By Is’haq Modibbo Kawu
I have been coming to Maiduguri, over the past couple of decades. It’s a city that I have an intimate familiarity with; and over the years I have built very long-lasting relationships with members of the traditional, intellectual and political elites of Borno State. They’re very proud of their thousand-year-old history, culture, and membership in the house of Islam. I have also enjoyed the bantering, associated with the old Kanuri-Fulbe joking relationships.
At a point in the 1990s, when I reported for the BBC and RFI, I would drive from my base in Kano, to do reporting assignments. I have done the Hajj-by-road as an African Perspective programme for the BBC. That was in 1995. I was also reporting on Lake Chad; I explored the various Chadian cultures and their influences on the Borno persona, as I stayed a whole day, attending the annual cultural festivities of the Banasandari Cultural Association, at a primary school in the Bulanbulin Quarters of Maiduguri, during the 1990s.
And it was in the same quarter of the city that I interviewed one Alhaji Isa Dogo; one of his legs had been amputated from a diabetic problem. But he had been part of the geological surveys, that discovered the famous Dufuna Canoe. It was found in today’s Yobe State, by a Fullo nomad, and after radiocarbon analysis, was found to be older than Noah’s Ark. It was one of the definitive elements of the assumption, about the Mega-Chad, from thousands of years previously, when the Lake Chad, was believed to have extended so far inland, into that part of Nigeria. At the Center for Trans-Saharan Studies, at the University of Maiduguri, I had an extensive interview with the late Professor Eldridge Muhammed; Fullo and Cameroonian, and partly European. He was a repository of knowledge about the region.
Maiduguri was the site of exile for various Chadian factions, during the prolonged civil wars in that fraternal, neighbouring country. And there were several Chadian restaurants all over the city, as well as the roadside Chadian banana/milkshake outlets, that one could purchase, to assuage the heat of a Maiduguri afternoon. I was so besotted with the cultures: Kanuri; Shuwa Arab; Chadic; and the fact of the confluence of several influences, from near and far, that I seriously contemplated changing location, from my Kano base to Maiduguri! It was my appointment as pioneer General Manager of KWTV in Ilorin, in 1997, that changed my plan, and in a fundamental sense, the course of my professional life.
I recall the various places that I’ve reported from Bama; Biu; Chibok; Dikwa; Gwoza; Gubio; Askira Uba; New Marte; Gamboru Ngala; Banki; Malam Fatori; and the incredible privilege of travel and discovery, that fuel the passions of journalism and broadcasting: sleeping rough; travelling in some amount of discomfort, but lapping up the humanity and generosity of people; poor and rich alike. Those were the years of a strange form of innocence. There was nothing on the horizon, that seemed to predict the emergence of Boko Haram, and it’s a very destructive insurgency.
But that tragic period was one of a rude awakening, not just for Borno or Northern Nigeria; it is an epoch that has continued to haunt our existence, because of the incredible manner that the ogre of violence was let loose on the land; resulting in unparalleled destruction; the vacation of decency, and a period, when the essential humanity, and values of the community, became conscious objects of violent violation.
I saw at very close quarters, how Kashim Shettima, as the Governor of Borno State, made almost superhuman efforts, not only to support the Nigerian security forces, in fighting the insurgency but to stay in Maiduguri. He would travel around the state, with the visibility and courage, that was sometimes, at very personal risk. But even in the midst of the insurgency, life had to be lived; leadership must respond to the challenges of underdevelopment; schools must be built or rebuilt; housing must be provided; health care facilities destroyed needed to be rehabilitated, and new ones constructed. The challenges were enormous but, I can attest to the incredible efforts made to touch lives, positively.
The story of those remarkable efforts at reconstruction and rehabilitation, is also in a very touching sense, the story of political continuity, and remarkable leadership recruitment, in Borno. Kashim Shettima found in his commissioner in charge of rehabilitation and reconstruction, Professor Babagana Umara Zulum, the unique qualities of a leader, that could build on his legacy of service, and commitment; but he modestly insisted also, that for the sake of Borno and its people, he was recruiting a successor, he strongly believed, was even better than he was. The result is all the good that’s coming out of this wonderful state.
I arrived in Maiduguri on Friday night, to attend Kashim Shettima’s daughter’s wedding. Maiduguri is a very well-lit city at night; and the lamp posts have an aesthetic to them, that I’ve not seen in any other city in Nigeria. It must be quite expensive, because the insurgency had deliberately targeted electrical pylons for repeated acts of sabotage, to keep the city in darkness. Almost as a metaphor, for the prehistoric primitive content of their belief system! And by Saturday morning, we were driving on well-paved city roads, with equally, very neat surroundings. Economic life seems to be on the up, and there’s far more optimism today than what was obtained in the old days of bombings and killings within the city.
I couldn’t escape what I’d always known. This is an expansive city, and the Borno elite built it with an incredible sense of space and a very tasteful architectural delight. Of course, Borno’s cuisine has always wowed me, even if as a foodie, I wasn’t able to eat with the relish that I would have loved. But Borno continues to surprise in pleasant ways, and the city of Maiduguri conveys those surprises.
I stopped over at a quarter of the town, where the famous Borno caps are made. I had been told, a few years ago, that many of those artisans and tradesmen, who live around the crafts of making and selling as well as living, by those highly prized caps, had relocated from Bama after it was occupied by Boko Haram. Despite the effort, we couldn’t get the sizes that would fit my head. So, I negotiated, with one of the artisans. His name is Terab. We agreed that they would make many caps of different designs, just for me. We exchanged telephone numbers. But he then went further: “I know you; I’ve seen you several times on television. But before then, I regularly read your columns in Daily Trust. You are Is’haq Modibbo Kawu. And you’re from Ilorin in Kwara State”.
Truly, Maiduguri surprises!
Kawu writes from Maiduguri International Airport