The trip of uncertainty
The combat-ready soldier had a vice-like grip on the anti-aircraft gun at the back of the open van in front of us, three other armed soldiers stood beside him, scanning the morning traffic as we drove out of Maiduguri. Soon, we were cruising out of the city; closely followed by another van with stern looking soldiers also manning the rear. These soldiers and the vans were the complements the theatre Commander Gen Lucky Irabor had described as an unbroken special escort when the leader of our delegation, the Vice Chairman of the PCNI, Alh Tijjani Tumsah, led us on a courtesy visit to the Theatre Command a day earlier. Their task that day was to take us safely to Chibok and back.
Chibok, a scenic rural town in Borno state, had staggered into the global consciousness in the wake of the abduction of girls at Girls Government Secondary School on the 14th of April 2014. The Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) movement have worked tirelessly to ensure the plight of the girls remains in our collective hearts.
Most of us in the convoy were passing through the Damboa road for the first time since its recent reopening. Soon enough, the now familiar sights of conflict — wanton destruction, artillery pockmarks on walls, signs of desolation that mark a war zone — came into view, shocking those who were seeing it for the first time. Used artillery shells littering both shoulders of the road and knocked down telecommunication masts told tales of death and devastation. We passed empty settlements, homes that became the abode of insurgents until early 2015. Every few kilometres one is accosted with ruins of hamlets whose glory days are nothing but memories in the minds of their now displaced inhabitants.
We passed soldiers at desolate intersections, lonely sentries with fingers poised at triggers as if waiting for only the slightest movements in the shrub to shoot. Shortly after passing Masba village, a loud report followed by a volley of AA bullets interrupted our chatter. Stunned, our eyes scanned for movement within the shrubs. Fortunately, they were simply warning shots by our escorts, however, our hearts had skipped several beats as we were again reminded of our mortality.
A rebound for Damboa
Hundreds of thousands of IDP families from Damboa hitherto were part of the IDP population in camps in Borno State, four months ago they went back home after the army accessed that the town is indeed safe. Today, there are clear signs of recovery. The fresh oranges, guava, carrots and the vegetables on sale along the road spoke of a return to normal, as did the lush green farmlands of spring onions spreading as far as the eyes can see and the truckloads of commodities passing through.
At Damboa, we took a detour to Chibok, passing through an undulating and never-been-tarred road. We were told the road gets even more torturous and impassable during the raining season.
The journey from Maiduguri should have slightly been more than an hour; however, it took us four hours to get there. We arrived Chibok and drove straight to GGSS Chibok, where we were received by Mr Yaga Yagarwa, the Local Government Chairman and other elders of the Community. We toured the school to inspect the ongoing ambitious reconstruction efforts, which will see the inclusion of race track, ICT halls and staff residences when completed. The project intends to remake the school as a model institution, in defiance to the Boko Haram ideology and a tribute to egalitarian values.
A call for greater support for Chibok
The Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima continues to personally be involved in the development of Chibok community. Last year he spent Boxing Day in the community and pledged to continue working in the interest of the released Chibok girls. Most importantly, 1.8 Billion Naira has been earmarked for the Damboa-Chibok-Mbalala fifty-five kilometre road in this year’s budget.
The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, alongside the Midland Church of the Brethren in the United States, continues to also support the people of Chibok, not only spiritually but also in cash donations and other non-food items. The Victims Support Fund is also implementing its Livelihood Program – providing support for small business and Skills Empowerment and the Foster Care Project in Chibok, where it places orphans under the care of foster parents and pays them a monthly stipend. The PCNI sub-committee on Education under Prof Hauwa Biu is also committed to revamping the educational infrastructure in Chibok LGA and also scaling up the livelihood support in the area.
But the Chibok we saw needs more from NGOs, both foreign and local, and everyday citizens. It needs bore holes, psycho-social support, agricultural inputs, primary health care centres amongst several other things.
We left behind a community of resilient people, from young girls riding bicycles home after a day at school to women with stacks of firewood tied to their bicycles – indeed the women of Chibok are inseparable from their bicycles. There are also courageous vigilantes standing at intersections and clusters of town’s people, all waiting for this veil of darkness to pass over and become distant memories.
Postscript: Less than 48 hours after passing the Damboa route Boko Haram elements attacked a travelling convoy killing 10 people.
Alkasim Abdulkadir is the Head of Media and Communications at the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiatives, PCNI.