The story you about to read is nothing but the truth. It is the truth about my journey to Chibok in Borno State where the Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist sect, abducted 276 secondary school girls in April. From conception to accomplishment of the journey, many of my colleagues considered the journey a suicide mission. Not telling the story in this format would be a disservice to Businessday Media Limited, who against all odds allowed me to pursue my mission and its reading public who must know the truth.
I chose this format because it will enable me to tell my story without leaving out vital information that could not be captured in what have been published so far. Also, for the benefit of my colleagues who sought verbal accounts of my experience in Chibok but were displeased because I did not have the time to narrate in details of my journey. You may call this piece a feature story, interview, opinion, editorial or any other type of writing you are familiar with. Whatever you choose to call this write-up suffices because it has the elements of all these and yet, cannot be particularly tied to any of them. Do not worry about the style. Simply call it “Akhigbe’s Accounts on Chibok” (AAC).
The plight of the children whose parents have been murdered by Boko Haram insurgence actually gave birth to the idea to visit Borno State. If my request was urgently granted I would have been in Borno State the very day those girls were abducted. When my request was finally granted I was heavily criticized by well meaning colleagues who felt I was overzealous. I was told that the Nigeria media in general and Businessday Media Limited in particular, do not worth such a risky venture. How much are they going to pay you? A colleague asked me. “You are a print journalist. If you were a broadcast journalist it would have been better. Something must be wrong with you. The organisation you are working for is not the best place for this kind of thing”, he said in frustration. Are you married? Another colleague asked. No, I am yet to be married, I responded. “No wonder. You have nothing to live for. You cannot be married and be thinking like this. You have no wife and children to worry about”, he said mockingly.
I got home that day with many thoughts on my mind. I was in fellowship with my thoughts as they streamed crushingly. I said to myself, “the greatest investigative journalistic enterprises ever on this planet were done by print journalists”. I challenged my heart, “If marriage means the killing of a vision in a man’s heart, then, it is not good to marry”. I said to myself again: “Would I be contented to bring children into this world that would have coward who cannot rise above fear in pursuit of his vision as their dad?” I was resolute! I was ready to die if need be to accomplish my mission. I was not afraid in spite of the taunting voices. For me, everyman should have a mandate he is ready to die for! This is my philosophy in life. Any man (married or single, father or childless, no matter how old), who has no mandate he is willing to put his life at risk to achieve, is not worth of existence. No matter how wealthy and knowledgeable he is, he cannot confidently sit at the gate of the elders. Life is not about how long we live. It is about discovering and fulfilling the very essence of our being here. For man, who will surely die one day, there is nothing as glorious as dying in the line of divine duty.
And for me, I was particularly happy because the hand of the Lord was upon me. I was divinely guided. I was in Benin City, the Edo State capital that morning taking a look at the politics of the state when the editor of BD SUNDAY called to inform me that everything for my trip to Chibok was ready.
Five hours before his call, Heaven had visited to deliver a letter to me; telling me it was time to go to Borno for Businessday. I woke up that morning and explained my encounter to my host Gabriel Imadojemu, a Benin based journalist. I told him I was expecting a call from Lagos. But the next hurdle was approval from Christiana Yisau; my fiancée, but it came in a most surprising way because she expressly supported my trip. It was very strange to me-but I guess she foresaw the trip as what I needed to move to my next level. Now, with the call from Lagos, having told her earlier my encounter and expectation, it was a seal of faith for her. She again strengthened my heart and prayed for me.
So, my flight to Kano was ready. I got to Kano and decided to waste no money sleeping in hotel since the journey ahead was long and uncertain. I decided to enter Maiduguri that same day. I was told it was like six hours. I left Kano for Maiduguri at about 12 noon. The journey was a long one. To worsen my already uncomfortable situation, the vehicle I entered had a brake problem at Azare in Jigawa State. It took over an hour to ratify the problem, while the several check-points did not help matters, especially along the Yobe State end of the journey. The security personnel who man the check-points usually stop almost every vehicle not necessarily to search but to demand bribes. The Police were particularly notorious in the act. Some of the policemen even complained the money given to them was not enough and demanded more. As expected, our driver who could not help the situation gave grudgingly at some check-points.
By the time we got to Damaturu, the sun had already set, night gradually falling, but check-points kept increasing at closer proximity. The military, police and self motivated vigilante groups were all pointing their arsenals at every direction. It was a sign that one was in a danger zone. At some check-points identity cards were demanded. But it is and will ever be unwise to reveal my identity-a journalist on an investigative mission. Revealing my identity not only puts me at risk with security personnel but also with fellow passengers who may be apologetics of the Boko Haram sect. So, I was anonymous all through the journey as my press ID card was hidden far in my inner wear, rather my national I.D card served the purpose.
By the time we left Damaturu and faced the long road to Maiduguri night has completely fallen. While the passengers spoke different languages, most of which sounded Hausa, I was lost because I do not understand nor speak Hausa. But the man inside me was strong and focused on getting to Chibok to fulfill a ‘divine mandate’ and also, an official assignment.
As darkness prevent us from sightseeing the beautiful landscape along the route, the moon illuminated the skies with glowing light typical of a silent night.
The silence prevailed over the passengers who were quiet, while the relics of several vehicles bombed by the Islamic extremists along the way could be seen as the bus flashes its headlamp light along. While the journey progresses far towards Maiduguri, I hardly see any check-point and that prompted me to check my write watch-it was 8pm. However, my contacts in Maiduguri were worried that the journey is stretching farther into the night because Boko Haram usually strike from 8pm on that route.
To worsen their anxiety, I could not be reached on phone due to no telecom network signal since leaving Damaturu. Please, if you ever have a cause to travel to Maiduguri from Damaturu do not do so at night. The Islamic extremists have killed many on that route at night, and even the Military is not bold enough to leave soldiers on that route at night. A source in Maiduguri told me that soldiers are usually pulled out of the route from 5pm. Just after the ‘Goodbye to Damaturu’ signboard there was no check-point till about five minutes drive to Maiduguri. We drove over an hour without a single check-point.
I got to Maiduguri by 9pm and was surprised to see people were still buying and selling. This was contrary to what I was told. I met my sources and I was advised where to sleep. I slept in a place close to the Police Barrack where Mohamed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram was killed. The following morning, I hit the roads of Maiduguri town to do background investigation on how to access Chibok. Once I was told that vehicles still convey passengers to Chibok, I was ready to hit the hostage town. My sources in Maiduguri were afraid and concern for me; but I was concerned about my mission. I did not need them to go with me. All I need was information and their contacts in Chibok; which they gave me. “Even if I am given a brand new car, I will not go to Chibok”, one of them whose father still lives in Chibok told me on my return to Maiduguri.
So, I started off my journey to Chibok the second day. The road to Chibok is bad and full of uncertainties; check-points were mounted everywhere by vigilante groups. Relics of bombed cars, trucks and buses abound on the road. Burnt houses and huts were commonplace. But an obvious eyesore is the sighting of several villages sacked by the extremists whose inhabitants now live under trees with their children begging from travellers. Though the Damboa-Chibok Road is very bad, the abandoned Police posts that have received the extremists’ baptism of fire make it a ghost town. The major road has been taking over by flood. Drivers now drive through the semi-desert bush like antelopes sneaking to avoid trapping in the mud. Some have been killed on the road by the Boko Haram members, while many escaped with varying degrees of gunshots injuries. Pastor Manasseh for instance, showed me injuries he escaped with on this road. At some check-points mounted by police and soldiers, passengers are asked to step out of the vehicles and walk through.
“They killed some. I was able to escape with these gunshot wounds. The second time I met them they were wearing soldiers’ uniform. They stopped our car and asked us to come out. They simply told us that they were BH and asked us which religion we belong to. I told them I was a pastor but others who were Christians claimed they were Muslims. They searched our bags and find bibles with the guys who said they were Muslims. I thought my own was finished that day. Surprisingly, they told others to emulate me and that they should not denial their faith. They took our monies and phones and left us. That is a dangerous road. BH at the moment is factionalized”, he told me in Chibok.
I got to Chibok at about 3pm having left Maiduguri at about 11am. Drivers avoid plying on that route either too early or too late because that is the time the extremists set their road blocks. Travellers must wait till security operatives are on the road. At 11pm, I was still on the streets of Chibok doing my independent investigation. When the heat was getting too much, I removed my shirt and hanged it on my shoulder. I walked tall with confidence like an indigene of Chibok. In spite of the turmoil in Chibok, I could still sense its peace. There was this unique thing about the place which you can only feel. The people were very hospitable. With the little money in my pocket, I was able to go around, meet and somehow, influence people who were assisting me. They were the only ones I revealed my identity as journalist to. I did not reveal my identity to security officers and government officials. As at the time I was in Chibok, government had given order to some people that the press particularly foreign should not be allowed to go around Chibok.
Chibokans are very dissatisfied with the Military operation there. They actually relate with the soldiers in suspicion. Another concern to them was the posting of young soldiers to the community. I cannot vow that some of the soldiers I met were above 18 years. Sexy looking young lads too sophisticated to be in a battle ground like Chibok. It is unfathomable to me how Nigerian Military would send ‘’secondary school boys” to guerilla warfare. There is no way that the young boys I saw would not flee from the extremists’ sophisticated weapons. I would have thought they were music kids like Davido and Wizkid but for the army uniform. They came to buy provision where I was also buying something. I bought few things for them and we started talking. They were very junior and treated me as big bros. The Yoruba among them heard me speaking his mother language over the phone and decided to speak with me. I wanted a picture together with them but they told me they would be sanctioned because it was in public. They were indeed very young and handsome. I fell in love with them and became their fan!
In many streets in Chibok, the residents cut down trees and rolled them across because of the distrust and lack of faith in the Military. The idea behind the rolling of trees across the streets was to help residents take advantage and escape during attacks while the Boko Haram members struggle to remove them. There was also allegation that the guns confiscated from the extremists and given to soldiers when some of them were arrested by the local vigilante group were found again in the hands of other members of the dreaded Islamic group who were subsequently arrested by the vigilante.
I have a lot to tell about Chibok but I will stop here so that I can provide space to tell about the plight of Borno children whose parents were murdered by the extremists. They were my primary concern. Their wellbeing and education were paramount in my heart. The things that I stumbled upon in Attagara and in Chibok that have been published so far were actually crumbs from the table of thought about these peculiar children. Though, innocent and naïve, children are usually the first casualty of war or any socio-disorder. Children like the ones above abound in Borno State whose parents have been killed by the Boko Haram sect.
From Maiduguri to Chibok where the school girls were abducted, the sight of children whose parents were victims of the insurgence is commonplace. Most of them have resorted to begging from travellers in order to survive.
Some of the children who were said to have received maltreatments from relatives who took them in when their parents died are now wondering on the streets and cruel desert where Boko Haram was reported to have napped and inducted some of them into its membership.
Manasseh Iliya, a Maiduguri base Pastor, told me that the issue of the children whose parents were killed could pose a security threat to the nation in the future if the children were not found and help to overcome their current ordeal.
He said: “As we help them find their future, we would be helping the future of the country. If Boko Haram gets to them first, it will embarrass the country in the future! They will be taught to becoming the enemy of the state. These are children with great destiny. I heard that some are in the care of the state government. They are everywhere! If you look carefully and ask questions you will certainly find them everywhere in the state. By now, I believe the FG should have a special committee to handle this peculiar case.”
Phillip Margaret, a female teacher in a secondary school in Maiduguri, told me that the Boko Haram insurgence seems to be wining the government as far as the objective of the extremists was concern. She was worry that the future of Borno girl-child is threatened at the moment because of the activities of the sect.
“Uneducated parents usually do not send their children to school here. The situation would soon affect the boys too because many government schools in the state are closed. Remember the primary objective of Boko Haram is to eradicate western education. At the moment, many schools outside Maiduguri metropolis have been closed down. Parents are not courageous again to send their children to school and to worsen the situation, most government schools outside Maiduguri metropolis have been shutdown. Those who cannot afford to send their children to private schools are left with the sad choice of keeping their children at home”, she said.
Most people in the state, according to her, were losing hope in the government because they were not keeping several promises made to the people. According to her, the state government had promised that all the secondary school students preparing for WAEC and NECO exams in the state would sit for both exams in Maiduguri, the state capital.
“What happened in Chibok for example, it was the governor that gave his word to the students and their parents that they should go back to school, and that adequate security would be provided. Security was never provided for the school. Because of this, many parents do not want to send their children to school anymore”.
She challenged the girls who escaped from the den of Boko Haram not to be afraid to return to school to continue with their academic pursuit. She said staying away from school would mean conceding defeat.