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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Northeast under Siege (1): The Fateful Night

Northeast under Siege (1): The Fateful Night

The shootings
Early in life, as kid-shepherds, Saleh and his friends learnt how to sleep with an eye open. It could be during the daytime when they took a nap as their cattle and sheep grazed on one of the surrounding hills or mountains away from cultivated crops, or when they spent the night in the bukka (a makeshift hut of thatch). That was when the animals were tied in pairs after sunset on a fallow that they intended to manure for the following planting season.
They did not bother about the noise of the ubiquitous ants with which they shared the bare ground of mother-earth in the bukka. Nor were they least concerned about the chilling night temperatures on the plateau especially if they had camped near Dilimi, the year-round flowing river. The paramount challenge at that tender age was learning this art of passing the night half-asleep. A thief may show up to steal one of the cows or the cows themselves may attempt a nocturnal dinner on a farm close by thereby lodging them in trouble. Since then Saleh’s sleep has never been deep.
So when armed robbers paid a fateful visit to their village, Zaranda, around 2.00am some few weeks ago, he had no problem opening the other eye at the sound of the first shot. What alerted him more to the impending danger was the incessant barking that synchronized the shootings. While still on his bed and conscious of the fact that a secretion of a trace amount of adrenaline was enough to overcome his ability to think reasonably, he quickly attempted to determine his level safety. He tried to ascertain the location of the shooting and whether it was an advancing danger or a localized one.
He sent his audio sensors into the cool dark atmosphere. They signaled DANGER, DANGER, DANGER. But the level of his personal safety was still within tolerable limits. The shootings, he judged, were taking place south of his house, localized to a position about 700 meters down town.
You may be tempted to think that I am hyperbolizing his composure in an attempt to blend a delicate artistic flavor. Hold it. It was another skill that Saleh painfully learnt again as a kid-shepherd: never confront danger with panic. He once did so at the age of ten and regretted. His father rebuked him. His shepherd colleagues laughed at him. That was when one old farmer threatened to kill him on the false pretext that Saleh’s cattle had devoured his crop. Saleh thought it was a joke. But believe me the farmer returned fully armed. As he advanced, Saleh took cover behind a Parkia tree. When it was evident that the farmer will find him, he started crying and dashed to a nearby farm where coincidentally his father was harvesting some guinea corn for his teacher. When he complained, the father thunderously shouted that he should return immediately to get killed. However, on the intervention of his colleagues, the father later went to confront the old man. A kid-shepherd from a different herd laughed at Saleh throughout the day. He repeatedly sang a verse from Saleh’s most favorite song those days. That was the then newly released LP of Mammam Shata, Bakandamiya: “a coward will never be a hero, whoever he is.” That day, Saleh wished he never sang it before.
After a brief prayer, he dropped from his bed and walked out into the spacious courtyard. He tried to figure out who was the unwilling host of these devils this time around. It could not be anyone other than Alhaji Tanko, apparently the richest businessman in the locality.
Few years ago, there could have been no reason for Saleh to be scared. Then, armed robbers operated with a combined measure of intelligence, planning and benevolence. They would only go for money and after being sure of the possibility of ceasing it. He was also living a quiet life in Kaduna where they had plenty of “big shots” in the G.R.A. that made his presence gladly insignificant. It is no longer the same. He now lives in a village where having liquid cash of N1,000.00 only is enough to attract someone else’s attention. Also, today, armed robbers are crude, foolish and sadistic. It does not bother them to annihilate an entire family on whom they cannot find any significant amount of cash.
So Saleh tried to estimate how much he could raise for them, were they to advance to his house. From the bedroom to the car, he had nothing more than N600.00. The month was in its last ten days. So his wives would not be more generous either. Their monthly domestic account (cefane) was virtually heading toward red. At this point some secretion of adrenaline was unavoidable though not enough to cause him shiver or sweat.
He strategically left the compound and went into the large garden encompassing the house to take cover behind a shrub and have the advantage of watching their arrival. Fortunately, the shootings ceased after some twenty minutes. The two large sensors at the opposite sides of his long head continued to monitor the atmosphere for dangerous sound waves for the next thirty minutes. After their screen started beeping SAFE, SAFE, SAFE, he returned to his bed. Saleh thanked God for intervening and slept the remaining two and half-hours.

The Gossip
Naturally, the next morning witnessed a flood of village versions and theories on the incident, mostly amplified. Once more, the issue of armed robbery headed the news line on rediyo mai jini (gossip) in the village. All other issues (like masara, another name for poverty in contemporary village parlance) were relegated to the background. The last time the village wavelengths were so busy was in 1995 when Malam Iro, a local trader and Imam of a separatist mosque, was attacked. Perhaps, he did not have enough time to pray. He abandoned his dear amarya (youngest wife) and climbed into the roof. But when her life was threatened, he jumped down. They made away with some money from Malam Iro which he claimed included mosque contributions in his custody. From the uwargida (senior wife), they seized her sales and funds of adashe (the traditional method of banking in Hausa culture mostly practiced by enterprising housewives). The amarya had nothing. So she earned a dirty slap and an agonizing humor from one of the robbers who said, “Matsiyaciya, ko jaura ba kya yi (Wretched, you are not even enterprising).”
Some of the details from both the villagers and the victim of the attack, Tanko, were exaggerations. What was certain however was that Tanko was caught unawares as he prepared to say his ‘Isha (late evening prayer) at 2.00am. He had just returned from a late-night courtship with a widow of a deceased friend. Despite his obesity, Tanko rushed to hide in the produce store. He came out when the robbers threatened to kill his daughter. Yet, after regaining his bearings three days later he had the humor to add some salt to the story. He then told Saleh that he turned invisible: “I was sitting in the parlor watching them, they could not see him, you know”.
Tanko’s attackers were teenagers, with only one den gun. The rest were armed with bamboo sticks. They parted away with the N20,000.00. He was too willing to hand over the sum. They also ceased from his uwargida her only N500.00. They caught her attempting to knot it at the edge of her wrapper. Poor lady! Her culture has denied her even the convenience of a pocket. The other wife present managed to hide under the bed. As one of the attackers entered the room, she lost control of her bladder. She heard him remark: “Wannan shegiyar matsoraciya ta gudu”- meaning, “this cowardly bastard has fled.”

Tanko also suffered a humiliating interrogation, threats and beatings. His cries and pleas to God relayed through his small sharp voice could be heard throughout the neighborhood. The robbers asked him to pronounce the Kalimah (the Muslim version of “say your last prayer”). He replied, “to”, okay. Anyway, they accepted his plea for mercy that he has several small children. However, they warned him that he must make ready for them a large amount of money the following Thursday when they will call back. Otherwise, they will kill him. Again, he replied, “to”. The villagers prepared a defense, but the armed robbers did not show up. If they had, luck might not have been on their side the second time.

Where were the police and the local vigilante group, the “yan banga”? The vigilante group was in the neighborhood of Tanko’s house and did confront the armed robbers head-on as they saw them knocking off the security lights of the house in preparation for the attack. However, when one of them was shot just below the shoulder and cried sun harbeni, they all fled. The first to sneak out was Saleh’s driver called Mato and who doubled ironically as the discipline master of the group. Well, the yan banga were banned from carrying knives by the state police command since they did alalo-alalo to a policeman whom they caught stealing a carton of bear from an accident vehicle four years ago. In alalo-alalo, the thief is made to carry the stolen goods (in this case the carton of bear) on his head while he is forced to walk round the village all day. He will be dancing to the tune of a humiliating drum as a crowd of booing children escorts him. Imagine a policeman undergoing this humiliation. The state police command then responded by banning yan banga from carrying weapons.
The reaction of the police that fateful night was a cowering masterpiece. They never had a single gun to protect the lives of over five thousand people in Zaranda. So when a member of the vigilante group arrived at their station (which the police themselves call “shago” (business shop) to report the incidence, the police “tactically withdrew” in haste into the surrounding forest of mango trees. On reaching the forest they climbed into the dark canopy for a better “camouflage”. The following morning, one of them, who since his posting had literally turned the shago into an abode, vowed never to pass the night there again.
It has been a sad week in Zaranda. Barely a week earlier, Musa, a senior commercial officer with Total and an elder brother to the widow Tanko was courting that fateful night, was shot point-blank in his office at their regional office in Jos. Nothing was heard from the police on his case since then.

The Search for Protection
The robbers that came to Tanko’s house have threatened to attack the other three rich people in the village, each of whom they claimed had “rijiyar kudi” (money bunker) in his house. They did not name them but Saleh was not ready to take chances. He asked one of his domestic guards (maigadi) where they could find charms against these devils. The maigadi replied: “Abu mai sauki (easy).” He was particularly interested in the spectacular “baduhu” that will enable him become invisible, anytime, anywhere.
So the following day they set out for Kafin Jalo, a village 200 km north of Zaranda and about 60 kilometers off the highway to Gombe. The news there was not good either. The previous night, one Alhaji Usman was attacked in his house at a nearby village called Leso. The robbers killed two people and parted away with a handsome amount of cash. The portion of the news that was interesting to Saleh however was that, as rediyo mai jini had it, the Alhaji was able to turn invisible to the robbers. This strengthened Saleh’s resolution to possess baduhu. They reached Kafin Jalo and met with Malam. He gave them a number of prescribed prayers, some layu (religious charms) and some concoctions for his family and himself.
Though he was asked to wait for sometime for the notorious baduhu because it takes some time to prepare and test, Saleh nevertheless got something close to it, the layar zana. This will enable him disappear when suddenly frightened. Also, both Saleh and his maigadi got sabani, the charm that will make people with evil intentions miss him. It has several other uses that Saleh prefer to conceal. Also collected was kafi (house protection) which consists of religious charms planted in the four angles of the house.
For now, Saleh is bogged down with how to authenticate these charms periodically and how to avoid their accidental deactivation or disappearance. In the case of layar zana he has to wait until the day he gets frightened. Though he does not pray for one, it nevertheless carries some element of possibility. So long as his house or his person is not attacked, he assumes that both kafi and sabani remain effective. The day he is attacked however, he plans to claim damages from the malam who may simply argue that Saleh has mistakenly deactivated the charms. The baduhu is undoubtedly verifiable. We promise our readers a full article on it once the malam fulfilled his promise, and hardly does he break one. Perhaps, he does so only occasionally.
Saleh’s friends in Kaduna and elsewhere may laugh at his resort to metaphysics. But wait a minute. What are his options? Despite many appeals from military administrators and traditional rulers in the Northeast, government is yet to come up with tangible security policies on the matter. For those that will condemn his actions as infidelity, Saleh told us that he would stand his ground. His defense is short and simple. One, safety first. Two, the jurists are divided on the issue. Three, asiri (mystical empowerment) is a form of prayer to God. Four, is religion not fundamentally metaphysical?
Scientifically, however, Saleh’s defense could be regarded weak. Anyway, he can argue that since he has not been attacked so far, all is well with his charms. Who knows, may be the armed robbers turned up but Saleh’s house appeared to them a river or a forest? Then, he has cause to be glad that God has answered his prayer through kafi. Or they have been missing him, again thanks to God who protected him through sabani. Either way, his trip to Kafin Jalo was not fruitless. Not until, God forbid, it is proved otherwise.

More Casualties
Since the attack on Tanko four weeks ago, Saleh has learnt about seven other attacks in his vicinity. Among them was Bala, his in-law, whose corpse was returned last week. He was ambushed just at the outskirts of Damaturu after dropping some passengers at Potiskum. May his soul rest in peace. His death was both shocking and pitiful. Shocking in the sense that he was young. Only 43! It was pitiful because he was the backbone of an extended family of over sixty people. He was hardworking and kind. At his condolence, Saleh saw the record of hard work that Bala left behind. After they were threatened by flood two years ago, Bala gathered all his resources and built a large compound which housed not only his two wives and fourteen children but also his crippled father and hypertensive mother. Certainly, to complicate matters, death has many times taken the asset and left with the liability!
Three days later, Salisu, another in-law was attacked at almost the same point. One of his passengers was butchered as a price for resistance. Salisu managed to escape to the bush where he stayed for over twelve hours. Before we could return from our visit to Saleh, the news reached him that in Jos there was an hour-long broad daylight robbery the previous day near the NNPC depot. The following morning his wife told him that his nephew, Shehu, was one of the victims in the depot robbery. Shehu got some clemency from the robbers because he did not run away. They were kind enough to cease the money he earned from the trip to Kaduna. Others who attempted to flee from the taxi were mysteriously stuck to the ground. According to rediyo mai jini, they were simply hopping in one place. It appears that charms are not the exclusive preserve of people like Saleh. The people underground also possess them. Finally as we planned to bid Saleh a farewell, we learnt over the BBC that in Yobe state a whole village was attacked two days ago. It was the same story of robbery, casualties and killings by a handful of bandits. Last week, they operated on a federal highway in the same area for over twelve hours, unchallenged by the authorities.

Their Meeting Next Week
The Northeast is undoubtedly under siege. Before the promised article on the formidable baduhu, next week, the second part of the present article will analyze the state of insecurity in this part of the country.
We also seize the opportunity to warn that those intending to return to the countryside should think twice. Do not be carried away by Country Road, Take Me Home of Kenny Rogers. There was not this crude robbery in West Virginia. The penchant for its beautiful landscape and the serenity may not be worth the trouble. You may be safer in the metropolis. For Saleh and his country friends, the government has failed. They are under the protection of the Almighty, the Best Protector and the Best Assistant. But if you insist to relocate back here, do not only look for baduhu and sabani, please learn also how to sleep with an eye open.

June 9, 1999

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