HARSH TAG REALITY: MY JOURNEY TO BORNO BY AGHA EGWU
As I entered the danger zone from Potiskum to Damaturu I could taste the fear in the air, in the way the forked tongue of a snake tastes the fear of its victim. This was it. The reality that we had been blogging about, the famous hashtag that had gone trendy on CNN - #BringBackOurGirls. This was it. This was my beloved Yobe of the fantastic landscapes. The land where I helped to plant the vision of a new university, to take aeons of ignorant illiterates out of the Boko Haram ideology that forbade Western Education.
I first noticed the road was silent as we went from Kano to Wudil, then from Wudil onto the beautiful dual carriageway that Jonathan was building. A project that had defied so many Northern military bullies was being built by the Otueke man that they now seemed to hate so much. No sense of gratitude, the great East - West dualisation from Maiduguri to Kano. What a waste for Jonathan, if he had hoped to buy the people's love and gratitude with the Oil from his lands. APC flags were everywhere. I used to ply this road so much, and came to love the North so much, with a love that burned deep into me for this land and its peoples. We left Kano at 6am. Before 8am we had passed Azare and were nearly in Potiskum. I could not believe it. I blew a whistle. The truth may be unpleasant but Jonathan was working whether I like him or not. This used to be a cramped road that will take almost four hours from Kano to Potiskum.
The silence of the roads was tangible. Was it Boko Haram or just early morning on a Saturday? I knew this road well. It used to fill so early and was so rowdy. Then we turned into that famous Potiskum junction that went to Kano, Bauchi and Damaturu â€' the heartbeat junction of the North East. Everybody used to be there and everything was sold at that junction â€' rowdy, raucous, rapacious â€' fun, fantasy, future â€' all gathered on that junction to celebrate and make merry all through the night. The truck drivers, the prostitutes, the Almajiris, the sellers, the hawkers, the traders, the colours, the noise â€' NOTHING. Dead as Dodo. Nobody. My heart started beating faster.
Butterflies in my belly. This for me was Harsh Tag reality.
It was looking more dangerous than messianic marches to the Abuja fountain with demonstrators feeling they were changing the world with a hashtag. There was no comfort here. The roads were still looking deserted as we moved on to Damaturu. The few vehicles on the road,were moving at high speed just like the CNN reporters had said. We began to discuss the nature of fear. It was tittle tattle that kept our mind off the FEAR. It was with an incredible sense of relief that I saw the beloved double arches, like the McDonald's arches, of Damaturu's gate. Damaturu, my beloved Damuturu. I shared so many loving memories in Damaturu, as we chased the dream of the new Yobe State University, but the Damaturu I now came into was not rowdy, not raucous like before. It had a deafening silence.
Butterflies fly in my belly. Sadness envelopes. This was Harsh Tag reality.
We proceeded across Damaturu in my last moments of relief, past the Governor's lodge, past one of the largest mosques in Nigeria, built by my friend Bukar Abba Ibrahim, former Governor. Then I saw it â€' the Damaturu Arch gates on the Eastern side on the way to no man's land. We passed by the gates on the other side of Jonathan's dual carriageway. I felt like the slaves leaving Badagry and Africa for the last time, through the point of no return. I had been warned not to cross Damaturu. Why was I doing this? To prove to myself I care, to prove I had no fear? We just fell silent as the driver concentrated on maximum speed to fly past the one hour drive in the shortest possible time. After each burst of speed the jeep had to stop suddenly at each new checkpoint with really mean looking soldiers, sometimes smiling, but often hard behind dark glasses. They did not want to hear. They were afraid, very afraid, and had no time for too much banter. The experience was looking worse than Jos at the height of its troubles.
Butterflies zoomed in my belly. Fear envelopes. This was Harsh Tag reality.
They said Boko Haram could step on this road at anytime, and once they ask you to step down you were dead. Nobody was smiling at anybody. Our conversation had dried up. Then we saw it. Villages upon villages had been burnt down. The road was now almost completely deserted like the villages on both sides of the road. Burnt out carcases. Some survived with the people still intact, probably waiting for their turn. Some brave ones had returned to rebuild their homes. Then I saw them for the first time. They were in mufty not like soldiers in uniform. You suspected who they were immediately and sweat broke out all over me immediately. I wanted to vomit the fear that congealed in my belly and gasped through my throat.
Butterflies stormed in my belly. Terror envelopes. Shit in my pants. This was Harsh Tag reality not the trending hashtaggers that I am not so sure really understood what they were blogging about.
Stop there! An 18 year old screamed with powerful authority. My driver braked instantly. They came with machettes and cudgels and daggers, but where were the guns? They peered into the jeep with harsh faces that scrutinised us for a while, then suddenly broke into a smile. 'Welcome to Maiduguri Oga. We are Junior JTF here to protect you.' The relief was indescribable. So they were not Boko Haram? May Allah and Jesus be praised. This was the brave little kids that fought fully armed Boko Haramites without guns, just guts and guile. They were not nasty yet. They were just brave kids with brave hearts. I salute the junior JTF.
Butterflies settle in my belly. Joy envelopes. Pissing in my pants with gratitude. This was Harsh Tag reality!!
We drove into Maiduguri. Like Damaturu, what struck me was the silence. The deafening silence. It was weird. Everywhere was silent. Children played silently in little corners. People talked in hushed tones. The once boisterous Maiduguri with its beautiful roundabouts and tree lined avenues was a shadow of its former self. We drove straight to a marriage ceremony of one of my friends. It was a silent marriage. No talking drums. No praise singers. They were gathered under the shade of a huge Neem Tree, sitting cross-legged on dusty carpets. I immediately recognised friends who came forward pumping my hands with gratitude for having the courage to come. This was the Muslim Northerners I had fallen in love with all those years ago. When they tell you that Islam is a religion of peace you can believe them because peace oozed from them. They usually tell the truth unlike southerners. They usually would not steal. They were considerate, caring, giving. Values that were not usual in the South. I love Northern Muslims, but at the same time from them was born a monster, a nightmare that now torment and haunt their every waking dream. How? Why? I watched them eat together then pray together, standing in uniform straight lines, bowing and bending in unison. This was their beautiful religion â€' not Boko Haram. They need to reclaim their true religion from the Boko Haram stereotype.
Butterflies relax in my belly. Peace envelopes. I smile with understanding. This was Harsh Tag reality!!
When conflict comes and you fight so hard, and you cannot see the end in sight, a certain weariness sets in. You begin to want to turn away, to avoid, to grow numb, to refuse to listen, see orknow. I remember my cousin Agha Idam. He had a senior brother called EgwuIdam. They both went to war in the Biafra War. When the war started, we were so full of energy. We sang with boisterous voices of victory. Egwu became an officer rapidly and had so many brave exploits. Agha was the biggest bravado before he joined the army. As the war bit deeper, we no longer sang boisterous songs, we sang dirges. One day Agha came back home with a bandage wrapped round his head and was making noises like a deaf and dumb mad man. In Biafra, this meant he had been hit by a shell bomb and was suffering from shell shock. He could not hear or speak properly. He always shouted. But sometimes when you call his name he will turn, then remember he was not supposed to hear. After a while we concluded he must be acting out the shell shock like so many Biafran fighters that deserted the war front towards the end. The comparison with his big brother was probably too much for his gentle soul. Agha was not a coward. He had just had enough. We had all had enough. We were not cowards. We were not uncaring. We were just suffering from War Time Fatigue.
After the war, the dashing handsome Lieutenant EgwuIdam, became listless as he became a 'bloody civilian' that had no rank and had to return to secondary school. He was no more the brave Biafran Officer that girls were dying for. He tried to recapture his Biafra days, but to no avail. Eventually, Egwu turned into himself, almost like a recluse. He was no longer dashing and handsome. He had a simple sportsman job at the Sports Council. His glory days were over. Egwu, like so many other dashing, handsome Biafran officers, suffered from Survival Fatigue.
Sometimes disasters come in multiple forms, and each time there is a Tsunami, a famine, a flood disaster, all combined one after the other we turn off. We no longer care about the story of that man whose entire family was carried away. We grow dim, unfeeling even. Charities are well aware of this syndrome, and try to develop strategies to combat it. They do not accuse the people of being harsh, or not having human compassion. They understand, that when we are faced with so much bad news we can shut down. We no longer want to give. It does not mean we are uncaring. It just means we are tired of bad news. It is called Donor Fatigue.
How many people still follow the news of the missing Malaysian airline today? Even CNN has given up. A whole plane with over 300 people just disappeared into thin air. Let us imagine the last moments of the passengers as they realised their hopeless situation and knew for certain they will die. Imagine how they felt when they landed on the sea. It was not a hashtag that made us take notice. It was the plight of the passengers and CNN, and then the plight of the families and more CNN, and then the conspiracy theories of the missing plane and even more CNN.
There was a hashtag but do you remember it? It was not the hashtag that made the story. It was the story that made the hashtag. Today the most caring of us will turn away at the barest mention of that Malaysian airline? Even the plight of the families have become an irritation as most of us ask 'What is wrong with these people? Can they understand that their loved ones are gone and there is nothing they can do about it?' Are we bad people? I do not think so. We are just suffering from bad news fatigue or to be more precise Malaysian Airline fatigue.
In my last article I wrote a harsh truthful piece that won many accolades. I asked 'Why Chibok Girls?', expressing my tiredness with seeing the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. It was the most shared piece that I had ever written. Someone described it as the purest truth, another as golden. The third, perfectly understood what I was writing about and gave it a name - Hashtag Fatigue. It also brought condemnation from an angry lot in the world of progressive bloggers, those who perhaps feel they care deeply about human suffering. The only problem is that too many times, they care from a distance, either in front of their computer screens, or as part of a demonstration in the relative safety of Lagos or in the comparatively serene tranquillity of London. I dare say, that not too many of our internet activists will dare make that one hour trip across no man's land from Damaturu to Maiduguri.Nothing wrong with that.As a friend put it, you had to be foolish, or very brave or desperate or all three to go to Maiduguri.
Of those who were critical, most lived in the UK. The first of these told me I had shot myself in the foot in trying to organise bloggers and internet activists to act together on matters of national interest under the name Bloggers United NG. She felt that by writing what she believed was a harsh article, progressives will be turned away from Bloggers United NG. Really? It is not me that counts. The idea stands on its own. If my opinion is the reason why anyone should give up on a powerful idea that can impact our nation, then, I am sorry we still do not appreciate the term â€' freedom of expression. I am using this medium to invite other progressive Bloggers, to join BLOGGERS UNITED NG in the search for the kind of leaders we can love, trust and respect. Just look for BLOGGERS UNITED NG on facebookand request to be a member. You will be interviewed and invited in, if you have the right kind of attitude and mentality. If you want to act together with other progressive bloggers, to influence opinion and voters to choose the right leaders, you are welcome. I will like to know whether this critic is right, not out of spite, but as a test of the resolve of progressive youths to speak with one loud voice, irrespective of whether I am involved or not. We need the right leaders that can proactively ensure that the kind of madness in Borno never emerges in this country again. Can our voices and our votes unite in search of such leaders?
One very clever Professor, intoned I was a cynic. As a learned Professor, his voice carries weight. I shall not react negatively tohis verdict because he really does not know who I am. I do not feel cynicism. I feel emptiness, powerlessness. I feel a cry in my heart that weeps silently for my nation, recognising my limitations in speaking alone or ranting on the internet. That is why I will welcome him to Bloggers United NG as I would, all Progressive Bloggers. We really have no time for cynics or for armchair criticism or for ranting just to make ourselves feel good. United voices, like a hashtag trending on the internet with the power of CNN, can make people focus, can help voices to be heard, like a demonstration, but without the fear of police bullets and brutality.
The main critic living in Nigeria, hammered me that I blame the Nigerian masses who are poor and neglected and how could I put the blame on them? Her criticisms moved me the most because they came from a very honest heart that cares so much for the poor. She however missed the point. The Nigerian masses not only contain the poor. They also contain the rich and famous, the middle classes, the intelligentsia, and like my friend OlutoyosiOmotoso likes to point out, things happen to us because we let them happen, a wonderful saying she ascribes to the Buddha. This critic was so distraught she harangued and almost abused me. Later she sent a text to apologise. I understood and smiled. Sorry for causing you so much distress but I really believe that power resides in the people and we have the kind of crass leaders we have because the people allow it. When Boko Haram or the Niger Delta militants rose up against Government, what did the Government do? Beg and negotiate. The day our people will rise to take back their land, the abusive Government of the day will scatter.
One critic lectured me on the importance of a hashtag and its power to unite the world. Hercriticisms was the one I nearly most accepted, but something about my experiences in Jos, trying to unite the Muslims and Christians, made me hesitate. What was it about this hashtag that was making me so uncomfortable. Why did I not like the refrain BringBackOurGirls? I found my answer here in Maiduguri. I was chatting with a very senior colleague in one of the local universities. He asked me a simple question. 'Which girls? Are they the only girls that have been kidnapped?Hundreds of girls have been abducted or married by force.' He described how the Boko Haramites will visit the villages and offer a gun or a brideprice for the father to choose. He started counting on his fingers all the groups of girls that had been abducted. 'Why are these ones so important?' He asked. Then he made some really ominous statements.'I would like those girls to come back, but they may not come back. Who has time to go and look for them? Look,' he said, 'the only road in and out of Maiduguri is the one to Damaturu. You cannot travel on any other roads. The military stays on the road from 10am to 4pm, then disappears.' In other words, if the military cannot keep the villagers on that road safe, how can they bring back the girls?
#BringBackOurGirls remind me of the Malaysian Airlines syndrome. Of families who will not give up in the face of harsh reality. Some still believe their loved ones will come back. Whilst we focus on the girls that Boko Haram is holding hostage, the army cannot act for fear of hurting them and many other hostages, and bringing international condemnation. Yet every night Boko Haram insurgents burn more villages and kill more people, yet the hostages tie up the hands of the military. Sometimes we have to take ruthless decisions in war, like the decision to starve 2,000,000 Biafrans to death, for the sake of One Nigeria, which is the excuse that Gowon keeps using to justify that genocide. The harsh truth is that we have to make a harsh choice, and tag along with the harsh reality. Harsh truth. Tag along. Reality. This is our Harsh Tag Reality: between finding the 200 girls of Chibok and saving the villages of Borno we may have to face a choice, or linger on in limbo. I pray we have have both but the realities here indicate we may have to face one, the more important one. It is really a bit like gangrene. You either have to cut off the gangrenous limb or lose your entire life. If we can find the 200 girls and all the other girls abducted before and after, fantastic. But let us focus on the real issue here, Borno! How do we save Borno and prevent more killings and abductions.
There is another argument that this critic used. The Chibok Girls are a symbol of our resolve. It is almost like we are more interested in the colourful demonstrations of the hashtag group, the superstars in Hollywood who have moved on from the hashtag fad, and in the letters of the Senate Women in America, than in the reality in Borno. They claim it made President Obama sit up and notice and put 80 American troops in Chad to find the Chibok Girls with drones. The ridiculousness of this proposal is too painful to contemplate. The truth is that despite the meetings in France with the francophone countries, we are on our own for the meantime. Please understand this: President Obama was playing to the gallery and just wanted to be seen to be doing something. He is not being nasty. He is not being deceptive. He is clearly very tired. President Obama is suffering from American Intervention Fatigue.
When I asked the question, 'Why the Chibok Girls?' those focused on the success of the hashtag did not understand the deeper implications of that question. Racism.Think of what happened in Rwanda, Mali, Central African Republic. It is until thousands die and governments are toppled that America and the West notice disaster in Africa. Why did it take the dramatic capture of 200 girls in the middle of the night to wake up the feminist liberation movement, that was more concerned about the rape of the girls than the dying of thousands in Borno. Please do not get me wrong. Raping the girls and selling them into slavery is a terrible thing, but like in Jos, or Biafra, when you are burying hundreds of dead in a trench, one more dead body means nothing to you. Death and pain is relative to your degree of suffering. 200 Abducted girls rings terrible in Lagos, Abuja, London and Washington, but 200 abducted girls mean nothing in Borno. They are more concerned with 200 burnt out villages. You get?
The people that will save Borno and hundreds of abducted girls and burnt out villages are the Nigerian Army, the junior JTF and the hunters who have volunteered to do so. The Nigerian Army and our soldiers from the South probably lack the motivation, but the hunters and junior JTF need to be trained and armed properly if we are to save Nigeria. Their motivation to save their homes, like our motivation in Biafra to save our lives from massacre, is strong enough to match the religious zealotry of Boko Haram.
One thing that gets me about Maiduguri, is the pleasantness of the people. It reminds me of our lives in Biafra. Surrounded by death at every turn, we found time to laugh, to love and to be kind to strangers and refugees. Maiduguri is filled with refugees and displaced persons, but you do not see them. Many are with helpful relatives. The resolve of the people of Maiduguri, their kindness and goodwill are awe inspiring. Most do not know anything about hashtags and I do not think they are waiting for demonstrations to save them through America. They will save themselves and with that save Nigeria. We need to focus not just on the girls but on Borno. If we must have hahtags, then #BringBackBorno is a more relevant hashtag to the dignity of these people than 200 girls who may or may never come back.
The Butterflies are still buzzing in my belly as I write this piece wondering how I will cross no man's land back to Damaturu and the less terrifying bombs of Abuja, or even better, the green meadows of England. Every noise is magnified in the night. I am listening out for bombs and bullets. None yet. Fear dissipates. I smile with understanding. Perhaps it is better to blog about #BringBackBorno from a safe distance. But before I go, I must leave something important for these wonderful people. I must persuade the Governor to put a proper Security corridor with escorts on that Damaturu Road so that single vehicles do not travel alone. It is their only lifeline and will do much to increase the commerce and traffic to Maiduguri. It reminds me of Biafra's Uli Airport, the only route for bringing food to the starving millions of Biafra. If that is all I can do to help, it will be far better than ranting on the internet and making much ado about nothing.
Hashtag Fatigue has become Harsh Tag reality!!