This is a report from an activist of the Nigerian Marxist paper Workers’ Alternative who visited Maiduguri twice some weeks ago and stayed there for two weeks cumulatively in collaboration with a working class activist on the ground in Maiduguri . The report gives a true insight into state of things in this hot zone in Nigeria.
For over six months now, the state of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in the North East of Nigeria have been under emergency rule. This is claimed to be necessitated by the barbaric activities of the Boko-Haram insurgent. The complete blackout on what is going on within, as a result of outright ban on communication systems makes the journey for direct assessment of the situation too imperative. My two weeks stay was needed to make up an opinion of what exactly is going on behind the facade of media propaganda and (mis)information.
How dangerous is Maiduguri main town?
Stepping out of the airport, after few kilometres drive, we saw a group of youngsters with sticks, arrow and even some holding no weapon. Alas, the driver who took us from airport was quick to inform us that we were seeing Civilian JTF before us. What a heroic scene, we were stopped, thoroughly checked and no demand for 20 naira as we are used to in Lagos. We used to hear that Boko Haram uses armoured tanks, AK47 and many sophisticated weapons, how on earth can these youngsters hope to confront them with mere stick and hands?
Later in the evening, I eventually met my host, a young, well above-averagely intelligent man and a native of Maiduguri. Very happy to have me around and after exchanges of pleasantries we set to work. He started by giving the background to the whole saga. He told me how Muhammad Yusuf (founder of Boko Haram) started as a young Islamic student. How he started preaching negative sermons and was ostracized by the community. How he became rich all of a sudden and started attracting poor, desperate and unemployed youths by giving out interest-free loans. How he built his social base on the basis of this. How, the enlightened and more progressive members of the community still despised him. He told me how insignificant his followers were and how hated they were in the township of Borno.
He informed me of how he was arrested 7 times under Ali Sheriff rein and moved to Abuja, only to re-appear again with powerful politicians behind his release. At this point, Yussuf became a demi-god with a large number of followers in the whole of North-Eastern region of Nigeria, he became almost unstoppable. Ali Modu Sheriff (former governor of Borno State) initially seemed to be against the activities of Muhammad Yusuf and his group just as Muhammad Yusuf regularly attacks Ali Modu Sheriff in his preaching. This seemed to be the case up until the time when Boko Haram got violent and their subsequent crushing by Federal troops in July 2009. However approximately one year later in 2010 Boko Haram re-emerged with a guerrilla-like shoot and hide tactic. Initially they started targeting police officers with their new technique then they moved to targeting traditional ward heads (Bulamas) and village heads (Lawans). They subsequently expanded their target victims to include some politicians before including civil servants to their target victims. Their targeting of politicians is particularly interesting because they never harass any politician belonging to the national ruling party (PDP).
Facts later emerged that Boko Haram called agents of opposition political parties the night before each of the 2011 elections and threaten them not to come to the polling station. Boko Haram only started targeting members of the ruling party when the Borno state chapter of the party took sides with the people in the need to call the JTF soldiers to order. For some time, Boko Haram remain elusive while acting out their guerrilla style battle until one insurgent was for the first time since their re-emergence knocked down by a civilian while trying to flee after carrying out an assassination. The civilian was however later killed by Boko Haram. It was after the formation of the JTF and the arrest of a good number of Boko Haram members that fingers started pointing towards Ali Modu Sheriff. A good number of the insurgents confess that they get their weapons from people loyal to Ali Modu Sheriff.
It was a long and interesting evening of questions and answers and all the necessary backgrounds information already given by my able host and friend. The memory of the Civilian JTFs I saw earlier kept flashing back to my memory; at every kilometre, you will see them. They guard market places and every crowded joint. My first message to the Lagos that evening was: “Maiduguri is safer than Lagos”. I really meant it, it was practically impossible for any arm-robber to rob as we always experience in Lagos or for any policeman to shoot and claim accidental discharge. This is a case of armed-population, defending itself against all form of criminality. Now that the state of emergency has been declared, what does it mean for the people, the insurgency and the military force?
How it all started
Necessity expresses itself as an accident; the first civilian JTF in Maiduguri never knew he was one. A young man known as Abba Mos Villa has always tasked himself with fearless act of chasing Boko Haram members whenever they emerge to carry out an assassination or detonate an explosive. He often chases them in his car and attempt to run them over with his vehicle. He was later killed by Boko Haram before the emergence of the Civilian JTF as we know it today. Though Abba Mos Villa was never formally a member of the Civilian JTF, it was generally accepted that he was the first inspiration for the people fight back against the terrorists.
Much later, after the declaration of the state emergency a very important event took place at a wedding in Hausari ward in Maiduguri metropolis. People suspected that a certain young man wearing a well-starched kaftan might be hiding an AK47 under his kaftan. The suspicion was that he might be waiting for one of the invited guests to the wedding who is marked for death by Boko Haram.
A young kolanut seller name Baba Lawan (pronounces Baa Lawan) took the bull by the horns and physically engaged and overpowered the suspected Boko Haram member. Other guests at the wedding rose up, aided him and true to their suspicion found a machine gun on the suspect. They immediately handed him over to the nearest JTF personnel. From that point, Baa Lawan mobilized the youth in Hausari where they started hunting down suspected Boko Haram members in their area. Interrogating arrested suspects revealed information that lead to further arrests.
Baa Lawan and his Hausari team convinced the youth in Gwange ward to do the same, which they did with massive success. From that point, the movement spread to every neighbourhood across the city of Maiduguri and thus the Civilian JTF was born. The actions of Baa Lawan were the stimulus needed to drive an already fed up youth to action. At that time, it was extremely dangerous to be a young man in Maiduguri. On one side, Boko Haram targets you because they believe you are taking side against them, one the other hand the soldiers treat every young man as a potential Boko Haram member and is therefore a target of their periodic massacres.
Why civilian JTF and how far with them?
Civilian JTF’s emergence was a response to a couple of factors. The soldiers brought in to enforce state of emergency, declared as much more war against the people than as against the Boko-Haram. The first commandant of the JTF was a terrible bigot, who was acting as if he had a score to settle with the people of Borno state. My host told me how he used to claim that he was on a war mission and no sympathy is expected even against the innocent ones. I was taken to a street where the whole street was razed down by the military. Hundreds of lives were lost, I was told of a young man, Zenith Bank staff who was shot dead by soldier in the presence of his mother. It was a period of fear and wailing in an unprecedented scale. It was a case of: If you escape from Boko Haram, you will certainly be caught by the bullet of the soldiers. Hell cannot be more horrible. Over 90% of the soldiers had been allocated to who is who in the town. They are meant to protect big properties not human beings, especially the poor ones. It got to a time that Boko Haram no longer directly killed people, they would just manage to kill one soldier and the military will come to that neighbourhood and kill hundreds of innocent people. At this point, the need for people to rise up and take up arms to protect themselves became a necessity.
The emergence of Civilian JTF on the scene in Borno was a significant turning point. Mystification aside; people know who Boko Harams are. They know where they live and how they operate. They know that without the support of powerful politicians, they are mere common criminals who they can fish-out and eliminate. A lot of Boko Haram members who were initially not known by the populace later became known when they started moving to their camps in the forests and deserts. This move really helped in identifying Boko Haram members who were initially not known because when you notice some of your neighbours disappear you begin to raise some questions. Having successfully evolved, Civilian JTF set to work. It won full support of huge layer of more advanced and honest rank and files of the soldiers. Cooperation between it and the soldiers at the early stage of its emergence, largely contributed to its initial success. I was taken to a neighbourhood which served as headquarter of Boko Haram; it took 5 days of total showdown and full scale war to liberate the area from Boko Haram. Surprisingly, the battle was waged by Civilian JTF and the Boko Haram only, military only provided logistics. The area was still deserted when we visited; I only saw a huge concentration of Civilian JTF combatants who were still around daring the return of insurgents. There are several other places like this within and around Maiduguri, which have been completely flushed off the insurgents. As I said above, Maiduguri will qualify as one of the most secure town in the country at present; thanks to Civilian JTF.
Who are the real enemy of the people behind the insurgents?
We visited a very big mansion of Ali Modu Sheriff. The house was completely deserted, except the group of soldiers guarding the house. I was told that Civilian JTF had mobilized themselves many times to raze down this mansion, but in all occasions are been prevented by the soldiers. Even a little boy of six-year knows Ali Modu Sheriff is the king-pin of Boko Haram, yet he enjoyed full protection of the state, he entered Aso rock and exit as he likes, while the innocent lives are being wasted by soldiers claiming to fight Boko Haram. I was told Ali Modu Sheriff dared not walk around the town now, he had relocated to Abuja and a detachment of civilian JTF has been placed on stand-by, that if he touches Maiduguri anytime; day or night, he should be cleared-off as punishment for all his sins against humanity. Almost all the politicians in the state have abandoned their official quarters, not so much for fear of Boko Haram, but for fear of being arrested by Civilian JTF; Civilian JTF members know all of them and unfortunately seem powerless to effect the necessary punishment.
Are the bigots right?
For the ethnic and religious bigots, Boko Haram is representing the whole North. Its demand is demand of the Northerners. Boko Haram is a welcome development for them; at least it allows them to justify their useless and shameful bigotry. That civilian JTF emerged and has more following far more than Boko Haram is a source of disappointment and sadness. Civilian JTF has put the bigots to shame. Boko haram has been forced to reveal its true identity and aim! It is now seeing more clearly as bandit fighting against its own people.
Who want the insurgency to continue?
Unfortunately, civilian JTF as people’s militia can only be transitory. It cannot exist side-by-side with the standing army, which is the only arrangement this socio-economic system can tolerate and allow to exist. Having people directly involve in their own security and defence, is absolutely incompatible with this system. The current Governor of the state Kashim Shettima sees himself being held hostage by the people. He currently lacks the capacity to unleash any major attack against the people, because people have taken their destiny to their own hands. He is being forced to carry out program that favours people now, simply because he is no longer in absolute control.
But, how long more will the ruling elite tolerate this state of affairs? The politicians in the state will do everything within their power to put an end to this laudable activity.
Top military officers who had earlier nicknamed Borno state as ATM, because of immense wealth being reaped in because of emergency declaration will equally do anything to frustrate the activity of civilian JTF. To end the occupation is to block the easy flow of cash for them. They have not come too hard against Civilian JTF yet, simply because many rank and files of the soldiers have a very strong sympathy and respect for these heroic youths. At an opportune time, the real intention of the officers will come more open. Ali Modu Sheriff knows that it is just a matter of time, the Civilian JTF will be defeated and he will have the whole of Maiduguri back in his palm, he too is also waiting for the appropriate time. Of what essence will the success of Civilian JTF be for the amnesty committee setup by Government? Civilian JTF had publicly come out against amnesty for Boko Haram because they have been demystified already, this is equivalent to banning amnesty committee and blocking their source of easy money; they cannot wish the civilian JTF well and will be happy to have insurgent having upper hand in this battle against criminal bandits.
What is the way out?
The heroic activity of Civilian JTF has once again freed the beautiful town of Maiduguri from the criminal bandits and their backers. It has revealed to us how to fight terrorism and win, within the shortest possible time. It has demonstrated how to take destiny into our own hands when all odds seem against us. Unfortunately, its existence is incompatible with standing army; standing army is the only form of army that a system based on private property can tolerate. Civilian JTF is surrounded by powerful forces that want it annihilated and crushed. It has no ally from where alliance is expected. It's activities have never even been covered by any international media outfit except the Nigerian based TVC News. This media blackout is particularly interesting when one compares it to how the media reports every action of Boko Haram. In fact the name Boko Haram itself was coined by the Hausa service of the BBC and was immediately adopted by Al-Jazeera, CNN and other international media outfits on the same day of their first attack in Bauchi back in July 2009. Working class organization with its immense material resources would have come to the aid of this heroic young men and women, but they are left alone to face AK47 bullets with their bare hands and cutlasses. How long more can they survive this hostile environment depends on how many of the neighbouring towns will take to this example and follow suit. It is our wish that this status quo remains for as long as we are capable to renew the leadership of the working class, which is the only trusted class that is capable enough and equally destined to be an ally of suffering masses in this kind of difficult situation.