Kano’s strange camel caravans

AS the north goes, so goes all Nigeria.” That is a sentence from The New York Times of March 7, 1964. You and I know this was correct in 1964 and that it is even more so in 2021. It is a snide celebration of the depressing influence which Northern Nigeria exerts over our country. The New York Times, in that report, beautifully used Kano to X-ray the contrasts and contradictions that gave (and still give) Northern Nigeria its distinct character. It says: “Kano is feudal, Kano is breathtakingly up to date.” It is “a city of extremes” where “rich tribal chiefs in gleaming Rolls-Royces brush past camel caravans that still plod the Sahara route to the Mediterranean.” Such contrasts, The New York Times says, would have been merely picturesque “if it were not for the fact that Kano so strikingly reflects the pace of life throughout Northern Nigeria.” Today is March 15, 2021; the report was published on March 7, 1964; so long ago, yet it tastes as fresh as today’s fura da nono. A modern city (or state) which holds on to camel caravans of antiquity in the 21st century is a study in contradiction and decay. That 57-year-old X-ray opens an interesting window into the north’s mouldy culture that has refused to let Nigeria breathe.

You heard our National Security Adviser and the shots he fired into his own market on Friday? It is about the magic of money, weapons, whims and disappearing acts. You also watched the horrid video of the kidnapped Kaduna students and their plea for life? What the NSA said (and the ripostes) point at the grotesqueries of our current rulership. Meanwhile, as the country waits forever for its weapons of controversies, some long convoys of alien camels strolled into Nigeria last week from the sweltering, sterile depths of Niger Republic. Camel caravans are historically known for good or for ill. In the long gone era of trans-Saharan trade, the caravans were embedded with Berber bandits who either protected you or robbed you. When the camels of last week and their strange ‘drivers’ appeared in Kano, they gave the locals jabs of fear. Many said they quickly moved their families out – because it was better to be safe than be sorry. The caravans’ presence, however, did not make much security sense to Nigeria and its police which quickly dismissed the people’s fears as misplaced. Strange things happen in Northern Nigeria daily and they are randomly explained away as normal. I read the news and conflated it with the caravans of the 1964 report above and wondered if our story would ever change.

Be alert, alarmed, shout; do not keep quiet about Northern Nigeria if you want to live long and in peace. The strange faces from Niger Republic with their ‘ships of the desert’ huddled in Kano camps. Reports said their presence spread instant fear in Rimin Zakara and Dorayi Babba in Ungogo and Gwale local government areas of the state. Terrified locals argued that the strangers were in the area for criminal activities under the pretext of selling something. But the state police command said it had done investigations in conjunction with the Nigerian Immigration Service, and discovered that the aliens had genuine documentation to enter the country. Kano PPRO, Abdullahi Haruna, told the media that: “We have not found anything incriminating on them. Investigation showed that they are potash merchants from Damagaram in Niger Republic, and they have proper travel documents. We invited their leaders for questioning, just as we contacted the Niger Consulate over the issue. Further investigation revealed that they do not stay more than 20 days in Kano, during which they sell their commodity and buy foodstuff at Dawanau Market for their return journey to Damagaram.” Case closed!

Now, let’s go back to last year and discuss the role camels from Niger play in our 21st century lives. On August 27, 2020, Zamfara State governor, Bello Mattawale, hosted the Prime Minister of Niger Republic, Mr Brigi Refini. He sensationally announced that bandits were using camels to smuggle arms into Nigeria from Niger: “We are aware that due to the pressure on those who smuggle weapons into Nigeria using vehicles, they have now resorted to the use of camels.”  That was about six, seven months ago. Yet, a procession of camels entered Nigeria and landed in Kano in the middle of an undeclared war, and the police say they are harmless potash traders.

I am writing this because there is a sense of deja vu in this Kano caravan matter and in police’s zoom-handling of the case. In the last week of November 2018, locals in Tangaza and Gudu local government areas of Sokoto State noticed a very strange, heavily armed persons with a large number of cows in their forests. The people cried out; they described them as a terror group. But the police, as in this Kano case, promptly dismissed the locals and their fears. The then Sokoto police spokesman, Cordelia Nwawe, said: “The herdsmen sighted are reasonably believed to be Malians who reside in a forest in Niger Republic, sharing border with Gudu and Tangaza local government areas of the state. The herdsmen are annual visitors to the nearby forest bordering the two local governments with their cattle and always stayed in the forest in Niger Republic. Even though the number of their cattle increased exponentially this year to about 3,000 from the usual figures of less than 1,000, it was discovered that they are not known to be violent. Moreover, they occasionally enter the villages in the two local governments (in Nigeria!) to procure food and other essentials and retire back to the forest.”

That was in November 2018; the people knew the police were being stupid in their risk assessment but what could the poor villagers do? They resigned to fate, praying that their worst fears won’t ever come true. But by September 2020, the hovering vultures came fully down, eating the living and the dead, devouring everything. The two local government areas lost their peace to murderous bandits from the same axis where the strange armed foreigners perched two years earlier. Ironically, the police were part of the earliest victims. A September 17, 2020 news report said the bandits, when they came, shot and killed a Divisional Police Officer and an Inspector, and abducted two married women in Gidanmadi community of Tangaza Local Government Area. A local told the BBC Hausa: “We knew it was the bandits because a day before, they attacked neighbouring Tangaza, causing serious havoc. They shot sporadically and killed the DPO of Gidanmaji before they abducted the women. Another local said:  “Gudu and Tangaza local governments are always under attack by the bandits. On Saturday, the bandits were in Bachaka wielding dangerous weapons. They operated from house to house, from 3a.m. to 5.30a.m. On Sunday morning they returned to another community and abducted people. They came on Monday and abducted another in Awumgi. The victims are still in their captivity. I am among the IDPs that fled to Niger Republic.”

Still on Niger Republic and the wellness of Nigeria. It turns out that the town of Damagram where those convoys of camels in Kano came from is a major contributor to Nigeria’s insecurity. I cite just one example here, if you like, still do not feel alarmed. On January 25, 2021, an alleged notorious gun-runner, Haruna Yusuf, was nabbed and paraded in Katsina State by the police. The suspect, who was arrested in his residence in Sawarya village with 179 Anti-Aircraft ammunition, told the press that he also sold over 5,000 (assorted) ammunition to hoodlums operating in the state. Now, listen to him on how he sourced his wares of death: “I sold 20 AK-47 rifles for N600,000 each and three GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Guns) for N4,000,000 to bandits. I bought them from one Hussain from Damagaram in Niger Republic and conveyed them in my friend’s vehicle to Katsina.” You heard the felon? Damagaram was where he got his supplies of death. And that is where the men in the caravan came from. But our police said the Nigeria Immigration Service checked them. Okay. Did the Customs check them? How about their humped animals and the contents of their bags? How about if they were sent here on Recce by enemies of the peace of our country? The police said it “invited their leaders for questioning.” Only their leaders? Shouldn’t everyone and every animal in those caravans be a suspect? Have these ones left? If they’ve left, did they all leave? How many more of such camel caravans have been here and will be here?  Maybe I am asking too many questions because I am just a bloody reporter.

You should be worried. But you are likely to dismiss the Kano caravan story the way the earlier Sokoto story was dismissed as too distant to your concerns because you are not from Kano and Sokoto – because you are from the south. But, I take you back to The New York Times story. It tells how the north infects the whole country with its everything, good and bad. The story submits so darkly that “as the north goes, so goes all Nigeria.” Our nights and days are already sleepless because of where the north has taken us. This is the reason every occurrence in that north must be carefully examined. If you fall asleep while your neighbour takes poisonous insects for supper, do not blame your chi when his coughs ruin the peace of your night.

Yet, there are more questions: Those strange, 21st century camel men from the terror-soaked Sahel, how did they trudge through the dunes undetected until they reached Kano? My geography teacher did not tell me that Kano shares borders with Niger Republic. What I was taught is that Kano has borders with Katsina State in the northwest, with Jigawa State in the northeast, Bauchi State in the southeast and Kaduna State in the southwest. Which of these states opened its legs for this rape and how did the caravan pass through the needle’s eye to surprise Kano and its authorities? And why is our country, with its police, always eager to accommodate strange people with strange missions from that corridor? You can answer these questions by borrowing from George Orwell’s cynicism. Everything, he said, is politics – and politics “is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” You will do well for your sanity if you agree with Orwell and refuse to be blinded. If everything is political – it should then include the management of your security and the lack of it; it should include the fight, by big men, over payments for weapons and the endless wait for the supplies. It should include the opening of our borders for beasts of no nation to come populate – and terrorize – our forests.

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