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My Boko Haram experience

I worked in Maiduguri, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency for nearly 20 years. From 2009 when the then harmless members of the Yusufiyya…

I worked in Maiduguri, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency for nearly 20 years. From 2009 when the then harmless members of the Yusufiyya Movement turned violent, life in the hitherto peaceful and bustling town became something else.
 On many occasions, at the height of the crisis, I had many terrifying encounters in many parts of the metropolis.
The Abbaganaram encounter
The encounter I had at the axis of Abbaganaram, a settlement that leads to Markas, the destroyed headquarters of Boko Haram in Maiduguri, terrified me in no small measure. Some months earlier, the Boko Haram terrorism had just started in 2009, and we had been thrown into a state of fear, despair and unending trauma. The terrorists had attacked so many places and killed several people already.
Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, had been shut down and was almost at a standstill. There was nothing practically working and we were faced with scarcity of fuel because almost all filing stations did not have the commodity.
However, on one of those days, I heard from a neighbour that there was fuel in the ‘black market,’ somewhere around Abbaganaram. I, therefore, took the keys of my car and hurried to the fuel market, oblivious of the fact that trouble was lucking around.
The “buyers and sellers” of the scarce commodity were actually the true members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect. Immediately I parked my car near them, I alighted almost in a hurry and asked for a jerry-can of fuel. Unknown to me, the men I was trying to avoid were actually my ‘attendants’ at the market.
 Suddenly, one of the ‘men’ approached me and pretended he was doing something and at the same time talking. He actually knew me as a media personnel, but honestly, I had no inkling that he had ‘derailed’ and  joined the Boko Haram sect.
In his pretentious style, he asked: “Aminu what are you doing here?’’
“I am here to buy fuel,’’ I casually responded without the knowledge that I was in the wrong place.
“Better get out of this place immediately. Every single person you see here is a member of this sect. We are not selling any fuel to any person. As a matter of fact, there is no sale at all,” he said.
On hearing what he said, my body started shaking.  I was terrified and my heart beat quadrupled: “I’m dead!’’ I told myself.
When the terror guy realised that I lost my balance, he said: “We all know you here. We know who you are. So it is better you leave before they suspect that you are here for news. Therefore, leave immediately, go,” he said.
 By sheer providence, he took the risk of saving my life, and I drove off in high speed, almost immediately.
I thanked God I survived the encounter because it was a rare privilege. The Boko Haram fighters had their way of cajoling people to their traps and ended up killing them.

The first fierce encounter
 July 26, 2009 could be described as the ‘first major war day’ in Maiduguri. It was during the late President Umaru Yar’Adua-led administration. Before then, there were series of misunderstanding between state actors and the Boko Haram members, who were at the time known as Yusufiyya members (a name carved from the initials of founder of the group, Mohammed Yusuf).
On the night before the crisis, I received a call from Ruth Gabriel, one of our advert staff, whose residence was at Bayan Kwatas, a neighborhood of the Railway Terminus in Maiduguri, located adjacent to Yusuf’s enclave, the place where the insurgency started.
Ruth, who sounded visibly terrified, asked me to come to her rescue and  that of some members of her family as there was no way they could  pass the night in the area. She said, “There are so many people with guns. They are all armed with sophisticated weapons.’’
I later found out that the Yusufiyya men and women, accompanied by their children, had perfected plans to go out on a mission, or perhaps a “vengeance.”
I drove over to take them out. After some 5km drive from my home in Fouri, I arrived Bayan Kwatas to the frightening sight of men, other than security personnel,  with such arms and ammunition, highly prepared for a showdown with constituted authorities.
Most of them were preparing locally made bombs inside rail coaches. I was scared and we hurriedly left. Those people were the men who later became Boko Haram insurgents.
“So where do I take you?’’ I asked Ruth. 
“To Government College, opposite police headquarters,’’ she said.
Unfortunately, we did not know that the police headquarters was the target of the terrorists.  I dropped them off there and left for my house, only to hear in the dead of the night, a deafening sound of gunshots and improvised explosive devices.
The terrorists had besieged the police headquarters. It was around 2:00am.
In the morning, we learnt that many members of the sect were killed. Policemen were also killed. It was tragic.

The arrival of Nigerian soldiers
Immediately after the carnage, the federal government reacted by sending troops to take charge of the situation. It seemed that Nigeria was at war. The soldiers would search every pedestrian and shoot at the slightest provocation. Many people were killed in that manner. 
Through the windows of our office, along Baga road, I and my colleagues saw how scores of people were killed by the soldiers. That action almost caused us our lives when one of the soldiers noticed that we were looking at them from the windows. He angrily fired sporadic gunshots in our direction.
The fierce-looking soldiers stormed the office. We were all terrified, thinking it was the end of the road for us. Indeed, we would have been dead if not for the fact that one of the soldiers was the husband of our office secretary, Maryam Babagana.
He identified us as members of the press, and that was how we were spared.

The men in the red car
 I was at work on that fateful day when my wife called on phone, saying some strange men were looking for me. Her voice was frail and she seemed confused.  ‘Their looks alone are terrifying,’’ she explained.
I was destabilised and confused, knowing full well that members of the sect usually embarked on their mission in Volkswagen Golf cars.
“They came in a red Golf car,’’ my wife said.
“What did I do?’’ I asked, though I knew she would not give me an answer.
“Where do I go from here? How do I get away from them?’’ I asked myself.
  I asked many questions, but there was no answer.
I quickly informed my regional manager, Malam Hassan Karofi, about the new development and he advised that I be careful. He also said the only thing to do was to leave Maiduguri. And that was what I did, together with Hamza Idris, our bureau chief at the time. We fled to a town in the North-Central part of the country.
Respite came my way much later when I gathered from a neighbour that the men who came looking for me were personnel from the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA),  now the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
My last encounter was on June 7, 2014, when some members of the sect attempted to escape from their detention cell and jumped into our office. Some members of the sect were held at a military formation known as Sector 1, located adjacent our office. They scaled the tall fence that separated our office from their cell, not minding the barbwires.
The fleeing insurgents were trailed by soldiers who threatened to shoot anybody on sight.
When the soldiers came into our office, the first person they saw was Abubakar, our staff attached to the maintenance department. He shouted on top of his voice, repeatedly telling them not to shoot.
Probably, his dressing suggested to the soldiers that he might not be one of the escapees.
I came out from my office when I heard altercations, only to be welcomed by an angry soldier who pointed his gun at me, waiting for a little resistance to fire.
“Come down here,” he shouted.
Many other members of our staff gathered together and waited for the worst to happen.
The soldiers asked me to give details of everyone, which I did.
Although two members of the sect were re-arrested, three others escaped with life- threatening injuries they sustained while jumping over the fence. It was a harrowing experience.
Ado is the Kaduna regional manager of Daily Trust newspapers.

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