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Niger State’s Peace Has Fallen Into Terrorists’ Hands As Residents Remain Helpless

Terrorism used to be a Northeast affair with Boko Haram/ISWAP at the centre of it all. However, it has gradually spread to Nigeria’s North-central and Northwestern states. This time around, kidnapping — amidst killings, cattle rustling and rape — is at the core of the terrorists’ activities.

“As recently as three years ago, my only source of worry when traveling back to school in Kano from Minna was how to explain to my friends why I did not come along with yams for them,” Maijiddah*, 20, a resident of Minna, reminisces and then adds, “because that is what we are known for in the state. And yams are very expensive in Kano.”

But she worries about one more thing now on her way to school terrorists who murder people or kidnap them for ransom.

Niger State, located in North-central Nigeria, is roughly a two-hour drive away from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. It has the largest landmass in Nigeria with 76,363 sq. km. A lot of the land is unoccupied and used instead for farming. The rest are vast expanses of bush and forestry, like areas around Kagara and Tegina. People from Minna, the capital city, and surrounding towns such as Erena, Gurmana, and Paiko, are known for their yam farming. Many households in the state eat only what they grow on their farms. 

North of the state capital lies Zungeru, a town once home to colonial masters in pre-independent Nigeria, such as Fredrick Lugard, as well as nationalists. Nigeria’s first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe was born there.

The road that extends across the bridge which connects Morris and Kpakungu area in Minna gives a relatively large view of the rest of the town: brown building tops, the tops of masquerade trees aligned like a suspension of carpet grass in the air, and the roofs of houses. 

Late night walks around town from this area used to be described as peaceful. 

Evening time, Morris area, Minna. Photo: Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu/HumAngle

Early signs 

The first thing Mr Boki* noticed on that Saturday afternoon in March 2021,  as he climbed onto the tarred, wide road that sliced through Tegina and sloped down to Kontagora, was that there were people on both sides of the road running, screaming, or crouching. The second thing he noticed as he drove was a herd of cattle strolling on the main road ahead of him. There were police officers amongst those fleeing, and it was this that worried him. After he had successfully driven past the herd of cattle, he stopped his car, trembling, and parked by the side of the road.

“When I came down from the car, a police officer with clothes smeared with sand from crawling on the floor, asked me ‘Sun Wuce?’ Have they gone?” Mr Boki narrates.

“Who?” Mr Boki asks. The officer says he was referring to terrorists. 

Mr Boki was even more confused. The ensuing conversation between him and the rest of the people who had now emerged from the bushes, eventually made him understand that terrorists in Niger State have a blueprint. In every attack, they make away with cattle in large numbers seized from herders and private owners from villages. So whenever residents see a herd of cattle approaching, they assume they are led by terrorists whom they have come to refer to as ‘bandits.’

That day’s cattle belonged to innocent herders who were leading them to graze. It was Mr Boki’s lucky day. 

But he wasn’t so lucky the next time he attempted to drive past a herd of cattle on his way to Zungeru, a week later. The road was packed full of unmoving vehicles because terrorists, who rustled cows that day, had blocked the it while they operated. He remembers sitting in his car for hours, waiting for the road to clear for him to continue his journey. It did not.

“Eventually, I found a way to make a U-turn and drove back to Minna.”

Today, Mr Boki is familiar with violence and terrorism. All around him, the consequences are visible. He is principal at a boys secondary school in Shiroro LGA, one of the schools indefinitely closed down following attacks on nearby schools. 

A herd of cattle traveling across the Nasarawa-Egom area. Photo: NAN. (10/7/15). 5300/10/7/2015/CH/NAN

“At some point before we closed down, we stopped taking roll calls of the students every morning, because most of them had even stopped coming and we couldn’t very well ask why,” he says.

The few times they did ask students to explain their continued absence, they were met with heartbreaking stories of attacks their families had suffered in their areas of residence, he explained.

“Back then, there was an attack at Dr Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu Secondary School in Sarkin Pawa, at night. Fortunately, the school got wind of it and were able to send the students home before the attack,” he told HumAngle.

There have been abductions of school children in the state in 2021. This is probably prevalent because of the state’s landmass. Borno State’s landmass is second only to Niger State in the country.

It becomes a trend

When Rabi’s* maternal grandfather passed away in 2020 in Erena, they mourned endlessly in Minna. Her mother insisted she would travel home to pay her last respects before he was buried. Rabi and the rest of the family thought it was a bad idea. Insecurity had gone deep at the time and it seemed unfathomable to want to endanger one’s life over the end of another person’s.

“But it is different when the deceased is one’s own father,” says Rabi.  

For hours, they debated on whether or not she should go for Zaman Makoki, the practice of spending time in gatherings at the house of a person who has died, to mourn collectively. 

In the end she went. 

The people who live in Erena are mostly Christians or traditional worshippers; Zaman Makoki gatherings are large and full of traditional rites, unlike the sombre nature of Muslim funerals. And so even though Rabi’s grandfather had been a Muslim — the only Muslim in his area — his funeral processions were to follow these traditions. 

“Typically, people gather in the house of the deceased, sitting in large groups, grieving, praying and most times weeping. There’s usually food for mourners, and traditional singing and drumming at nights,” Rabi explains. 

When Rabi’s mother went for this rite in her father’s house, there was no sitting, no singing, no eating. The house was scanty, and those who braved it and came could not risk sitting down or getting too comfortable. They stood outside the house throughout the day, in strategic positions that would make running easy in case terrorists attacked. 

“That is no way to mourn your father,” Rabi laments.

Shortly after her mother returned home, her cousins were attacked by terrorists in Gurmana. 

Most of the villages in Shiroro LGA are riverine, as a result of their proximity to Shiroro Dam which serves as one of the central sources of electricity. Rabi’s cousins did not know how to swim, but they saw the terrorists attacking from afar and knew that a terrible death awaited them. They fled to the end of the village and were confronted with the river that separated Gurmana from the next town. They jumped in and tried to cross over. They drowned. 

The once peaceful state has descended into an increasingly dangerous and unsafe place in a very short time. 

These days “nobody asks me for yam or Kuli-Kuli anymore whenever I go back to school in Kano,” Maijiddah says. “They ask instead how we are fairing with the insecurity.”

 


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Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a lawyer, essayist and reporter with by lines in several international publications. She is a 2018 writer-in-residence at Ebedi Writers Residency. She’s currently a specialized reporter at HumAngle, covering under-reported layers of terrorism in the northern region of Nigeria. She tweets at @WaasiShaffii

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