A 7-day trip to Boko Haram’s death zones

In a bid to encourage Internally Displaced Persons to return home and speed up the rebuilding process, Governor Kashim Shettima of Bono State temporarily ‘relocated’ to the recently liberated areas of the state. BODUNRIN KAYODE reports that while the ‘relocation’ many people had their hearts in their mouths.


FIRST it came like a rumour due to what some people close to the Government House in Maiduguri referred to as security reasons, but it soon spread like wildfire in the state capital and beyond. The rumour was that Governor Kashim Shettima was not only visiting Bama, but also going there to help rebuild the town which had been in ruins for a long time.

Some people could not understand the reason behind the governor’s decision to visit Bama, one of the most destroyed towns in Borno. Others felt he was trying to score cheap political points by sacrificing the lives of people around him. This is because the Boko Haram, though reportedly decimated, have not completely left the vicinity of Bama, as soldiers had confirmed that they have been attacked in a hit and run style almost every other month since Christmas last year.

The governor, from all intents is also trying to fix the homes of Bama residents who are now Internally Displaced persons in Maiduguri and other parts of the country so that they can return home, latest by January 2017. He is the only one that can take the lead. As far as the governor is concerned, a leader is not a complete leader if he is not ready to take risks for his people.

Penultimate Tuesday, the rumour became a reality. Journalists found themselves travelling to Bama with Governor Shettima. It was a risky journey and reporters were supposed to prepare the minds of their loved ones in case they do not return after 14 days as he had predicted. We spent only seven days, five of which were spent in Bama where everything had been brought down by the insurgents.

Governor Shettima moved himself and paraphernalia of office to Bama that Wednesday morning to hasten the rebuilding of the town.

The governor had the full compliments of security around him as he was well-protected with several agents of the organised security including the youth vigilance group, also known as Civilian JTF, who came in their numbers to complement his security.

Having informed my editors not to expect any form of communication from me for at least one week because all networks had been destroyed, I was surprised that the governor’s media adviser had planned to beat the existing breakdown in communications in Bama by fixing a satellite dish for journalists to work with.

Indeed the movement of the long convoy into Borno’s second largest town was the catalyst for the current speedy level of rehabilitation going on in the Boko Haram-devastated town. No building was spared by the insurgents.  Everywhere had a scar of the devastation. Massive holes were on public and private buildings, indicative of the mindless destruction that had taken place.

Indeed even the huge trees were not spared, and if they could talk, they will surely narrate how they were sprayed with bullets going by the number of empty shells littering all the major streets of the town.


Administering oaths on the recruit JTF boys

Wednesday afternoon, the 21st of September was solemn in the sense that Governor Shettima was not ready to take chances with fifth columnists within the rank of the civilian JTF boys who were administered to oath-taking. Over 1000 of them, including adults in red uniforms, were asked to swear by the Koran that they will not endanger the lives of the crowd that was in Bama to rebuild the place.

A massive Koran was held by one of the JTF boys who read out some portions and made some pronouncements. Then he moved round with the Koran ensuring that it passed through the midst of all the boys. Then the governor assured them of their allowances of N10,000 per mont.

After the oaths were administered, it was time to move to the next level which was what took us into Bama.

As the reconstruction started, almost 1,000 skilled and non-skilled labourers were seen carrying cement blocks all over the place. While some fixed the roofs, a thousand others cleared the streets of overgrown grass and picking up bullet shells, even as others cleared the garbage littering every corner of the town.

Most of the volunteer workers live in makeshift structures, built along the major streets so that a tight level of security could be achieved just as it is in Maiduguri.

The Borno State Environmental Protection Agency (BOSEPA) boss, Nasiru Surindi, said that the body had prayed against coming in contact with any I and mine that may have been planted by the insurgents.

During the ‘adventure to Bama’, reporters and some security personnel detailed to protect the governor were housed inside the former palace of the Shehu of Bama and it remained our resting place till the following week.

The General Officer Commanding, 7 Division, Brigadier General Victor Ezeogwu, was equally with us on that day but had to return to Maiduguri.


Fixing the town

Governor Shettima and civilian JTF
Governor Shettima and civilian JTF

Alhaji Kam Salem, a community leader, in a briefing told us that it was Bama sons that brought all the ruin and damnation to the town, saying it was highly regrettable.

According to Alahji Salem, they not only killed their own relatives, they also joined hands with the insurgents who captured the town unexpectedly, to throw many people into deep wells. The town’s prison yard is now used as a debriefing point for librated Boko Haram captives before being taken into the IDP camps.

Many women and children were in the camp when this reporter got there. The governor did not only take a deep interest in the camp, but also walked round the town encouraging the soldiers and policemen.

This reporter visited a well in the prison yard next to the palace of the Shehu of Bama where hundreds of residents were thrown into. According to one of the soldiers, “the stench was so much when we came that we had to pour chemical inside the well to reduce the odour. Those people committed a lot of atrocities in the name of religion.

“Imagine killing all the prison warders in that big compound and dumping all of them in that well.  When all this is over, those skeletons must be taken out for the world to know the level of wickedness displayed by those criminals.”


Traumatic stress

Spending time in Bama was historic because it gave every reporter the opportunity to experience what the soldiers were going through before we came.

Armed with our camp mattresses, every one of us had food items packed inside some blue plastic plates till the end of the day. It was a very humbling experience because those of us who slept in the main hall of the palace were more privileged than those who slept outside in the darkness protecting their principal, the governor.

It was clear that some tried to put up a brave face, but most of them had their hearts in their mouths. When it rained, everybody jumped into our sleeping space to protect themselves. It was fun, however, but from the body language of some of my colleagues, all that changed when some brigands came around Mamamti, about six kilometres from where we laid Sunday night, in a bid to make trouble.

Gunshots rent the air, and everyone went on the alert. The ADC to the governor, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, was seen moving all over the place making sure that the right people were in the right places to fight to the finish in case the Boko Haram dared to come near the palace.

By the following day, it was clear that Bama was under attack during the previous night but the madness of the insurgents was stopped at Mamamti area after reportedly killing an officer, a Major and his team going towards Banki area during the day.

Some of the troops encountered by this reporter confirmed that since they took over Bama from the rebels and swept it clean of mines, some soldiers have died as a result of the guerrilla tactics employed by the insurgents.

Military authorities put the afternoon IED attack this way: “troops of Operation Lafiya Dole on patrol from Bama to Banki reportedly encountered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and ambush between Miyanti and Dareljamal.

“The ambush was cleared and three Boko Haram terrorists were killed by the troops. They also recovered a machine gun, one AK-47 rifle and some quantity of ammunition in the process.”

The next morning after the gunshot news filtered to us that the security men wanted to move the governor back to Maiduguri but the commander, Colonel Adamu Laka, had put himself on the line by ensuring that his boys were properly placed to repel any attack from the Boko Haram without any sweat.


Movement to Gwoza and Askira Uba

On Monday, the next week, the convoy enroute Pulka became more emboldened because the acting GOC, General Victor Ezeogwu, was with us and by 9. 00  a.m., we were headed for Pulka and then Gwoza which is about 49km away from Bama. Pulka incidentally is one of the towns under Gwoza Local Government Area.

At Pulka, the governor stopped to see the IDPs and the general complaints was lack of water. That means IDPs in Bama were indeed very privileged because there was enough water for them.

As we drove through the narrow path to where the IDPs were camped they expressed happiness that the governor was bringing more food and noodles which obviously was the favourite of the kids.


Hope for Gwoza

The story was the same in Gwoza where hundreds of school kids thronged the main road to the town, shouting “Sai Kashim” as a sign of happiness for his visit after a long time in captivity and then freedom. He branched into the IDP camp, addressed them and made promises of fixing their water needs.

After relating with the IDPs, Governor Kashim proceeded to the palace of the Chief of Gwoza. Incidentally the chiefs of both towns have been so traumatised that they never followed our team down to visit their respective palaces. The Shehu of Bama, Alhaji Kyari Ibrahim has been a very sad man because he actually warned that there was imminent threat to his territory, yet nobody listened to him then, allegedly because Borno then, was labelled as an opposition state under a PDP Federal Government.

His from was attacked in May 2013 and reduced to rubbles by February 2014. By September 2, 2014, Boko Haram took complete control of the town installing their own Emir of Bama. His worst experience was when the insurgents took away his wife and daughter.

Thankfully, both had been found and returned safely to him by the GOC, who is still struggling to unearth the mystery behind the missing Chibok girls. The army has held to the town since March 2015.

At Gwoza, Governor Shettima called on the people of the town to work with him to develop the town speedily in order for them to go back to their normal life soonest. He regretted that the influential people of Gwoza have refused to come and spend their resources for their compatriots adding that it was time they returned home to help their people.

The journey from Gwoza to Nimankara was long and torturous but the convoy kept going until it was in Mitchika which is seen as the most enterprising town in Adamawa State when it comes to commerce.


The home stretch

Reaching Askira Uba was a long journey indeed. We got to Uba before dusk and the governor decided to visit the chief of the town. From then, it was a short ride to Lassa, the historical town where Lassa fever was first discovered by missionaries.

We went round the town; visiting burnt churches and returned to Uba at dusk where we slept.

The next day was a stress-free day because we went through Chibok, Damboa and then to Maiduguri. Though we did not have the complete itinerary of the governor, it was obvious he could not visit many settlements before we returned to base.

At Chibok, the governor visited the local government secretariat. Most reporters expected that he would visit the Government Science Secondary School, Chibok, where the now famous 276 students were abducted. Unfortunately, he did not. He sped past in a bid to catch up with the burial of one of his commissioners who had died while he was on tour.

This daring trip will not be complete without stating that the insurgents had destroyed most of the Federal roads in the southern Borno with several I and mines reportedly buned therein, which the military had to remove for us to traverse the territory.