Journey to Borno: The Dunes in June
Not an unexpected journey, my trip to Maiduguri, Borno state was one which had been planned, cancelled, re-planned, un-cancelled, postponed and when we finally settled on a day to set forth, it was as though no force in the world could dissuade my team and I.
Well, that was what we thought, until a bout of traffic delayed one of the team members, philanthropist Neemah Arigbabu – technically the reason for our trip, causing the team to miss the flight. At that time, a deep thinking version of me might have assumed that this journey was not meant to be. However, instinct is one of the few reasons for tossing away such thoughts and our instincts told us that this trip was a worthy one. Disappointments aside, we rebooked a flight the next morning to Kano and our journey began.
Stop! Move! Stop!
The only place with military checkpoints to rival Syria and Iraq has definitely got to be the route between Kano and Borno. Driving through Kano, Bauchi, Jigawa and Yobe before finally arriving in Borno proved to be quite the arduous task, but we faced it all. From grim faced military personnel, smiley and cheery army officers to carefree but vigilant militia men, all of whom seemed more concerned with my overgrown beard and bags in the back of our sedan than anything else, we faced it all whenever we were stopped. The conversations were always quick and flowed towards a calmer stance once they realized that I was even more clueless than an English man figuring out ice hockey. The communities we drove through seemed unperturbed by the heavy military presence in their immediate vicinities. Most had come to accept the situation for what it was and the rest probably had more worries than uniformed men who were most likely protecting them from harm. The checkpoints were quite a breeze at first but grew insufferable as we approached Yobe and Jigawa. Our video director, Emmanuel Otokpa, was quite fluent in Hausa and this gave us a slight advantage over a likely situation in which I was travelling alone.
Follow The Money….Where?
The revenue allocation received by Nigerian states located in the Northeast and North central, has been defined by many as gargantuan when juxtaposed with the allocation received by the rest of the country. Unfortunately, the results do not reflect the funds received and the question of where the allocations go, arise. Driving through the towns, we spotted thatched houses and mud flats, schools with no rooftops and children with no shoes. Unfortunately, this situation seemed more like the norm than a passive one-time reflection of the day.
One of the schools of science and technology looked like a relic from a sci-fi horror movie themed on an abandoned planet. If speculations that villagers are being lured to the terror group, Boko Haram, by money are to be believed – the reason why, is as visible as day. From information gathered during the trip, a dollar a day would be a great luxury for villagers who still transport goods and people from place to place on cow drawn carts.
The question of what happens to the Federal allocations is one that has been asked incessantly by activists during the former regime. Unfortunately, while the ruling power at the Federal level has been changed, some of the State Governors who rule these states and oversaw a corruption harvest are unchanged or have simply swapped parties to stay in power. Furthermore, their actions are permanently visible on the hardships visited on the people by their continued negligence and greed. It is a situation that we are hopeful will change over the next couple of years. As I drive through a street crowded on this very hot afternoon, the only glimmer of hope I have, is reignited by a smile on a young boy’s face, while oblivious of the abjectness of the environment, his carefree happiness gives me hope.
A Sandstorm And A Sad Storm
Hausa/Fulani and generally most Northerners are quite the friendly and happy people. This is pleasantly one of the myths that I was glad to confirm. From happy and welcoming smiles, to offers of food, which were most graciously turned down (I had a steady supply of Pringles, a bottle of Coke and some Coconuts), they proved to be exceedingly friendly. However, as we approached the highway leading into Borno, the smiles and cheers faded into the wind, replaced by gloomy and trepid faces. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and the checkpoints were even more fortified than before. The routine smile and casual judgment of the presiding soldier was no longer enough to confirm our passage, as these were quickly replaced by thorough and brisk checks of our person and sedan. The driver, Musa, a native of Borno explains that the region is possibly the hardest hit during the attacks and this somewhat explains the upside down smiles that I am seeing.
As we race down the highway, we are hit by one of the worst sandstorms I have ever experienced, visibility is greatly reduced and ironically, the weather compounds the mood. The sedan is battered continuously as we trudge along down the road and a slew of houses on the road are almost bound to be roofless at the end of the ordeal. A military convoy of about 5 military jeeps soldiers on methodically through the storm and my face, hair and beard becomes an instant sand store. We are able to laugh about it and make jokes, but the trepidation on the outside has slowly crept inside and even Musa is no longer immediately amused by my jokes any more. All of a sudden, we are more alert and observant.
The Land Of Peace
Ironically, this subheading is the slogan of Borno State. In the past couple of years however, it has recorded the largest number of internally displaced persons and has been labeled a partial warzone by various international organizations. Conventional news stations report on the happenings in Borno as they would Yemen and Libya, and it has been labeled a red zone on various tourism advice boards.
Which is strange and perhaps funny, because as we drive through Maiduguri-the state’s capital, we are once again greeted by the cheery excitement that had dogged us all through our journey and the tense atmosphere all but evaporates. The hotel concierge and our room service personnel are cheery, the atmosphere is very different from what the television stations would have us believe. The hotel resort is quite peaceful and as I attempt my second lap in the hotel’s pool, I reflect one last time on my journey today and my visit to the IDP camps tomorrow.