Seated on a mat with their needles and threads, weaving embroideries on northern caps in production, the four young men appeared as if they had no care in the world. But the moment they started sharing with me their horrifying stories, it became clear that behind the veneer of that calmness were scars that may never heal.
The story started one early morning in 2014, in Banki, Bama local government area of Borno State, when the residents were roused from sleep by booms from guns. With the invasion of Boko Haram insurgents that followed, everybody in town started to run into the bush before embarking on journeys to nowhere that lasted several days for those who survived. Eventually, these young men landed in a Cameroonian village from where they found their way back to an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Yola, Adamawa State where they would spend the next two years.
The foregoing summary does not tell the tragic story of horror, blood and tears recounted for me on Tuesday at Dalori IDP camp on the day residents of Banki ran for their lives, some only in their underwear. Today, many cannot locate their parents or children or siblings nor are they sure as to whether these relations are still alive or dead. As I moved quietly within the camp, with a strong warning that if any of the patrolling soldiers knew of my presence, there would be trouble, I met another set of men who congregated under a tree. They were all Fulani. Five years ago, according to their account, they were living in Damasak until Boko Haram took over the area and they fled to Baga. A few weeks ago, their nightmare resurfaced when Boko Haram struck Baga and they had to flee without their herds that are now history. But then the question, what was I doing in Maiduguri?
Last week in Abuja, the Girls Child Concerns (GGC), an NGO being promoted by Dr Mairo Mandara, held a summit which attracted traditional and religious leaders from 22 African countries to discuss the plights of girl child on the continent with special focus on education. It is part of Mandara’s efforts to elevate the conversation on maternal and child health and the status of women and girls, against the background that education is central to addressing complex challenges like health, poverty and conflict. But my interest is more on what GGC is doing in Maiduguri with the victims of Boko Haram and I have for the past two years been promising Mandara thatI would visit her projects.
In fulfilment of that promise, I left for Maiduguri on Monday though if I knew that President Muhammadu Buhari was also visiting that day, I probably would have postponed my own plan. But aside the discomfort of our aircraft being forced to roam in the air for about 20 minutes before being allowed to land, the upside is that the presidential visit meant that security was beefed up in the state that has become notorious for insecurity. And I learnt a lot within the 24 hours that I spent in Maiduguri.
With the general election less than a month away, I am aware that most of my readers are more interested in politics, especially with the media space awash with stories of huge crowds of idle people being drawn to campaign grounds at working hours on weekdays; celebrations of the ability by a candidate to spend one night in America; the desperate efforts to remove the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) who, I must add, has not done himself any favour with revelations that call to question not only his personal integrity but that of the judiciary he heads etc. In between, President Olusegun Obasanjo has lately been very busy, writing his usual seasonal letter to the incumbent, and following up with strong statements. But there is nothing in what is going on that we have not seen before which is why I have elected to invest my time on issues that directly impact the most vulnerable of our society.
Although more renowned for her extensive interest in public health as an obstetrician-gynaecologist by training with Fellowship from the Faculty of Public Health, United Kingdom Royal College of Physicians, Mandara’s efforts with vulnerable girls became her central focus after she left the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the Country Director. With what I saw in Maiduguri, I must commend her for the job she and her team are doing not only to improve the lives of several girls through education but also for the forward-thinking that has birthed an expansive skills’ acquisition centre that is currently under construction with funding support from the King of Morocco’s Foundation.
The moment I arrived Maiduguri on Monday, Mandara took me straight to the Bakkassi IDP camp where Boko Haram victims from five local governments are sheltered. There, I met the women who have been organised into a cooperative that offers them opportunity to learn different trades that would be useful for them to stand on their own when they eventually return to their villages. Under the Community Health Extension Workers (CHEW) programme, Mandara is also training selected women and girls in healthcare so that they can provide basic health services like treating malaria, helping in ante natal care and nutrition, administering oral rehydration therapy (ORT) to prevent and treat dehydration etc. The essence of the training, according to Mandara, is because health workers have deserted the communities attacked by Boko Haram and may not want to return when the villagers go back.
On Tuesday morning, we visited Government Girls College where some of the GGC scholars are students. These are girls that were picked from the camps and were interviewed. The promising ones are being put in schools in Kaduna, Katsina and Maiduguri with their tuition fully paid by Mandara’s GGC that draws support from friends and some international partners. Four of the girls are currently in the United States where one is about to enter university to study medicine. As we drove around Maiduguri to see her projects, my interactions with Mandara were quite revealing on the impact of Boko Haram insurgency on women and girls in Borno and what the future portends unless there is a massive intervention by all stakeholders.
The Dalori camp that I visited on Tuesday, I must say, is well-maintained, unlike many such camps across the country. But what is also evident at the camp is the inequality that defines our society. Mandara told me that the rent prices are skyrocketing in Maiduguri. Although she believes it’s because of the presence of many international agencies, there is also a variable that she is not looking into: the pressure from prominent people within the state who uproot their families from the rural communities. Those are not people who stay in camps!
The tragedy of Boko Haram comes in different dimensions and I heard heart-rendering stories. For instance, my guide recounted a recent attack on Gwange village where the insurgents killed a popular Imam. “We heard that they left instructions that the Imam should not be buried but that made no sense. The next day, we all gathered for the burial. All of a sudden, we started hearing gunshots and we abandoned the corpse and ran for our lives. A few hours later, Boko Haram men came back to the village to kill the Imam who was leading the prayer at the burial ground.”
There is also a growing pattern that the authorities must pay attention to. Those who fled Baga attest to the fact that they were actually given the option to stay or leave and the insurgents who came were almost civil in their approach, preferring only to engage the military. I understand they were men of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) led by Abu Musab Al-Barnawi. He is said to be polite and completely different from Abubakar Shekau renowned for his extreme violence. But that makes Al-Barnawi even more dangerous.
While I intend to interrogate the resurgence of Boko Haram and other terror affiliates another day, I must express my concerns about the growing desperation for power by politicians in both the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). if there is any lesson I learnt from the IDP camps in Borno State, it is that we must do everything to avoid anything that would engender another humanitarian crisis in our country before, during and after the general election.
In his book, “Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places”, Paul Colliermakes dire predictions about how ballots could easily lead to bullets, especially in developing countries with weak institutions and where there is a clear absence of accountability in governance, a category to which Nigeria belongs. At a period we expect serious campaigns on critical national issues, including the strike that has kept students of our public universities at home for almost three months, the growing desperation for power speaks to the possibilities of violence after the election if care is not taken.
In his Vanguard Newspaper Lecture last week, Fate Foundation Chairman, Mr Fola Adeola, who spoke on ‘12 giant evils’ confronting our country, also raised several critical questions. But it is his conclusion that should serve as food for thought for those who love our country: “If we continue to ignore the reality that we are a country on the precipice, it is almost certain that we will fall over. It can get worse, and there are examples all around us. Yemen, Sudan, Libya, the DRC; these are all countries with people who also pray to ‘the living God’. Between the opioid optimism of the religious, and the parochial preoccupation with the nuclear that numbs the elite, we are stumbling towards Armageddon. And the thing about Armageddon is it engulfs all: the poor, the rich, the innocent and the guilty.”
What the foregoing says very clearly is that on top of all that the troubles that ail us in Nigeria, we really do not need an election crisis. We should do everything to avoid one!
Femi-Pearse Goes Home
The remains of the late Professor Deji Femi-Pearse, renowned medical practitioner and a former Provost of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), will be committed to mother earth today in Iworo, Badagry. The same community he built the famous Whispering Palms resort, following his retirement from academic life in 1991. At the invitation of his son-in-law, Mr Robert Ade-Odiachi, famously known to many of us younger ones as Uncle Robbie, I flew into Lagos from Maiduguri on Tuesday to attend the Night of Tributes at Muson Centre.
For a man who excelled in the field of medicine before venturing into the hospitality industry where he also built a respected brand, the late Femi-Pearse has left a lasting legacy. This much became evident as eminent professors and captains of industry paid their tributes. There were also hilarious testimonies from Pastor Ituah Ighodalo and others. But the climax of the occasion was the rendition, by a young man, of Frank Sinatra’s evergreen signature song, ‘My Way’. Said to be one of the late Femi-Pearse’s favourite tracks, it is also a fitting tribute to an accomplished man everybody testified lived and died strictly by his own code:
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way…