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My Boko Haram experience

By Gambo Dori

THIS week marks the tenth year when the nation woke up to the bruising clashes in some parts of the Northern states with a religious group that was hardly known then.

Boko Haram, Nigeria
Boko Haram

The group which became better known as the Boko Haram went into a sustained campaign during the stretch of the last ten years, leading to wanton destruction and thousands of deaths in many parts of the country. For many of us who have survived, there is always one gruesome story or the other to tell. I was affected the very first day the notorious group struck.

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July 26, 2009 – the day the Boko Haram saga unfurled simultaneously in Bauchi and Maiduguri, my wife and children were on their way, driving from Abuja through Jos to Bauchi. Their final destination was Maiduguri. They were blissfully unaware of the impending skirmishes to occur that day between security men and the Boko Haram elements in Bauchi on their route, and also at their destination, Maiduguri.

My wife was going back to Maiduguri where she was the head of the Ministry of Women Affairs. She had been on a weekend visit to the family’s homestead in Abuja and was taking some of the children who were on holiday with her. Both my wife and I were born and raised in Maiduguri and had been civil servants there.

We had moved to Abuja at the turn of the millennium. I came on transfer to the Federal Civil Service and she tagged along to work in the Borno State governor’s lodge, Asokoro. When eventually she was promoted, she moved back to Maiduguri, thus setting the stage for our constant shuttle.

The infamous day was a Sunday and I was holed up in my office somewhere in the administrative wing of the Presidential Villa, my place of posting, poring over files to prepare for the week ahead. I was, also, keenly following the movement of my family on phone, through the route they took: Abuja-Keffi-Barde-GidanWaya-Forest-Vom-Jos-Bauchi, etc. As regular travellers it was always frightful being on that route, particularly the stretch from the vicinity of Vom to Kuru, through Bukuru and traversing the length of Jos city, where many innocent lives were lost due to the communal disturbances prevalent to the area in that period.

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When eventually I heard that they were at the tip of Tilden Fulani, a Bauchi State town, just a few kilometres out of Jos, I heaved a sigh of relief. I thought the worst part of the journey was over. I lost concentration on their movement until I heard a report, an hour or two after, over the BBC Hausa afternoon service, about an on-going fight between security forces and religious fanatics in Bauchi.

I immediately became alarmed because I knew the ramifications of such fights. We had once lived through the Maitatsine bloody clashes in Bulumkuttu, Maiduguri, in 1982, and could vividly recall the carnage we witnessed. The Maitatsine goup, a fanatical gang took over that strategic settlement linking the town with the airport, including the only highway linked to the rest of the country. When the police were overwhelmed the military had to be called in. It was after days of heavy fighting and untold trauma on Maiduguri citizens that the fanatics were subdued.

I tried getting my wife on the phone to put her on the alert but there was no contact. I looked for information from all the usual sources and they all confirmed my fears that a serious fight was going on in Bauchi and indeed it was with religious fanatics. I became frantic, phoning intermittently until after what seemed like a very long time my wife called to say they were getting out of Potiskum which is some 200 kilometres away from Bauchi. I enquired from her if she noticed anything unusual when they were passing through Bauchi she replied in the negative. I heaved another sigh of relief and went back to my files.

That was after 4.00 pm. Some moments before the call for the maghrib prayers when I was preparing to leave the office, I had a call from Maiduguri coming from a friend living in the State low-cost estate intimating that a confrontation was going on between one of the influential Mallams and security men. Mohammed Yusuf, the mallam was well-known for incendiary sermons, denouncing Western education and its influence. He had carved out an enclave for himself in Galadima ward, near the railway station, adjacent to the State low-cost estate,where he built his palatial residence and a mosque with a string of homes for his numerous acolytes. The whole area was known as Markaz, an Arabic word denoting headquarters.

I had recently seen a congregation of his followers in the night in the vicinity of Mai Saje’s mosque near the zoo in the GRA. I cannot recall details of the occasion but I remember seeing them milling around, most of them on motor cycles, all in similar gears meant to intimidate: white dresses, distinctive short trousers, donning weird turbans and sporting grassy long beards. I have heard of their encounters with the police, always embellished to enhance their group’s unassailability.

I became more worried and rushed to inform my wife but they were probably getting to the end of their journey driving through Jakana, Mainok and Auno, the string of villages in the outskirts of Maiduguri, where phone services were very poor. By the time we spoke, they were already crossing Bulumkutu, and I realised they were still not aware of the enormity of what had happened in their wake or what was developing in Maiduguri.

By the time they drove into the GRA where our home was situated, the conflagration that was raging in the railway/low-cost estate zone had engulfed much of the northern parts of Maiduguri and security forces had decreed a curfew on the whole city, restricting movements, so as to give them enough space to deal with the situation that was almost overwhelming them. When my family settled at home they found that they could not go out again. There was confusion everywhere as people were running helter-skelter. My wife was constantly on the phone relating the boom-boom sounds they were hearing from all directions.

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As reported later, it was probably about that time that the fanatics were fanning out of their enclave and were attacking to kill anyone in uniform. Their first port of call was the nearby police station which they reduced to rubble, killing all the policemen they could find. Next, was the New Prison, situated adjacent to the State low-cost estate, where they attacked and killed all the prison staff they could find. They also opened the gates of the prison to let the inmates to escape.

The mayhem had just begun and would continue for most of the week, taking its toll mainly on the people living in the Lamisula and Gamboru areas. The marauding fanatics would even become so emboldened as to take the fight to the Police in their homes, attacking the Mobile Police Training College and murdering its second in command. In their misguided fury the fanatics set fire to the homes of the policemen and killed a number of them undergoing promotional training courses. The Nigerian Army had to be finally called in and it would take a sustained fight of some gruesome five days to subdue them and capture their leaders.

For me, that Sunday was one long day of stress and trauma. And this went on for all the week. One could do nothing but wait. Fortunately, the situation stabilised at the weekend. The curfew was lifted and we celebrated the end of the skirmishes thinking that the nightmare was over, and we could carry on our lives as it were. We didn’t know that the nightmare was just beginning….

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