The day is Sunday, May 30, 2021. I’ll be going to the field again. And this time to another part of the country entirely facing a different, yet similar, set of challenges. It’s exciting. But a bit terrifying too. The region has changed a lot over the past months. Bandits, it seems, are spreading by the day. And nowhere is safe, not the roads, not the schools, not the communities. So, one has to be careful.
I read Abdulkareem Haruna’s kidnapping experience chronicle and realised I just could not afford to have any pictures on my phone that could portray me as having a lot of money. I hope my potbelly does not betray or paint a misleading picture of me.
There was a story on FIJ I read too about how the kidnappers just kill their victims and sell their body parts if they’re unable to raise a sizable ransom. By the time I land at the Abuja airport about three weeks from now, goodness! I will be so glad. Can’t afford to give my rent money to any bandit. Or maybe I’m overthinking all this and it’s really not this bad if you stick to the safe routes (which I plan to do). Wish me luck.
Sokoto — The glass in the cabin wasn’t very clear and I had the bad luck of being assigned to the middle seat, so I couldn’t see much when the plane started to descend. But it was mostly desert land, with shrubs and occasional neem-like trees. There were streams too. Or were they stagnant lakes? The ride in the last 10 or so minutes was quite rough and turbulent. It seemed as though the pilot started descending for a minute and then the next he changed his mind. I accommodated the playful thought that he was perhaps trying to avoid being shot down by terrorists.
Checking WhatsApp, one of the first things I see is a message from Zainab. It’s a Nigeria Travel Advisory developed by PR24 for the month of May. The report classifies 12 states in Nigeria as high-risk places and I happen to be visiting three of them. Only three states are riskier: predictably, Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. I thank Zainab, who has no idea I was travelling, for the thoughtful gesture.
The heat in this city is scalding. My phones were overheating almost every minute I spent outdoors. I have no idea how I’ll conduct interviews successfully if they’ll be done outside, without my phones going to sleep or shutting down.
Good morning. Time to delete my bank transaction alerts. Good enough, I just found that there’s a way to archive the SMS thread, so it’s hidden but still available to the patient, knowledgeable eye.
About an hour into the journey, we sighted a group of young men, about a dozen, on both sides of the road, holding all sorts of machetes and cutlasses. Suspecting my fear, my fixer, Hamisu, quickly explained they were loggers, looking for trees, not humans, to amputate. “But where are the trees?” I asked, seeing mostly desert land and shrubs in the landscape. “Oh, they are inside inside,” he replied.
So, let’s see how many security checkpoints there are between Sokoto and Sabon Birni town. Around Achida, at 8:15 a.m., we come across the first one. One potbellied Mobile Police (MOPOL) officer with an assault rifle is on the road and there’s a patrol van belonging to Operation Puff Adder close by. “We have security on this road,” says Hamisu. Till Sabon Birni? He answers yes. At 8:28 a.m., we meet the second checkpoint. This one has fit-looking military personnel that number at least 10. At 8:58 p.m., we get to another place that’s supposed to be a MOPOL checkpoint but no officer is there. “They comot,” Hamisu explains. “They dey for house.”
One of the men I met in Gatawa, one community in Sabon Birni LGA, passes a snide remark about people living in the state capital. They are afraid to travel down to areas like Gatawa, he said, because they have an exaggerated perception of the crisis.
You know what is frightening here? Sudden motorcycle movements, first of all. Then when a crowd of people start shouting, especially during an interview.
It’s 6:37 p.m. and we’re just leaving Kurawa. It’s rush hour for people running for their lives. It seems the later it is in the day, the more frequently people tend to wish you “safe journey” and “Allah ya kiyaye” (May Allah protect you). It’s the most ominous “safe journey” I’ve ever heard.
We’re no longer going to Sabon Birni town, it’s simply too late. We’re heading directly to Sokoto! Apparently, that alone is still two to three hours long. Allah be with us. We came using the shorter Isa Road, but we’re returning via the Sabon-Birni-Guronyo Road, which is safer.
At 7:15 p.m., I receive a text that welcomes me to the Niger Republic from the local telecoms network, Zamani. We’re still in Sabon Birni, but the road is said to be just about 1 km from Niger, which is on our right side.
At 7:21 p.m., Hamisu takes his hands off the wheels, utters a silent prayer, rubs his palms together for a second or two, and then rubs them on his face. Maybe I should pray too.
At 7:25 p.m., we’re back at the military checkpoint before Goronyo. The personnel on duty is listening to “Ariwo Ko” by the artist formerly known as Adekunle Gold. He flashes his light and approaches to see who is in the vehicle. “Yaya hanya (how is the road)?” he asks before waving us off.
At 79km to Sokoto, the road is extraordinarily lonely. It’s a literal ghost town. Occasionally the headlight catches a fly or a bird swimming in the space before us. More rarely, we see a frog struggling to cross while avoiding getting crushed by the tires. Even more rarely we see a rat darting across. And then humans. Maybe settlements.
At 9:30-something in the morning, it is time to set out again from the 16°c comfort of the hotel room to the over 30°c discomfort of the harsh Sokoto weather. I imagine the sun is the reason a lot of cars here have tinted glasses. They probably don’t even need permits to have them. The heat is enough license.
Looks like today is market day in Achida, the community in Wurno LGA before Goronyo. No wonder I’ve been seeing trucks after trucks and cars and bikes full of cows and goats and people and watermelons and firewood and raffia palms and hefty sacks containing farm produce. We had to take an untarred alternate route to avoid the traffic.
The police are the same everywhere in Nigeria. Just saw one doing that sleight of hand thing with the driver of a truck full of firewood. There are more security checkpoints today, obviously illegal and mostly set up by men of the Nigeria Police. They’re everywhere. It’s 11:43 a.m. and I’ve counted about five already (before the junction leading to Rabah), some without vans, some with unpainted vans, many wearing ill-fitting uniforms. Hamisu confirms that the multiplication is because of the market day. That could be because they are providing more security for traders or simply to seize the opportunity to extort commercial drivers on the unusually busy road.
Hamisu’s elder brother, who had seven children, was killed by bandits last year. Now he is the one taking care of his descendants. He himself has five children of his own and two wives.
“How many people were killed in Gatawa?” he asks rhetorically. “Past 20! They just come and fire everywhere. Gaga-gaga. Everywhere there is bullet.” We sigh and shake our heads.
After we pass a military checkpoint, I comment that it is not easy to wear army fatigue under the hot Sun, and Hamisu says: “It is only soldier that can go to the far side of Gatawa. If you pass Gatawa into Burkusuma, wallahi you can die. Even for afternoon. You will see bandits everywhere, on their motorcycles, with all types of guns hanging on their necks.”
I saw the camels up close for the first time during my visit to Rabah. There are tons of donkeys too. And cows. A camel trudged along at least five times while I was there. They were either carrying leaves or multiple sacks tied together. A boy who could not be more than three or four was even pulling one along. Camels are a mighty animal to behold. Though super slow. But, no one here is really in a hurry to do things anyway.
The road sign says 25 kilometres to Sabon Birni. Hamisu parks the car after staring at me, assuming, I guess, that I can read his mind. I check the side mirror and see something running towards the car. My heart skips a beat. Then I realise it is actually underage hawkers. They are selling tuwon madara (milk candies). And the reason Hamisu stopped was to pee.
It is 12:35 p.m. Hamisu points out that we are now at Garki, the town where we first met people to hear their stories. People are outside. Things are calm. Kids are playing on the streets. At the edge of the town is a lake. Two dark-skinned children, boys, are submerged in it, with their shoulders barely visible. There are blocks of clay at the shores of the water. One group is wet. The other is not.
Read the remaining account for Day IV here: Reporter’s Diary: From Niger Republic To Sokoto … A Night Journey Through ‘Bandit’ Areas
A lot of times, things are worse than people assume. Also, a lot of times, things are not as bad as people assume. I guess it’s a paradox. (And it takes a journalist to know the difference… or to find out in the process of experimenting.)
It’s kind of common to see kids in school uniform roaming the streets of Sokoto at 10/11 a.m. I wonder why. School hours are supposed to be between 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at least.
Today is the day I wake up to discover that the Nigerian government has banned access to Twitter supposedly over the deletion of a divisive, silly, and genocide-romancing tweet from the President.
It is 12:22 p.m. We just passed by a checkpoint of the police, Rabah Division. Two 20-something-year-olds are on the road, wielding heavy sticks. One is wearing a faded bulletproof vest, the second a branded police t-shirt. Two elderly policemen are under a tree by the road, dozing on a mat. The one sitting on his buttocks has his black police shirt unbuttoned to allow the warm breeze access to this trunk. I ask Hamisu why the younger personnel are not holding guns. He replies that they must have left them in the car.
At 12:50 p.m., Hamisu says he will show me along the road the spot where the state governor’s convoy exchanged fire with bandits as they were leaving after an operation, and I suddenly become more alert. “Maybe we will find bullet shells there?” I suggest. A minute later, a military patrol van passes and then the road suddenly fades into a more rugged version of itself. Perfect place for an ambush, I think.
The forest thickens unusually as we proceed. Tall trees. Tall thickets. Right from the roadside. It’s difficult to see the distance.
At 4:42 p.m., we see a man (pretending to) fill potholes in the middle of the road who then hails when we are close to him. I comment that people like that will presumably wait to see an approaching car before getting to work. Then Hamisu talks about how people are their own undoing. How a brother will set robbers on a sibling whom he knows has money so he can get some of it. I say it is also a tactic used to support the kidnapping business. “People are no good,” says Hamisu. “(That is why) everywhere I go, even my wife, I no tell am. If she ask me, I will tell her I am in Sokoto. Ten minutes, she will see me. Wallahi, I’m no agree.”
Zamfara — At least twice I have asked Hamisu if the road to Gusau is safe and twice he’s assured me that it is. I guess we’ll finally find out today.
Time to clear my bank alert texts again and wear the most faded kaftan I have. God. My legs look horrible without creaming. My hands too. But especially my legs. I do hope I look unransomable enough. It’s this potbelly that may be my ruin eventually. Or my phones. Tsk.
At 12:07 p.m., we’re finally on the move. The handsome driver’s name is Awwal. And he just confirmed that the road to Gusau is okay. It’s just that you can never trust locals with assessments like that. And then I hope he doesn’t think I’m asking about potholes or traffic.
At 69 km to Gusau, we just zoomed past a FERM signpost which seemed to have a lot of holes in it. At least 50. From bullets maybe? It’s odd for iron signs to have holes, let alone that many. Only banners made of fabric need it as a windbreaker.
Even the barricades of cement and sandbags at this police checkpoint look like they’ve been subject to a heavy torrent of gunfire. It’s probably nothing. The trip has been uneventful so far. May it remain that way.
At 56 km to Gusau, we just passed an Armoured Personnel Carrier. Not something you’ll usually find as part of highway patrol? But it’s probably nothing.
At 4:44 p.m., in Gusau, I’d barely had any rest at the hotel when my colleague Abubakar and myself set out to visit the Tsunami IDP camp. Before then, I finally learnt that I was right to have been fearful about the trip between Sokoto and Gusau. Last Monday, six days ago, Abubakar was travelling between Gummi and Gusau and then, at a major bend in the road, in Maru LGA (which I passed as well earlier today) close to the mountains, about 50 bandits were sighted crossing the road on their motorcycles. Just between Friday and Saturday, 40 people were killed in Birni Magaji, Abubakar also said. No wonder he sent a message on WhatsApp at past 1 pm saying, “I am praying for your safe trip to Gusau.” He knew just how dangerous the trip was. I was naive. When we met at the hotel, he asked how the trip went. I said, “Oh, it was only about three hours long. It wasn’t that stressful.” Then he replied that it was not about the duration of the journey but the hazards on the road. Oh well, we’re here now. Thank God for journey mercies.
Abubakar should be here by 8:30 am, then we proceed to Gummi about half an hour later. He explained that we couldn’t hit the road any earlier because the hours too close to sunrise are much riskier for travellers. The dynamics bear a striking semblance with those of Sokoto.
We left Gusau at 9:59 a.m. and by noon we’re still on the road (—it leads eventually to Zuru, Kebbi State). We’ve passed Jangebe and Anka and are headed for Gummi where we’ll pass the night.
At one military point we passed earlier, they had about five of these vehicles that look like advanced golf carts painted in military camouflage. They’re probably built for easy manoeuvring of the Savanah terrain and desert sand.
In Gummi, while we wait for a bike for hire, someone breaks the news that there was a serious bandit attack along the same road I travelled yesterday, the Bakura-Tureta axis. The incident took place at night though. Also, last night, there was an attack in Zurmi LGA that left several tens dead.
As people gather in some communities to discuss the latest about football or the weather or politics, it seems when people here meet, the topic of discussion often revolves around the latest attack, where, how close to home, how many were kidnapped, the number of those killed, and the actions and inaction of the security forces etc. Or they banter about how peaceful the times are.
Not being able to speak the local language handicaps the field journalist in so many ways. If the interviewees can speak some English, they will be missing a lot of details because of limitations in vocabulary. If they can’t, you will be needing someone to translate the interviews for you later and may miss essential information out of impatience or incompetence. But maybe even more importantly, you will be missing countless unrecorded nuances while on the field. The conversations of passers-by or people generally who are connected directly or somewhat to the issues at hand. Announcements on the radio. And people who hold back from speaking to you possibly because they don’t trust you enough.
I feel like a terrible person holding up a camera to record as people grieved their kinsmen and are visibly troubled about fresh/ongoing disaster. Yet it is necessary to record these moments, I think.
In Anka, one elderly Internally Displaced Person (IDP) asks us not to stay long in the area because the Emirate tracks journalists and prevents them from publishing their reports. “It is easy for the government officials to be intimated of your presence and they will find a means of stopping you.”
In the evening, on our way from Talata Mafara to Bakura, we see security personnel, members of some special force, extorting taxi drivers and commercial motorcyclists. One rotund personnel with a potbelly and a tight-fitting tee-shirt was moving among an assembly of motorcycles parked on the right and unashamedly collecting their offering like he is some NURTW official.
It is my tenth day on the field. My second day of finally listening to some good music. Second day of not being able to properly brush my teeth (left the items in Gusau). The morning after the second night of not sleeping in a hotel. And the third day of wearing the same clothes. Anyway, “e get one small thing wey dey stress me but right now I’m chilling now.” Finally had some roasted corn last night. Also, had close to three cans of Maltina yesterday. A little win in the middle of the wilderness. Life is good.
There are reports of an attack in a village or two in Dan Sadau, Maru LGA. Sixty women were abducted. Four men were killed. Abubakar has a student who’s from there and is trying to confirm if it is safe to visit and whether the attack really took place yesterday as reported by the BBC.
At 9:11 a.m., we are in Abubakar’s office, making phone calls. It will be difficult to visit Dan Sadau. It’s one of the hardest-hit areas in Zamfara and is constantly under attack. Yusuf Anka told me it’s dangerous. Some days ago, passengers were even ambushed at 1 p.m. by the bandits and killed. Abubakar has not been able to reach his students. Yusuf advised we follow a government convoy if the government is planning a condolence visit. It is typically organised by the Ministry of Security and Home Affairs. But the state governor dissolved all the commissioner positions recently at the same time he sacked his deputy and the emir of Dan Sadau. Also, today is some sort of anniversary and the state has invited neighbouring governors to commission some capital projects. So, the government will likely not be paying any attention to the violent incident and its aftermath anytime soon.
I’ve booked a flight from Katsina to Abuja in advance. 10 a.m., Wednesday, June 16. Max Air. It may be the happiest booking of my life yet. May Allah spare our lives.
At 1:14 p.m., after we finished at Gusau Central Market, we pass by Zamfara Radio and Buhari, my second fixer in Zamfara, points it out. Like Abubakar, he complains about how the radio station isn’t doing real journalism but instead does PR for the government and avoids reportage about the issue of banditry. Every tenure, he says, the Managing Director is changed to ensure the administration is loyal to the government.
While I wait for my breakfast of potatoes and omelette and a call from Buhari as I read a lovely essay submission to Agbowó about Pain as a Nigerian Desire (eventually published here), it occurs to me that great national tragedies have coincided with my two most important reporting field trips. The first one being the crackdown on Nigerians protesting police brutality last October, eventually culminating in the killing of peaceful demonstrators in Lekki and other places. Now, it is the shameful banning of Twitter and clampdown on free speech by the federal government as public officers dance naked to justify the move, ironically, days to the annual celebration of June 12 Democracy Day.
Then there’s the embarrassing media chat where Mr President’s obviously deteriorating mental capacity has once again spoken for itself. Somehow, I’m glad I’m a bit insulated from these events, easier now because of the bad internet network I’m constantly faced with and the fact that Twitter is somewhat difficult to access. Maybe, on the contrary, national tragedies do not coincide with my trips at all. Maybe they just happen, as they do, all the time, sparing no week or month. And maybe some just happen to unavoidably take place during these trips. It’s difficult for people at the grassroots to be enraged by the blocking of access to Twitter anyway. One, many are not on the platform to start with. Then, of course, there are far more pressing issues for them to contend with.
When I set out with Buhari, he talks about how people in the state are afraid to speak against the government on the issue of banditry. The state government is infamous for sending its dogs to arrest and instil fear in people who share write-ups critical of it and speak critically about how it’s handling the problem. A lot of them keep silent after they’re released. The government has also appointed over a hundred special advisers on media who’re young people just to keep its propaganda thriving. I’ve noticed too that many of the IDPs are so overwhelmed by their ordeal that they prefer to just say ‘alhamdulillah’ or ‘Allah taimaka’ when asked about the problems they’re facing. I don’t know if it has to do with the government’s body language. But I’ve certainly noticed the culture of silence and fear more among Zamfara civil servants. It wasn’t this bad back in Sokoto.
At 1:35 p.m., we receive word that about 50 people were killed last night in a village in Zurmi LGA, close to the community from which IDPs we interviewed yesterday came. The injured have been taken to the General Hospital in the local government headquarters for treatment. Buhari talks about another community in Anka LGA (Yan Mantakari) where bandits have laid siege because they refused to pay N1.5 million.
Katsina — It’s the much-awaited 12th day of June. President Buhari has delivered his speech. I’m not sure if protests have commenced. Mom leaves messages on the family WhatsApp group to wish everyone a Happy Democracy Day and confirm that we’re all celebrating it indoors. “Yes oh,” I reply, wondering what time I should call my fixer so we can go to the motor park where I’ll board a cab heading to Katsina from Gusau.
At 8:23 a.m., an FRSC ambulance just zoomed past the hotel, with its sirens blaring. Where to? I have no idea. If there’s a bandit attack on the highway in the early morning, I guess the FRSC could be involved too? Minutes later, three, fully loaded police vans head in the same direction.
At 2:25 p.m., we just stopped in Kankara to observe the Zuhr prayer. There seems to be a ceremony going on. There are policemen and other men wielding dane guns. There’s a colourfully dressed boy on a colourfully dressed horse. There are men on static camels. There is a gunshot. There is drumming. There are bikes and cars speeding recklessly through the road, making loud noises from their exhausts as they do. And there’s a crowd of people by the roadside watching it all, sometimes hailing.
At 2:37 p.m., I see a road sign that says so and so kilometres to Dutsin-Ma and I realise I’ve been here before in late 2019 to probe the construction of TETFund projects at the Federal University, Dutsin-Ma. I had gone to the town after completing my work at ABU Zaria and from Dutsin-Ma I had gone to the Federal University Dutse, in Jigawa State. The roads were safer then, I think. Though I remember the students at Dutsin-Ma complaining about insecurity and that their permanent site wasn’t properly fenced. The massive halls of residence in the school were not in use because criminals lurked in the surrounding forests and, justifiably, no student was willing to risk their life. I wonder how they’re faring now.
At the motor park, I suggest to my fixer, Nuuman, that we can pay for three seats if it will afford more comfort and he says it is not advisable. “We have to be extra careful because of the insecurity,” he explains. We don’t want anything that’ll make us stand out or let people think we’re elite strangers.
I want to quickly note how difficult it is to interview women in this part of the country. Often, you can’t just walk up to them and start asking questions. You first have to seek the permission of the men/husbands. And victims of sexual violence usually will not talk if they’re married because they don’t want to ‘bring shame’ to the home, in other words the husband.
As we exit the hotel, a girl wearing a blue hijab, no more than eight years old, meets us to beg for alms, a bowl in hand. She is among the IDPs, Nuuman tells me after she leaves. How does he know? He says, ‘Didn’t you hear her say, “Yan gudun hijra”, meaning someone who leaves their community for any number of reasons, including insecurity.’
We are at the motor park at 8:19 a.m. headed for Batsari, but the place is devoid of passenger traffic. We might be the only ones around yet. There’s one middle-aged man sleeping in the backseat, but he’s most likely just one of the regular park people. Nuuman explains that the slow traffic is because people are afraid to visit Batsari due to rising insecurity.
I suggest that while we wait, perhaps we can talk to the drivers about how the insecurity and consequent reduction in traffic along the route is affecting their business. Nuuman, however, replies that it is better we wait till we get back. “You will just put your life in jeopardy because you don’t know who is who,” he says. I totally agree.
We’re done with the interviews in Batsari and are back in the same old Sharon cab we came with. Waiting for other passengers. During the interviews, Nuuman was very restless and uneasy, and visually unwilling to participate, or unenthusiastic about participating. And this was difficult because I needed him to translate my questions and their answers. He also rushed to translate the answers so we could move on. I thought it was probably the pangs of hunger as he had earlier admitted he had not had breakfast. But when we finished, I realised it could be another problem entirely. Concerns about safety. This is his first time in this “very unsafe” town and he feels it may be attacked any second. He says he doesn’t know what he’ll do if that happens and that he can’t wait to get back to Katsina. “You don’t feel uneasy?” he asks. “No,” I reply, smiling stupidly. The truth is either I’m naive or he’s just one of those paranoid city people.
8:31 a.m. Bags packed. Bath had. Asa’s Moving On is playing gently on my phone. Coincidentally.
Cheers to listening to and writing good stories. Cheers to journaling. Cheers to staying safe. To wonderful fixers and meeting new friends. To eating strange plates of Jollof rice. To taking pictures of camels and donkeys and misspellings. To the awkwardness of language barriers. To travel. To returning home.
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