6.00pm ban on motorcycles”, he complained. Though he corroborated Chidimma’s assessment that business has not fully returned, he nevertheless expressed delight that it is picking up, especially from the past one month. “Auwalu”, I tried to remind him, “when you wake up from illness, it takes time to fully recover your apetite and vigor. Let us hope that the trend continues and very soon you will see your customers return fully.”
Across the road and on the recently rehabilitated overhead pedestrian bridge, I took the photographs of the mass of people below who were preoccupied with their businesses on both sides of Murtala Mohammed Way. I took the steps down and as I walked up Bello Road, I found myself greeted by hundreds of small and large trucks, each loading bulk household items like flour, biscuits, soaps, etc. This is the centre of bulk commerce in Kano. On the eastern side of Ado Bayero Street that cuts across Bello Road, I found trucks of Alhaji Harisu and other traders from Niger Republic that come to Kano for trade every Saturday and Tuesday. “Are things okay now, Alhaji,” I asked him. “Wallahi”, he replied, “we are grateful to God. Things have normalized and all my colleagues have resumed their weekly trips.”
I took Ado Bayero Street to Kantin Kwari. It was a fascinating scene. Kano is really great. Sometimes I just wonder how these traders, most of whom we deride as ‘illiterates’, successfully coordinate their transactions hitch free so much so that we take for granted the availability of the little items they provide in our neighbourhoods. If we the elite had shown similar commitment in our various offices, this country would have been great. On that street, all shops were opened and everybody was consumed in business.
At its southern end, the street ushered me into Ibrahim Taiwo Road, which I crossed to embrace the famous Kantin Kwari market. The spectacular sight of thousands of shops stocked with wrappers and other textile materials was just overwhelming. This is the lake that would quench the thirst of every Nigerian girl interested in traditional dress. I doubt if a better collection of wrappers and brocades would be found anywhere in the world. As I walked on one of its lines, a voice shouted at me, “Stop Malam.” I turned back to notice a familiar face. It was Hamisu, my guest when I visited the market in February. He asked me: “Wasn’t it here where you stopped some months ago, bought us oranges and asked us some questions? You were holding the same camera.” I nodded. We chatted for a while and I asked him about the position of trade now. Hamisu sounded pessimistic. “Still, things are not back to where they were”, he said. I concurred, but persuaded him to appreciate the development: “But there aren’t those many checkpoints you were complaining about the other time, neither is the curfew now 4.00pm. In fact, except for motorcycles, you can now stay outside until midnight.” He agreed, but, again, he was quick to express how the limitation on motorcycles hampers the activities of small traders. He said, “Not all of us have cars. Every major trader has boys who travel by bike. So once it is time, they have to close shop and head for home before it is too late. Wallahi, once it is six you would find it difficult to ride your bike in some areas beyond the major roads. I wish the ban (doka) will be shifted to say 8.00pm.”
That evening, I went out to see how the city looks like at night. From Suleiman Crescent, I left to visit a friend at New Site, Bayero University. I noticed a congestion of traffic along Post Office Road. “That is always how it is because of the ban on motorcycles once it is six,” said Muhammadu Auwalu that I found selling engine oil by the roadside. I made the mistake of passing through the Emirs palace where the checkpoint also creates another jam at dusk. As I drove up towards Kabuga, I realized that there were more roadblocks in the city at night. During the day, however, they are reduced to the barest minimum. If you were to enter the town from Hadejia, you will meet only one check point from the first roundabout you hit on the eastern ring road up to Kofar Nassarwa. That would be the one on Ahmadu Bello Way, just after the railway crossing. And if you were to go straight through Murtala Mohammed Way, until you reach Babban Titi after Rijiyar Lemo, which is like traversing the entire city, you would not find a single checkpoint during the daytime. This is a tremendous relief. At night, one would meet several such checkpoints.
I arrived at New Site, stayed there late, and returned to the hotel just before 11.00pm midnight. I wanted to assess the city by the traffic on its streets that late. On my way back, I admired the bright traffic lights that illuminated my path immediately I reached Kabuga Gate and all the way back to the hotel through BUK road. Many motorists could still be seen on the streets.
The night, if I will summarize it, has almost normalized. Large supermarkets and restaurants now open until late, as it was the case before the bombings. I often take my dinner late at Sultan Restaurant along Sani Abacha Way. The atmosphere in the sleeping hours of the night is peaceful. I am only awakened every morning by the call of the dawn prayer from the nearby mosque of Sheikh Ameenuddeen Abubakar.
In all, one has every cause to rejoice. The patient is discharged, though he is still under observation. It will be wrong to think that all is okay and the crisis is over. Though there are still complaints about harassment of citizens by security personnel at checkpoints and about the ban on motorcycles after six as my various guests have pointed out, there is a lot of difference between how government has handled the security situation in Kano from that of other areas. Elders, like the Emir of Kano, have spoken on a number of occasions on such abuses. The state government too has not let the work of the Joint Task Force to paralyze the state. The removal of most of the checkpoints as well as withdrawal of the curfew has contributed in no small measure in stabilizing the situation and give citizens of the city a sense of relief. This may not apply to Maiduguri and Damaturu. There too, elders have spoken but it may be a different situation all together.
Despite expressing this reservation, when all is taken into consideration and the situation is assessed dispassionately, we cannot fail to commend the people of Kano for the courage with which they have faced the challenge. They did not shrink into their shell, like snails in face of danger. They have endured, as I appealed to them in the concluding words of my article, “Weep not, Kano. Be Innovative.” The city might have wept in the moment of the attack – as the Capliph Abbad of Seville wept when his forces were once defeated at Cordova – but it has not allowed the tears to last long. Truly, the great endures great calamities.
Also, the innovation I expected might have come from both the state and federal governments. We may never know the secret. What is however certain is that the treatment they applied to Kano appears to be more effective than the one they gave other cities afflicted by the same plague. Did the two differed in kind or regime, or in both?
As I was editing this article, I received an invitation to interview the state governor along with a team from Newswatch magazine. I asked him what is the secret behind the fast recovery of life in the city. And he modestly answered:
“Kano is a centre of commerce. People of Kano really love peace because they know that without peace there will be no business. When the attack of the 20th happened, people were shocked… We placed a 24 hour curfew. Later we reduced it to 18 hours, then 12 hours, and now 6 hours. We are considering ensuring that there is no curfew in Kano. When you came then you might have seen many checkpoints. As the situation is improving, we kept on reducing the number of checkpoints. Now we have few of them and each one is there for a reason. And very soon we will make sure that they are removed from our streets… Security is the paramount responsibility of any government. And while people are working very hard to ensure that there is security in Kano, at the same time I am calling on everybody to come together and work with us in the interest of the state. This not withstanding, let me say at this juncture that Kano is the centre of knowledge also. We have people who are praying across the state 24 hours a day. In fact, that was why on 29 May instead of celebrating we went to the mosque to pray to Almighty Allah for peace not only in Kano but also throughout the country. The same thing took place in all local governments and wards in the state that day. And you know God is great. We are beginning to see peace coming back in Kano.”
From the modesty of the governor we will now express the caution of his predecessor. I posed the question to Malam Ibrahim Shekarau two days ago at his Mundubawa residence when I asked him to evaluate the performance of Governor Kwankwaso in the past one year. “Your Excellency,” I asked him, “don’t you think that your successor and the federal government deserve some commendation on how they handled the security situation in the state?” His reply was both honest and cautious:
“Well, I commend the effort of both governments – state and federal – particularly the security agencies for being up and doing in terms of trying to restore peace. But I am sure if you crosscheck, you will find that the one day bombing was one big thing that happened at a time and attracted attention. Naturally, that would send the people underground but thereafter the threats have been on. It is almost a daily affair now. There is hardly any forty-eight hours in Kano without you getting a report of some shootings here and there, some people attempting to bomb one place or the other, or police finding a bomb about to detonate, and so on. So the scare is still there. The tension is very much around and people are still completely not at ease.”
True. The shootings and the bombs may not be over. Nobody ever claimed they are. As I write this paragraph, by coincidence, some shootings are reported at FGC Kano. Yet, like other citizens of Kano, I look forward to the day soon when this tension would disappear and that ease would return. Meanwhile, the city, I believe, has bounced back, with its streets free, its markets open and all its traders back to their shops. It should continue to trust in God and remain vigilant. The chance of relapse is always there hanging over patients that suffer such severe strokes. The doctors must not relent in observing the patient. Slowly, he may be completely relieved of his condition, we pray. And may God answer our prayer.
11 June 2012