Boko Haram: Diary of a journalist’s trip to Borno

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When I was contacted as one of the few editors to tour Borno State for an assessment of insurgent’s activities and the effort of the nation’s military in curbing them, the feeling was inextricably mixed. I was happy, confused and sad.

A few people who were aware of the planned trip had said the risk was too much to take at a time Lt. Colonel Mohammed Abu Ali, one of the finest soldiers fighting insurgency in the north east was killed alongside other brave soldiers.

I almost gave up the plan at the “11th hour”, after witnessing the burial of the late soldiers who laid their lives in defense of the country at Malam Fatori. I was left in self-battle on whether I was in any way better than those soldiers or whether I was not patriotic enough. But in a careful reflection, I realized the inevitability of death and the need to be patriotic like those gallant soldiers. I chose with no further doubt to join the trip.

The trip was just a day after the soldiers were buried, so one can imagine the fear and the air of uncertainty as to the security of those of us aboard Azman Air to Maiduguri Airport.

They say “first impression” matters. This was the case with the army who were in their most organized form while welcoming the team to Maiduguri.

But we toured the town in fear despite the air of security that oozed around us. We weren’t going to be touched because we were shielded by the military. Besides, faces of those on the streets of a reawaken Maiduguri communicated that all was now well after much battle for the soul of the city. But fear is natural, and it was normal that most of my colleagues cautioned even against taking of photographs as the insurgents could possibly decode that some journalists were in town.

“Must you take those images? What are they for? They have asked you to be careful on this journey, so we must not draw undue attention to ourselves with the constant clattering of the camera,” an MD of a popular newspaper on the trip told an inquisitive journalist.

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But the fear was not out of place as just two days after we left the city of Maiduguri, three suicide bombers were gunned down, not too far from the same barracks we had our first interaction with the army over the ongoing war. But my consolation is the fact that our men are always ready to tackle the insurgents who constantly want to make a statement that they have not been totally degraded yet.

However, security was at its peak, when we got to the Theatre Command headquarters, otherwise known as Operation Lafiya Dole in Mainmalari. It was during the briefing and the presentation of progress of activities by the Theatre Commander, operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Lucky Irabor that fear disappeared. It was during the recount of the difficult nature of the war, the sacrifices, and the selfless efforts of our men in front that the ‘spirit’ of fear departed some of us. Like Irabor and his men, majority of us were now willing to even go to Malam Fatori and other interior parts of the Sambisa Forest. We wanted to see our men in battle, and may be say thank you to them for sacrificing for the nation. We understood after the briefing that the burden is quite heavy for just the army to carry. Collaboration is important.

Maiduguri: A City in the eye of the storm

In the evening of about 5pm when we were heading to the Theater command, we observed a relatively quiet and peaceful Maiduguri. The atmosphere could be compared to when it had rained and people were just coming out of their houses. Of course, bullet had ‘rained’ heavily in Maiduguri and the people are still struggling to come out of the shock of the invasion of the city for several months before the new government of President Muhammadu Buhari came to the rescue. But every inquisitive journalist would always want to ask the locals on why we had such very quiet and low activities in the evening, so I asked to know exactly why activities in the evening were in such low ebb, and the response from a resident who pleaded anonymity was that people of the state have now gotten use to a lifestyle similar to that of self-imposed exile. He said, “You know Maiduguri had experienced several curfews in the past. I think the people are just trying to adjust. The situation is very okay now. Maiduguri is the safest city in the country as it stands now, but we need to also understand that it will take some time before the people will realize that they are no longer in war, and it’s a gradual thing,” he said succinctly.

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We observed while driving round town that road blocks have to some extent been removed, giving way to unrestricted traffic. People are allowed to do their businesses without being mistreated. Amid the freedom enjoyed, one thing is certain: our gallant soldiers still keep their watchful eyes on the city against any form of surprised invasion.

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Though, I had not been to Borno or Maiduguri before to compare the past and now, few journalists who were part of the trip painted a gory picture of Maiduguri in the wake of the insurgency. A journalist said, “I can’t believe this is Maiduguri. We were here in the heat of the war, and it was a theatre of war and blood. Soldiers sacrificed their lives in defence of the city. This very city was once a city of bombs. It was once a city of IEDs and a city of suicide bombers. But I’m impressed with what I have seen so far. Maiduguri has now become Maiduguri. Just imagine the freedom now. You could hardly see people then because it used to be a total restriction order. Feeding was almost becoming so difficult as commercial activities that have now bounced back had completely disappeared then. We must appreciate the effort of the military,” the journalist said, with others nodding in agreement with his narrative.

A soldier in our convoy said, “At Gamboru junction here, insurgents used to hang on trees to shoot our men. They were in full control of all these areas before we came to take on them. This place that is bubbling with social activities now was once forgotten,” he said with pride.

It was observed that activities in the town, both economic and social have resumed in full force, students have resumed, and academic activities have since started in earnest. In fact, at the University of Maiduguri, there was a heavy gridlock at the entrance to the school as people and vehicles made their way to the school in the watchful eyes of security men.

But despite the peace, residents are still afraid of nightfall. Though, this is normal under every security situation, it remains obvious that the people are more relaxed to do their businesses in the day. Night activities have for now remained shut. This may not be due to any special order, but the fact that the people are still in the process of recovery and yet to come out of the euphoria of BHT.

Relatively, mobile network has been restored in the city, with almost all networks now very active. Soldiers and other security agents do not harass people when they make calls, a clear indication that the insurgents have completely been degraded. We had a fun filled trip because we could communicate with our people who were equally monitoring our movement. To them, we were in a deadly zone. But that’s the irony that I will save for the last.

One thing that still threatens the peace that Maiduguri residents currently enjoy is the absence of power. Throughout our stay in the city, light was a major challenge. The hotel we were lodged run on generator 24/7. Only few streets are powered with streets lights, while others experience total darkness every night. A soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “Government must light up Maiduguri so we can all see ourselves clearly. In fact, with light on every street, we can locate those trying to hide in the dark to plot evil against the city. Illumination is still very important in this final clearance of the remnants of BHT,” he said.

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Despite the setback in the area of power, commercial activities went on undisturbed. Keke Napep, otherwise known as Keke Marua were engaged in the business of conveying people to their locations without stress. However, one thing we observed was the ingratitude of some Borno residents who are beginning to drag the now secured city with men of the Nigerian Army. They will hardly give way for the military to pass, even when it was obvious they were going on an emergency assignment. We saw a very disciplined army who could tolerate the excesses of the people, and we saw a people who instead of showering accolade on the Army, look at them with great disdain. This is quite ironical.

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Another situation that may not exactly be palatable to the fight against insurgents is that some portions of the roads in town are very bad, hindering vehicular movement. One thing that raced through my mind while we were on those bad spots was military mobilization to strongholds of the insurgents. How will quick mobilization be possible when some of the roads are very bad. Fixing those roads is imperative.

The Army:

We saw an army willing to decimate, degrade and exterminate Boko Haram insurgents. We saw an army who are not willing to give up until Sambisa forest and other strongholds of the insurgents such Abadam (malam Fatori), Moba and Marte are cleared of the remnants of BHT. We saw an army who feel the pain of the recent killings of some of their men by the insurgents, but are not demoralized or devastated. They are willing to go beyond Malam Fatori down to the fringes of the Lake Chad. An officer who returned from one of the locations in Sambisa forest said, “Na God bring us back from there yesterday. The place is very deadly, but we made it.It’s not really a story we can tell you at the moment,” he said, in obvious readiness to return to the forest any moment from then.

We saw an army that fully understands the operations of the Boko boys and constantly devising intelligence approach in neutralizing their plans. With the presentation at the headquarters of the Theatre Command and in Mafa, we got a clearer picture of the strategies and the approaches of the army in the war against insurgency.

The cooperation among the army is simply unmatched, clearly a paradigm shift from what it used to be in the bad old days of Boko Haram. Now they speak with one voice, one mind and one spirit. The spirit in their headquarters remains very high as though they can’t wait for another day to clear the remnants of the insurgents from all parts of the north east. Responding to a question on when the Boko Haram insurgents will come to a final end, a soldier said,‘’ This war will end when the whole society sees it as a collective war and not just a war to be won by just the army. Once we all agree to become stakeholders in this war, it will then come to an end. ‘’

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This message seemed deep to me initially, but after a careful analysis of what it represents, I realized that we have some people among us whose job is to constantly sabotage the effort of the Nigerian army. The simple truth is that unless those people drop their evil ways and join the military in the fight against insurgency, the end of Boko Haram will remain a mirage.

Speaking with an officer, he said, ‘’You see…one wonders why some people are just keen at sabotaging our effort. My brother, you need to see what our men are going through. We have lost many of our men; in fact, we have lost both human and material resources. But our consolation lies in the fact that we are winning the war. Can you imagine that most of the videos we recovered from these BHT showed how some of our captured soldiers were brutally murdered? They had some of their throats slit as though they were animals. And people expect us to keep quiet in the name of human rights? Are Boko Haram members humans? They are not human beings to some of us who have seen them closely, so there is nothing like human rights. Some of these rights groups do not really mean well for the country; if not, why should anyone talk about human rights with the devastation caused by these animals?’’ In obvious angst, the officer walked away.

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On the same issue of human rights, a colleague journalist who was also privy to this discussion said there was the need for rights organizations to be fair to the military, and stop flooding the media with human rights abuse related stories, saying, ‘’Most of these rights groups are never at the war front, so how come they know all that they claim they know. Besides, a few of them sleep in Maiduguri town, visiting clubs and brothels.

The road to Mafa

We were led on this trip by Colonel Anka. The trip was undoubtedly the most dreaded of all. My mind was literally in my mouth as we drove past deserted and plundered communities formally under the control of the insurgents. We saw structures ripped by bullets of both the insurgents and the Nigerian army. We drove for nearly one hour as Mafa is 51.3 km away from Maiduguri. The most fearful aspect was the continuous thought of likely implantation of IEDs on the road. Thank God for the gallant soldiers that provided shield for us both in the rear and ahead. On the road to Mafa, I realized that the army was pushing Boko Haram towards the Niger Republic and the Lake Chad region was an obvious sacrifice. Fighting insurgents in such an area where the size of the land has no end demands the use of the very best in the military. I have no doubt that the men posted to the north east, particularly, Borno are the best hands, the best across the country. We got to Mafa demoralized because of the horrible sights which appeared normal to the officers that accompanied us, and we were taken to the 122 Task Force battalion headed by Lt. Colonel BN Egbulem.

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In a briefing/ slide presentation, Egbulem disclosed that the unit was put together in 2014.

Highlighting some of the achievements of the battalion, the commander said prior to the setting up of their camp in Mafa, the place was under the control of the insurgents, but that they tactically took them out. He said his battalion was formidable in the recapture of Chibok, reinforcement of Konduga, reinforcement of Damaturu, recapture of Mafa, securing of the main supply route from Maiduguri to Mafa, destruction of BHT camps in Mafa, Dikwa, and Gamboru Ngala as well as the capturing of BHT equipment.

Lieutenant Colonel Egbulem also disclosed that his unit was chiefly behind the successful return of displaced persons to their base.

He said the situation in Mafa was relatively peaceful, but quite unpredictable.

It then became a situational irony when we were leaving the camp back to Maiduguri to catch up with our flight back to Abuja. Most of the journalists became quite emotional when few of the soldiers shook hands with us and sent their regards to the rest of the people out there. It dawned on all of us that our men in the front should be treated in the most respectful manner, having put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

Truly, our men in battle deserve commendation and continuous support. The media, we have realized is a key stakeholder in this battle and must always look at every report from the insurgents as mere propaganda. I have been to the war front, I have seen, and I now believe. The war is real, and our men in front are winning.

Ali Adoyi is the Editor, DAILY POST Nigeria.

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