Paradoxically, the crisis in Borno is one reason to be optimistic about its future: so much can be gained by getting just a few things right. Fortunately, talking to Governor Kashim Shettima and his lieutenants is enough to inspire one that they are indeed set to get so much right, and the Land of the Shehus will outlive Boko Haram. Shekau and his godless band have clearly picked the wrong terrain for their murderous adventure.
Unfortunately, once you mention to almost anyone that you are off to Maiduguri the response is often a depressing silence. For many, it is like “What? Are you mad?” Others would pause a while and then anxiously ask what is taking you there, while the rest would look at you with concern, verging on pity. It’s like you have been handed an automatic death sentence, recklessly venturing into Boko Haramistan, without writing your last will and testament.
On my part it was no big deal; my kids go there almost every month, so do many friends and aged relatives, so I was not too apprehensive. Which is not to say I did not have my misgivings; too many reported explosions. Do I really have to go? Yet a promise is a promise, and I was going by air, so I packed a bag and proceeded to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.
The flight itself was on time, very smooth and quite ordinary. But for a few NGO-types, and several security operatives that you can easily identify by their carriage, all the others were clearly ordinary Borno people, with their colourful head wraps and hand-knitted Zanna Bukars, that beautiful but expensive Kanuri cap made famous by the First Republic minister of the same name.
Being among in-laws, I felt quite at home. Despite speaking no Kanuri I could understand everyone since Hausa is the lingua franca, while the cabin crew spoke English. Kanuri is not very useful outside its enclave.
Looking out of the window, as the plane descends approaching our destination, one cannot help but notice that while the rains have been good there is hardly any cultivation. There were no crops. Most of the inhabitants had fled their villages in fear of Boko Haram.
Maiduguri Airport, though not totally deserted, was clearly free of hustlers, and the security was palpable and reassuring. The town itself was a totally different matter. With almost half the population of the state cramped tightly into such a small space, it was a bustling and bubbling metropolis, just as I remember it, with the one noticeable exception; motorcycles have been banned because of security concerns. These have been replaced by thousands of Keke Napeps, and they seem to outnumber cars almost three-to-one. Otherwise it is just another city in the semi-arid North, and everyone was going about his or her business, until 9.00 pm when, as I was made to understand, the town shuts down.
Although Boko Haram has devastated other parts of the state, and had threaten Maiduguri many times, the combination of our fighting men and the ever-vigilant valiant volunteers of the youthful Civilian JTF have completely secured the city. The people are understandably still very alert, but thanks to the commendable example of the governor, his officials, and many of the elites who refused to run away, they have taken the brave stand of refusing to be chased out from the land of their ancestors.
The children go to school, the women go to the markets, most shops remain open, while the employed (mostly government workers) go to work. Even the refugees in IDP camps keep themselves busy trying to earn a little extra. One cannot fail to be impressed by the apparent normality in these abnormal times. Maiduguri is indeed the land of the valiant. Bravery is after all not the absence of fear: it is the courage to stand and fight when and where necessary.
As a guest of “The Engineer”, I was privileged to visit the Farm Centre and see for myself, along with some USAID officials, the green houses (for seeds development) under construction, and hundreds of tractors, harvesters, planters and other implements procured for the crops, vegetables and fodder programmes in the offing, along with the machinery for oil and rice mills waiting for the insurgency to be over so that they could be moved to the rural areas. I also sat through many briefings on the current and future plans being developed and implemented.
While my visit was unexpectantly cut short (my host had to rush out to Abuja on his way to China) I flew out with the satisfaction that even within this crisis, which has engulfed Maiduguri and the rest of Borno State, one can still discern some seeds of hope, starting with the issue of seeds themselves. While Boko Haram has virtually put an end to all farming activity in most places, and have stolen all the harvest forcing people to eat up their reserves (and even the seeds for next seasons planting), the scarcity of seeds itself may offer an good opportunity for progress. Most of the traditional seeds are low-yielding, and have little resistant to drought, pests and weeds anyway. This is why the State Government is embarking on a big multiplication program for the appropriate seeds farmers would require for the coming planting seasons. This should improve yields and incomes.
Also, with many able-bodied men killed or displaced, labour will be scarce so there is an extensive agric-mechanisation work in the offing.
The Civilian JTF experiment also means that the youth have already been mobilised. Once the insurgency is over they would need education especially of the vocational and technical type. Many have matured quickly and are the bread-winners in their families. They will be the foci for modern agriculture and SMEs.
My impression is that many of the older refugees and widows with several small children would not leave Maiduguri any time soon. Suddenly used to three free meals a day (including meat and chicken), clean portable water, some electricity, and even free clothing in the IDP camps many would be reluctant to go back to their villages. One traditional barber was overheard saying he makes about N1,500 a day just shaving four or five people, and he is not about to go back to collecting 40 to 50 Naira per head in a village, often having to even wait for days before being paid.
The villages themselves have been mostly razed to the ground and perhaps they should be left as they are. Many are too small, too scattered and unviable. They cannot all be provided with schools, clinics, portable water or lights. Their unfortunate destruction could still be an opportunity to re-locate and re-group them for more viable provision of social services and rural infrastructure.
Borno is large, mostly fertile and sparsely populated, just like the rest of the insurgency-ravaged Northeast. With Kashim Shettima’s plans for grazing reserves, cattle routes, fodder development and water for cattle, along with modern ranches, Borno may even offer hope for the future of cattle-rearing, helping to ease the current conflicts being experienced due to resource-use conflict elsewhere. But don’t tell a Fulani man that his future may lie in the hands of the Kanuri!
Conflicts often offer opportunities for rebirth. Frankly, so much appears to be going on in Borno and I can’t wait to get back and learn, and hopefully see the future unfolding. Your prayers for a safe return, yes; but don’t cry for me just because you hear that I am on my way back to the battle ground of the El-Kanemis, of Rabeh and now for some misguided bunch, whose time would soon end, called Boko Haram. There is no doubt that Mega-Chad is going to be important for our future.
By the way, anybody out there in the know regarding Buhari’s plans for the Northeast? Please let me into the secret.
(published by Sanusi Abubakar in Daily Trust Newspapers of 2nd November, 2015)