Reporter’s Diary: From Niger Republic To Sokoto … A Night Journey Through ‘Bandit’ Areas
At a quarter to 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 3, this reporter set out on a journey to Maradi in Niger Republic. The take-off point was the border town of Sabon Birni, Sokoto, Northwest Nigeria. The destination was a refugee camp that housed tens of thousands of people from Nigeria who had become displaced due to the activities of terrorists, known locally as bandits. Here, he shares his straight-from-the-journal experiences as he returned to the Sokoto state capital later that evening.
5:05 p.m. After stopping by the palace to meet the Sarkin Arewa Gobir Chadakori, we arrive at one of the IDP camps in the Maradi region of Niger Republic. There are at least 600 shelters here [later turned out to be almost double that]. But the camp seems sparsely populated. There isn’t much activity going on. But this could be partly due to its remote location and distance from the conflict area in Nigeria.
6:12 p.m. We finally said farewell to the traditional ruler after visiting the IDP camp and are on our way back to La République de Nigeria. Yayy! The driver is zipping through the sand. Perhaps we will get to Nigeria before 7:30 p.m.
Cow carts here are perhaps like the equivalent of fancy cars in a Nigerian metropolis. Just saw three boys sitting on top of a pile of tree branches, driven by one cow tied to a cart, two of the boys, about 20-something-year old, wearing sunshades, all of them listening to music and feeling on top of the world, smug looks on their faces. The time is 6:50 p.m. Enjoyment.
7:04 p.m. We just prayed close to a police checkpoint in Niger Republic. Hamisu, my fixer, says we can still get to Sokoto tonight even if it is around 10/11 p.m. No problem, he says. I hope he is right. Otherwise, I have no problem sleeping over in Sabon Birni. Gaskiya (truly).
It’s as if there’s a law in Niger that mandates houses must be brown. It is understandable that the mud houses are this colour. Many of them then have blue or green or red metal doors. But most of the cement houses are brown too and have a rough painting that gives them the mud house look, only smoother. It’s almost as if the houses are camouflaged to take the same colour as the desert sand. Gives the town an ancient look. One windstorm or tornado and everything is pulverised and levelled to the ground, the long-time sand and the one-time sandcastles indistinguishable from each other.
There are a lot of beggars here. Or it could just be the region we’re in.
7:30 p.m. This place had better be as safe as it is touted to be. Without sunlight to glisten against the golden sand and the verdant trees, without artificial lights except from our headlamp and vehicles or motorcycles that pass like once every 10 minutes, the place is quite scary. The road is untarred and bumpy. It is the kind of place where almost everywhere is “the middle of nowhere”. If anything happens, it’s sai har abada (until forever). No one will really know how you went. No documents indicate I was ever in the Niger Republic. Nor do any of the people I met even know my name. Nor do they have my pictures. I only have a copy of the pictures we took at the Sarki’s (king) palace. Choi. Erased out of existence just like that. Inglorious exit at the hands of inglorious gangsters.
7:40 p.m. We’re finally back within Nigerian borders. I can see a signpost that says Ministry of Works, Sokoto State, or something like that.
Mehn, at this speed if bandits no kill person, somersaulting thrice in the air and landing headfirst just might. Too bad the speedometer isn’t working, so I can’t confirm just how fast we’re going.
7:51 p.m. Back where we parked Hamisu’s car in Sabon Birni. Hamisu says he’ll take the Isa Road, which is safer. But he also says something about stopping at Gatawa to do something. Gatawa that is under siege? Alrighty. He even suggested about an hour ago while we were in Niger Republic that we could sleep over in either Sabon Birni or Gatawa.
8:19 p.m. and nowhere near Sokoto town. I’d hoped Tuesday would be the first and last time we’d have this kind of night journey. It’s even worse this time. And the radio is silent. Okay, Hamisu just started playing qira’a. Good. Good. We’re no longer alone in the world.
Even if someone is pressed, there’s no way we’re stopping to relieve ourselves. Only God knows the evil that lurks behind the trees and bushes.
8:32 p.m. We just made a detour at Gatawa so that Hamisu can drop off a package. As we stepped in, about six flashlights torched us from different directions. “Vigilante?” I ask. “No,” replies Hamisu, “It is MOPOL (Mobile Police).” Many residents are still outdoors. The town is in darkness. But some dim light is occasionally seen from phones and then torchlights.
I just hear “kpaw” in the distance as Hamisu offloads the content of his boot. Could be the shooting of a Dane gun by vigilantes to scare off the bandits as Umar mentioned days ago. It’s not the time of the year where bangers and knockouts are common. So, yes.
Hamisu suggests observing Isha prayer before continuing. Oga, rev the engine make we dey go abeg. Boy! Another “k-kpaw”. This one is more baritone like the gunpowder had a lot of cold water and Shawarma. Okay, yet another gun has just gone off. That’s like an interval of roughly two to three minutes. The time is 8:41 p.m. and Hamisu is still conversing with his relatives. I’m in the shotgun seat of the car alone, my bladder bulging and nudging in protest. Can’t wait to get back to the hotel.
Hamisu just confirmed the gunshots came from vigilantes so bandits can spare the town. But for how long can you keep the zombies away?
8:46 p.m. Back on the main road. Several vigilantes are pointing their torchlights at us from the roadside. We meet two very elderly men who are part of the vigilante group at a checkpoint with tree trunks. I see that one has a really long and slender locally-made gun and wears a jacket to protect himself from the cold. Hamisu exchanges pleasantries with them. “They can (be) exchanging fire with bandits,” he says. “They will be there till tomorrow morning. Everyday.”
We continue to meet vigilantes and cooperative flashlights along the road close to settlements. As we zoom past one roadblock after Gatawa, the men shout after us. Then we stop where some old men are lounging after the roadblock and explain ourselves. I wonder why they were alarmed. I ask Hamisu if bandits make use of cars and he says very well, “sometimes they leave their machines and make use of motor.”
9:03 p.m. Hamisu suddenly shakes his head. “Kai. Kunle. You are hard worker, wallahi. Kai. You are very hard worker.” I tell him that I don’t joke with my sleep and plan to relax very well when I get to Abuja. Not sure about that though. So many important stories waiting to be told.
We see one tiny flicker of light in the distance, at least one kilometre away. Then two. Then like four, some shining brighter than others. Then one light moves slowly across the road. Like a motorcycle. But it isn’t. The static light is from a kiosk. The roving light is attached to a motorcycle. We have just approached Isa town.
9:10 p.m. We’re now passing through Isa Local Government Area. There are more lights here and generator sounds. I see a MOPOL officer cross the road in front of us with a bulletproof vest and an AK hanging at his back. People are chatting. The place is bubbling with pedestrians. Men. Women. Children. Especially children. Shops are open. A barbershop. An open-air potato vendor. Grocery stores. Plastic wear. Footwear. Almost everything you’d find during the day. Bikes are zooming across the street and, less often, cars too. There is a fire burning above fuelwood and below a pot. Two girls stand above the content, one of them with a flashlight stuck under her hijab. Hamisu stops to buy something to eat.
It turns out he could not find “good meat”, so we move. We park again in another part of the town. A military patrol van with an attached machine gun just rode past the car and parked about 10 metres in front. “Gunners for life,” someone says beside me, close to a shop labelled Zango Communication with an MTN logo. “Ee,” another young man answers as he crosses to the other side of the street.
Hamisu returns at 9:23 p.m. Still no “good meat in this town”. He brings cold bottled water and says maybe he’ll find meat in Achida, the town closest to Sokoto. We drive past the military patrol van. There’s no one inside or at the back. They must have stopped to buy something too.
By the way, there are no streetlights. We just passed one but the light is very dim. It is on the left side of the road about one kilometre to the ‘Goodbye to Isa’ city gate.
Hamisu really needs to avoid answering calls. Bad things usually happen when people drive and answer calls. Let alone at night. Let alone on this side of Sokoto.
9:33 p.m. Things keep getting interesting. I ask Hamisu if he has driven on the road at this time before and he says no. Ah! He says sometimes he has driven between 7/7:30 p.m. and 10 in the morning. “But, Allah ya kiyaye (may God protect),” he concludes and then raises the tinted windows a little. “Sometimes, they can attack in the morning, sometimes in the night, even in the afternoon. There is no specific time,” he says.
9:38 p.m. One dot of light approaches from the left. Another from the right. I think the road must be curved. But in which direction? Actually, the road is bone straight, and the lights are from two motorcycles driving towards the main road from the bush paths. I twist my neck to see that they both meet in the middle of the road right after we passed. I glance at Hamisu and he has something of a knowing/telling smirk on his face as he grips the steering with his left hand. We will never know what truly just happened or what danger we just survived, if any.
9:45 p.m. We still have “maybe” one hour of this agonising suspense to go. Why are you slowing down, Hamisu?
9:47 p.m. We get to a settlement and some guy needs a lift. He is carrying a tray full of grilled meat. Hamisu reluctantly helps. The man enters. Hamisu gets a cut of the meat from him. “Ba moota (no car),” he says, or something like that. They strike up a conversation. But I really don’t know which is more ominous, silence or a seemingly innocuous conversation. Hamisu collects more meat and invites me. I no get appetite abeg. I don’t know for how much longer I can hold this pee.
If only I can sleep off and wake up in Sokoto. I don’t know if it is dread that is keeping me awake or my bloated bladder — or I’m just not tired. Has to be a combination of the first two.
9:54 p.m. I really need to stop imagining negative scenarios. Assume this is just a regular journey, ‘Kunle. You can do it … Boy. Seeing two flashlights in the distance is all it takes to get me back to square one.
9:59 p.m. Finally, another slightly busy settlement. That’s a good sign, I think. Our guest alights… A minute later, we cross a bridge with hundreds of frogs scattered across the place. We must have stepped on five at least. You could hear the squishing sound as life snuffed out of them. Painful.
I remember Hamisu saying minutes ago that he thinks his fuel should be enough to get us to Sokoto. I really do not know what to make of that … Every time we pass a car from the opposite direction that doesn’t attack us, I think it is good because the driver would have alerted us if there was trouble on the way? I hope I’m right.
10:12 p.m. I doze off a bit, wake up and, still, we’ve not gone far. You can’t convince me we’re not in a loop right now. The road looks almost exactly the same no matter how far you go. Maddening. (I’ve started mistyping.)
10:34 p.m. We just reached the end of the road. We cross to the left in the d’érection [direction] of Sokoto and have just passed a military checkpoint. Everything looks good. Mun gode Allah (Thank God).
10:38 p.m. 26 km to Sokoto.
10:43 p.m. 19 km to Sokoto. “My eyes no see well,” confesses Hamisu. “E no easy.”
10:46 p.m. We arrive at the Operation Puff Adder II checkpoint in Achida, 16 km to Sokoto. The officer observes that our second headlight is off and urges Hamisu to switch it on.
10:48 p.m. We start to see people and lights and hear sounds of generators and possibly grinding machines again. Hamisu searches in vain for one of his favourite meat sellers, I think. On the right, at least 200 people gather to watch a man supposedly practise voodoo. I see a long, slightly curved sword rise in the middle above the heads. One man is shouting. I’ve seen one of such exhibitions before in Lugbe, Abuja. It usually features wild animals such as snakes and crocodiles… Hamisu calls Hajia [his wife] to inform her he is close, but her line is not reachable.
10:53 p.m. It’s 9 km to Sokoto… I’m now calm enough to have some water.
11 p.m. Hamisu is in a good mood. He jokes that by the time I get married, I should take two wives at the same time because I have money. He assures me it won’t cost more than N500,000. We then talk about Shuwa Arabs (again). And then my trip to Maiduguri last year. And the Boko Haram insurgency. Then, silence as we gradually enter the city of Sokoto.
11:08 p.m. We pass through what appears to be the city gate into the street-lit streets of Sokoto. A lot of men and some boys are outside. Riding bikes. Cars. Walking. Sitting on benches. Tricycles. Pavements. Chatting. Pushing carts. Trolleys. Of yam tubers and more. Mopeds. Carrying trays. Hawking bread. Grilling and selling and buying suya. Buying and selling food. Buying and gulping down chilled drinks. Chilling alone or in the company of friends. Charging phones. Hardly any hijab in sight.
11:16 p.m. Omo! We almost hit a police officer before Mr Biggs after the overhead bridge. Imagine surviving bandits only to get killed by accidental discharge. The officers were calm though; not too startled. One of them was receiving a call. And there were other road users around to distract them.
11:18 p.m. We finally enter the hotel. Alhamdulillah.
I think it’s too late to order food tonight. I’ll just take some of the cream crackers I have left, drink more water, and sleep. What a day! What a night!
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