We must be thankful that the Northeast is not what it used to be. Today’s state is a prelude to become what it used to be before it lost its innocence. Things have more than a little subdued now, in spite of the occasional irritations. That is, the hijab girl as ticking bomb and the menace of driver-by motorcycles.
Some of the leaders, especially the governors, now exhale with relief and triumph. Before now, they inhaled the smoke of a terrorist’s threat. In Borno State, the news was frenetic. City after city fell. Villagers eviscerated. Emirs and leaders either captured, slaughtered or on the run. Flags soared impudently in the name of Boko Haram. No schools, no hospitals, no local governments, no mosques, or churches.
To many, the Nigeria Army was effete and defeated. It became of target both of rout and international shame. Borno Governor Kashim Shetima cried but it only elicited silence, and sometimes cowardly scorn, from the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan. He warned that Boko Haram was better armed, better trained. They made mincemeat of the army of the biggest black nation on earth. He was governor, but he did not control the army. When Maiduguri remained the only major city yet to fall, he did not get succour from the centre.
The state capital was besieged such that only one road in and out of Maiduguri was relatively safe. That was the Maiduguri- Damaturu- Kano road. Others cringed to the goons. The Maiduguri-Bui road, the Maiduguri- Bama road, the Maiduguri–Gworza road and the international road that snaked away to Cameroun and Chad. Fear whistled with the dust in the city air. The seat of government was only five kilometres away from the machine of the greatest terror threat in our history.
It was a matter of time, and we might have witnessed for the first time a popularly elected government fall to a gang of renegades in the cloak of God. Yet, a cynical game was going on in the army and the political elite. They were not arming the soldiers. They were profiteering on the blood of their men. They even had the temerity to charge them with mutiny and desertion. Officers as rich man. The boys as Lazarus. Those who had courage were made to look like mice.
The average citizen was displaced. They ran anywhere but home. They went to Chad, to Niger, to Kano, and even down south. They had a country, but they had no home. It was worse than what Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul delineated in his book, In a Free State. The novel was about a people without a place. We are witnessing it now in Europe. Hordes of people, women, children, men, in long treks, on rafts in turbulent waters, behind stockades of barbed wires from hostile host nations, some dying of hunger, some drowned, etc.
History is no stranger to these. Biafra witnessed a horrific horde of the displaced. The World Wars, the Middle East, Asia, all saw the turmoil of moving people. They are all seeking to return home. The existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, noted that every human activity is directed towards going home.
No matter where you are and whatever luxury you enjoy, if it does not feel like home, you are full of misery. Hence first generation of settlers are never rooted. That pleasure belongs to their children who never knew where their parents were weaned from.
Even when they return, can Gworza or Bama citizens still recognise what was there before the coming of the goons? Not the houses now razed, or the other landmarks now vanished, but the spirit of the place, the indefinable something called home? The memories of terror, lost ones, butchery and rape may discolour the landscape in their souls.
That is the task for Borno and the other Northeast states that lay prostrate for years under the militants. Governor Shettima is now faced with a big task. For him, it is like beginning over again. His priorities: education, healthcare, gender empowerment and agriculture.
All of the pathology in the state began with water, or lack of it. In its proud era, Lake Chad was the lifebuoy of the people. It powered commerce, agriculture and culture. It was their River Nile. Desert encroachment lapped up the water from its big sweep of 25,000 square kilometres to 2,000 square kilometres. Since the Obasanjo era, feasibility studies had been commissioned, and five million dollars released for it.
No word has been heard since. The Buhari government has asked to be updated on the matter. Hopefully, the project, under the canopy of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, could work the lake back by opening a source in the Congo River. As Fela said, water, e no get enemy.
Shettima had ticked up school enrolment 35 per cent when he introduced free busing. It rose 45 per cent with free meals. He laments that he has to start over. The number of schools in Ibadan alone supersedes all the schools in Borno and Yobe put together.
This cannot be done without a sense of emergency from the centre. Fund raisers have pledged about N58 billion, but they have not been redeemed. The President ought to help that part of the country. The main source of the crisis was underdevelopment. It was in the same Borno State that Shettima’s predecessor ripped journalists by saying that his citizens could not read so their reports had no effect. The same man was associated with Boko Haram and is the chairman of the PDP.
The infrastructure of government is returning gradually as Boko Haram has been deprived of its capacity to maintain a standing army. Intelligence will play a big role in turning the group from a sporadic menace into a limp and disappearing force.
Governor Shettima must be the most relieved chief executive in the country. He must also be the most challenged. It’s time to work. But it is not his task alone. Boko Haram was a collective disruption. We must pick the pieces together.