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Siege Warfare

By

Razinat Talatu Mohammed


   It began on the evening of Sunday the twenty-sixth day of July. Residents
of Maiduguri did not know what had descended on their otherwise peaceful
city until the morning of Monday, the twenty-seventh. In the early hours of the
day, at about 2 a.m., a time when people were just beginning to gather
momentum for sound sleep, the sounds of machine guns and hand grenades
were heard at a radius of about eight kilometres from the epicentre of the
crisis. People were suddenly woken into what seemed like a joke but, to the
surprise of all, lasted for five days. The town of Maiduguri was under siege at
the hands of a religious sect that claimed its sole interest to be that of
protecting the desecration of the religion of Islam, from possible corruption by
alien values taught through western education.
   What surprised most people was the fact that the group had lived amongst
the peace-loving people of the town and had, indeed, exhibited high degrees
of intolerance for their fellow Muslims. But unknown to most, the group was
systematically accumulating weapons for warfare. They had a mortal hatred
for men of the uniform, and that meant of all types, and, above all, their
ideological arguments against western education were often greeted by open
derision. People reacted differently to that ‘notorious’ bunch. They were
called crazy, blood thirsty, faithless, cultists, collaborators and so on.
   On that fateful day, Tasallah, a tall, fair skinned, post-graduate student of
International Relations at the University of Maiduguri was rekindling her union
with the dream world as her psyche reshaped some of her conscious
thoughts that night. She was dreaming that she and some of her friends were
going for a picnic at the Alau Dam, on the outskirt of Maiduguri town. In a
hurry, she packed the basket with the red and green paintings into the
warming car. It was a warm day, the kind of period when people felt the urging
desire to be out-doored.  She had visiting friends from another town and she
was anxious to show them the riverside and the beautiful dam. They made the
fifteen-minute drive in Bala’s EFI 4500 land cruiser; Bala was her fiancé of
three years. The drive to Alau has always given her the feeling of immense
satisfaction. The undulating roadside with its green cover of grass had always
lulled her senses just as the view was soothing to her eyes. She watched as
the vast lands extend further into the wilderness until the trees became
diminutive in the far horizon. Her friends loved the view as was obvious from
the smiles on their faces as they watched in silence.    
   Bala knew the terrain of the riverside so well and as he drove the jeep
through rubbles and large granite chips, he finally made his way to the far
end of the bank where the grass was green and clean, and there, he pulled
up. The visiting lot got down and walked around for a while chatting and
laughing. Mariam Ali, the only other female in the group, spread out her arms
and inhaled the fresh air that was abundantly theirs. Bala and Tasallah
spread a large carpet on the grass and began bringing down the baskets that
had taken her the whole morning to put together. As they were busy off-
loading the food and the drink baskets from the rear of the jeep, a group of
youths, numbering four, appeared from the front of the car and walked
straight onto them. Tasallah saw them walk towards her because Bala had his
back to them. She stood up and prepared herself to attend to them. She had
expected that they were perhaps going to make enquiries from them. She
stood erect and waited as two of the boys walked on the carpet with mud on
their worn out shoes. She did not like the sight of them. Not their faces and
certainly not their clothes were pleasing in her sight.
      “Yes, anything?” she queried in Hausa; she was particularly addressing
the boy at the fore-front
      “Nothing!” the boy said and shook his rather large head. His eyes, she
noticed, had a shine that seemed to glitter with the setting sun. Before she
could utter another word, the boy whisked one of the picnic baskets and
began to run and all the others followed suit. They ran through the bushes
along the river. Bala heard the rustling bushes and turned from mopping the
water that had poured on the back seat of the jeep. He noticed the lost look
on Tassallah’s face and he quickly ran to her asking “What is it? What is it? ” .
      “There, the food basket, it has been stolen by those running boys” she
pointed to the direction of the disappearing figures. “What?” and without
another word, Bala raced towards the direction of the rustling bushes. He
could only hear the rustling but saw no one. It was too late to make a chase
after the boys. They had disappeared into the deep woody interior of the river-
side and it was dangerous to continue with the chase. More so, Tasallah’s
voice echoed through the thick bushes, urging him to let go. The visitors, who
were taking in the freshness of the air, heard the commotion and all ran to
where Tasallah stood and enquired from her. She told them what had
happened and they became scared and began fearing for their lives.
      “Are you sure that we are safe here?” asked Garba, the shortest of them
all. He had a kind of humorous countenance that could almost, be said to
have made up for his deficiency in build. The others looked at him and
laughed hilariously. At that moment, Bala rejoined the group and made
excuses about having been alerted rather late. He could see that Tasallah
was in no laughing mood as she stood dumbfounded and could not make out
the reason for an action such as that except that the hunger in the country
was driving the poor into a desperate situation. She imagined that someone
would catch up with the thieving youths at the other end and gun them down
tat.. tat.. tat.. tat.. tat… over and over. She went on recapping the punishment
she expected to come their way when, suddenly, she opened her eyes in a slit
at first like someone ready to shut out reality.
   Slowly, the persistent sound of gunshots greeted her consciousness and
she could not ascertain whether she was still sleeping and dreaming about
the boys and the basket of food or if she had indeed woken. She pinched
herself severally and slapped her bare thighs one after the other and she
could still hear the ceaseless gunshots and the sounds of bombs dropping in
the fringe. She rose from the bed and groped for her torchlight without luck.
With the help of her extended hands, she found the wall and groped clumsily
through the door adjoining the kitchen. She reached for the window and stood
by it facing the darkness that was the world outside. She could not see
anything; it was like an eclipsed night. Yet, the sounds of guns firing
continued unabated. She felt a chill run through her spine. It was obvious that
the town was under siege. The quiet city of Maiduguri was, definitely, going
through some trials. She could not tell what was happening to her. She
remained by the window and her thoughts went to those unfortunate residents
that were possibly caught in the thick of it, facing what the town had never
experienced. As much as she could not explain the reasons for the gunshots,
she feared for the lives of the innocent that were directly within range of the
terror.
   Another spasm of firing took over the sporadic silence of the night and,
suddenly, she felt an impulsive tear roll down her left cheek. She had not
even realized that her eyes were misty and, therefore, could not explain the
tear. She blinked her left eye and another tear rolled down her cheek, making
her wonder how one eye could seem to be weeping for the calamity that had
befallen the town while the other eye remained unperturbed? What was
becoming of her? She was given to superstitions and, as such, concluded
that the left eye signified bad luck. Everything left was considered bad. Left-
handedness was seen as bad; people who do not tow populist line but
challenge established political, economic or social order and favour radical
reforms are seen as leftists or left-wings. This is the true situation of the
world. Any wonder then that her left eye decided to weep or that it decided to
do a radical thing without soliciting the cooperation of the right eye? No! As a
leftist, at least, in the order of position, the eye chose to act independently of
the rest of the body.
   As these thoughts went on in her head, Tasallah left the window and went
back to her bed. She lay motionless for a while, not quite sure of what to
make of the sounds that filled the air. In the darkness, she searched again,
for her flashlight, which she usually kept under one of the many pillows on her
bed. It was not under the pillows. She hated the darkness. She rolled off the
bed and knelt on her knees, still running her fingers in search of the flashlight
round the edges of the bed. No flashlight. Frustrated, she groped her way to
the kitchen where she found a box of matches and lit a hurricane lamp that
was not difficult to find since its place was always behind the kitchen door.
The light from the lamp brought her some relief. She quickly went to the digital
radio she kept by her bedside to see what time it was; she stared at the black
liquid crystal numbers and their separating dots; it was seventeen minutes
past three a.m., so the siege had been on probably for over an hour.
    The night seemed long. She was anxious to see day break. She needed to
hear the voices of those who might have some viable information on the
situation of things. This was one of those times when she hated solitude. She
felt lonely. Her left eye began to twitch again and as she rubbed it, her cheek
felt taut and all at once, she felt an involuntary desire to weep. No, not weep;
she felt like crying out in a loud scream to console her spirit. The bombs and
gunshots continued to terrorize the still night. She passed the rest of the night
(or was it morning?) in thoughts that were varied and absurd. The anguish
exhausted her and as she made for the bed, she heard the muezzin’s voice
ring out from the slender minaret in the neighbourhood. She managed a smile
and said her gratitude to Allah. What could surpass the will of God? Even at
the hottest moments of warfare, the time for prayers had to be announced.   

With the first gleams of morning, she rushed out and found a small group
of neighbours standing in a closed-up conversation that seemed sound-proof.
She ventured to their side all the same and all eyes turned on her dishevelled
appearance. Hair astray and smeared make-up that she did not remember to
clean off the previous night all saluted the shocked faces that turned to her.
She clutched tightly to her apron like housecoat and engaged the three men
before her in an enquiry that left her looking expectantly at them all.
   In what seemed a vast litany of details, the man directly facing her, Mal.
Nasir, a lecturer in the Department of History, told her everything. It was as if
he was not also in his home from the beginning of the siege.
   “A schism”, he said after many disclosures, while the other two simply
nodded their affirmation. She was not sure they knew, the meaning of the
word, but they nodded all the same.
   She looked at the men in turns and then asked, “It’s not the usual kind of
religious crisis, is it?”
   “No, it is hardly the kind of crisis that involves inter-religious beliefs; it’s a
fight amongst people of same religion, Muslims” said Dr Habila, the only
Christian in the group and lecturer in one of the science departments.
   “Yes, yes,” concurred the other two.
   “Do you know that the leader of this group gave enough warnings to the
State and he was not taken seriously?” said Mal, Nasir
   “Indeed he gave enough threats to the State”, chipped in Maidala, the third
man and a secretary to one of the heads of department in the Faculty of
Social and Management Studies.   
   “So what becomes of us now?” asks Tasallah, looking into the eyes of the
three men at the same time, as though they alone had the solution for her
worries. In her patched up appearance, she moved closer to Mal. Nasir since
he had the most information.
   “Do you really know that the leader of this group is actually against
Western education?” said Mal.Nasir as he pranced from Tasallah’s side to
Maidala’s. She followed him with her eyes as he settled to give more
information. He had obviously pricked the interest of all. He swallowed a little
saliva with a click sound that revealed a spasm like cramp in his neck
muscles. He adjusted his head and continued.
   “You did not know?”
   “Hell no!” cried Habila, looking towards the others for affirmation of this
ignorance even as the sounds of gunshots continued to rend the morning air.
   “The leader of the group, a Fulani by birth and said to be a Koranic scholar
in town, has had this ubiquitous image amongst his followers. Whatever he
said went unchallenged within the group. When he condemned western
education, some of his followers who had acquired degree certificates in
various fields, came out en masse and handed over their degree certificates
to be burnt. He is a kind of prophet to them”.
   “Is that the same man?” queried Maidala “I have heard of this group some
years back”
   “Yes!” said Tasallah and Habila also confirmed that he too had heard
about the strange group. When they had all been told this, a long time in the
past, they had all taken the group for granted. There is hardly a Maiduguri
resident who would claim ignorance of the strange happenings surrounding
this group.
   “It is a kind of charlatanism,” said Mal. Nasir
   “The great Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were
great charlatans and experts at cult-making of this nature,” he added
   Tasallah marvelled at the historian before her and thought that, behind the
overbearing personality of Mal. Nasir, there was, indeed, a man of great
knowledge in his field. The gunshots and the dropping of bombs were still
raging on from the distance. The other men, like Tasallah, looked at the
informant with great respect. Habila’s fears were obviously allayed as he wore
a more relaxed expression on his face. He had feared that the war was
against his Christian brethren.
   “The situation must be bigger than we imagine” chimed Maidala, and they
all looked back at the historian as if he had an answer to their problem. Mal.
Nasir smiled and, for a second, he was engulfed in his own thoughts. When
he later spoke, it was with a deep and renewed flavour and his eyes glittered
in the early morning sun rays.
   “What worries me is the fact that he is against education. What could he
possibly have against learning?” said Habila
   “His argument is sound at some points, if properly considered” Mal. Nasir
hinted the others. At this point, other neighbours began to peep out of their
houses and on identifying members of the small group; some of them came
out to hear what was to them, obviously breaking news. Dr Maimuna from the
Education Department was the first to come out. Another secretarial staff, Mr
Godwin from the Physical and Health Education Department closely followed
her. They exchanged brief pleasantries and fell into silence as Mal. Nasir was
still making his point on the issue of education.
   “What the leader has always preached is the fact that western education
has not been put to good use in the Nigerian context. Our leaders, he
contends, are all products of such education and all that they do is practice
corruption and exploit and oppress the masses at all levels”.  As Tasallah
watched him speak with his arms swaying back and forth from the brown
caftan he was wearing, she began to wonder if, in fact, he was not one of the
disciples of the leader. She observed with interest that his budding beard
around the chin was one of their recognizable traits. At this realization, she
lost interest in the group and began to stare into the faces of the other
listeners as though to warn them that they were dining with the devil himself.
She really had no reasons to doubt Mal.Nasir’s sincerity except for the beard
that he was cultivating, which made him qualify as one of the dissidents. She
was in this contemplative mood when she heard Habila’s voice ring out an
argument.
   “If that is the bone of contention, I swear that I am one hundred percent in
support of this group”.
   Tasallah was curious to know what Habila was supporting. Dr Maimuna
agreed with Habila’s position, and soon, the small group became on-the-spot
converts of the religious sect. Tasallah could not help admiring the
intellectuals who would switch positions and offer an on-the-sport follower ship
of a group they hardly knew anything about.
   In spite of her earlier discomfort and prejudiced opinion of Mal.Nasir, it was
not difficult, to agree with his points. The government had overly failed its
citizens and if one person was pointing a finger at the educational system as
the route to all the hardship experienced by the population then, in her
opinion, it was all for a good cause. The whole scenario made sense to her
and she wanted her neighbours to know when she heard Mal. Nasir’s
passionate voice nail the point further.
   “My brothers and sisters, I don’t want to mince my words but, believe me,
this is the beginning of a revolution. The French Revolution began as a mere
joke on a simple issue as bread”. Tasallah looked at Mal.Nasir with rapt
attention just as the others.
   “Bread, or was it cake?” cried Maidala in an eruptive surprise that brought
a smile to the face of Tasallah.
   “Yes! Bread” repeated Habila with an air of certain knowledge of the
matter. Even though he was in the science faculty, he wanted the others to
know that he understood world history - the French revolution, at least.
   “If this is the major argument posed by this people, then they are fighting a
just cause,” said Mr. Godwin
   “Now you are talking. You know, the government underestimated the group
and failed to take action. They thought it was the usual one man comes up
with an opposition and, when he is sufficiently ignored, he slides into oblivion.
We are all aware that we are too patient in this country. We are not known for
standing up for our rights individually, not to talk of collectively. They
expected the group to tire and wane, but, to their surprise, this is happening”
Mal.Nasir concluded.
   “If the government realizes this, I believe that they would want to squelch it
on time; they would not want the population to realize that, indeed, the group
is standing up on behalf of the oppressed,” said Maimuna.
   “That is it. The right thing to do in the present circumstance would have
been to mobilize all peoples to join in this struggle for a better tomorrow, for
our children, at least. This unknowingly, is a struggle and a fight against
corruption and poverty,” said Maidala in a pensive mood. The group fell into a
moment of silence and the sounds of bullets and bombs continued to reach
them from the distance. The silence was, however, broken by Mr. Godwin,
who cleared his voice in order to pick up the discussion from his own
perspectives.
   “Gentlemen and ladies, I agree with all that you all have said. My only worry
though is that the leader of this group did not go about it the proper way.”
   “Which is the proper way?” screamed Habila
  “What I mean is that they should not have presented it as though it were a
religious affair. The fight should have been a straight-forward attack on the
government and everyone would have been solidly behind them.”
   “I agree with that argument,” said Tasallah
   “You might be right,” chipped in Mal.Nasir
   “But, you must realize that one of the greatest passions of humanity apart
from love and politics is faith! He needed something he could use as a
wielding force for his followers and religion offers him that.”
    “I agree,” echoed Habila and the others, including Mr. Godwin, who
nodded.
   “I have one fear though,” said Maimuna. “I don’t believe that he has the
forces to withstand the government and, for that reason, he will be summarily
dealt with when captured.”
   “Yeah, as a deterrent to others,” said Maidala. At that particular moment,
what seemed like fireworks scattered above their heads and finally settled
behind the Mr. Godwin’s house. And without thinking, the small group ran for
dear life into their houses, which were just as unsafe as everywhere else in
Maiduguri.