On a voyage of discovery, Solomon Elusoji accompanied members of the Adamawa Peace Initiative and the American University of Nigeria to Michika in Adamawa State, once held hostage by Boko Haram
There were buildings riddled with bullet holes, abandoned armour tanks, broken bridges and collapsed power lines on the road to Michika. And there were pedestrians who stood and watched the moving convoy, some looking surprised (who are these people?), while others waved with gleeful expressions (hey, good to see you!). For those inside the convoy, members of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API), journalists and security operatives, it was like moving through a sad procession.
When the convoy entered Michika, those inside could notice tens of pedestrians along the road, walking towards the same direction they were headed. Then, as they went deeper into the town, the line of pedestrians became thicker and thicker, spiralling into thousands, mostly women and children, at the convoy’s destination point, a large, wide compound with walls that kept the mammoth crowd away.
But the problem was how to get into the compound, as the crowd pressed against the vehicles in the convoy, voices raised in exhilaration, hope burning in their hollow eyes. They had been waiting for this moment, praying. And now that the moment had come, who was going to stop them? Who? Definitely not the soldiers in the convoy who tried to shove them away. Their strength came from hope. And this hope was not a balloon. It was a porcupine leather ball.
“It reminded me of Biafra, when the churches would bring food for us in buses,” the Executive Director of the AUN Academy, Mrs. Nkem Uzowulu, would later say with tearful eyes.
In 2014, Boko Haram, the bloodthirsty Islamic sect, had captured Michika and a host of other cities in the North-east. It was a dark period for Nigeria, as there were deep-seated fears that the sect had enough resources to continue its evil march down south. But it was not to be. The Nigerian Military, which had earlier fled from the superior firepower of the insurgents, recovered their mojo. Beginning from January 2015, they began to put the terrorists on the defensive and started to reclaim lost territories, including Michika.
Today, the worst appears to be over, although the sect continues to terrorise distant villages and organise random attacks that continue to confound security operatives. There is, however, a looming threat that’s beyond the fierce caution of military firepower.
The AUN/API team had set out to Michika on a reconciliatory mission, after receiving a report that said tensions had been brewing within the community, which is made up of both Christians and Muslims. In fact, the tensions had arisen largely from religious sentiments, with both sides accusing the other of trying to usurp the peace of the society. This tension had led to people being killed and increasing hate speech between children. It was (and still is) a ticking bomb.
The API and AUN were called upon to act as mediators of this brewing conflict, as agents of reconciliation. So, the trip, which was paid for, in part, by a grant from the Canadian government, was a way to reach out to the community, offer support and find practical ways in which to help the community detonate the ticking bomb, before it is too late. According to the report, the people have more confidence in the API and AUN team than even the government.
“People need to figure out how to live together again,” the AUN President, Margaret Ensign, would later tell THISDAY in an interview. “And if that does not happen, the social fabric would not come back again. I worked in Rwanda for a long time and I know what can happen if people don’t figure out to live together again. They are making amazing progress in Rwanda, but that was because they took time to understand what happened after that genocide.”
After the convoy wriggled its way into the large compound in Michika, members of the AUN/API group, led by the AUN President, Ensign, stepped down and went out to address the crowd.
“We come in sympathy, in solidarity and to offer some assistance,” Ensign said, speaking through a microphone connected to a booming speaker. Her English was promptly translated into Hausa.
The team had brought food items, which were to be distributed to the 25 most vulnerable families in each of the 16 wards in Michika. But seeing the population of the crowd that had turned up for this meeting, Ensign knew that was never going to be enough. “We will bring more food next week,” she said.
Then the convoy made its way out of the large compound and headed for the community’s secondary school, where a football match was to be played and the main reconciliatory work was to be done. The football match was part of the AUN/API’s Peace Through Sports programme, which was designed to spark more interaction between the diverse units in the community.
After the football match had been set up, a dialogue session was kicked off, where select members of the community were grouped according to their demography and encouraged to share their stories. “We know you’ve suffered so much and we have come to learn from you and listen to you, so that we can live in peace,” Ensign said at the beginning of the session, which was split into several parts. There were separate sessions for the women, youths, children, religious leaders, traditional rulers, and hunters and vigilantes, who are, particularly, adding more firewood to the fire heating up Michika. The hunters and vigilantes are killing one another and accusing each side of being Boko Haram members. Although the head of the vigilantes is Muslim, while that of the hunters is Christian, members of both groups belong to either religion.
It was a hot afternoon, but the sessions were hotter. Bitter experiences were shared and words were exchanged. The Christians argued that despite being the majority in Michika, the Muslims were bent on always having things done their own way.
“You can’t work here easily if you are not a Muslim,” Elisha Shuka, a missionary pastor and an indigene of Michika said. “Some of the youths are abandoning the schools because there is no hope for them.”
But the Muslims do not agree. The Christians, they say, have been the oppressors. “If you are a Muslim in Michika, you don’t have freedom of movement,” one bitter youth said.
But there were encouraging signs that the community had decided to thread the path of reconciliation.
“Let us come together and think together, so we can move forward as a society,” a Muslim youth, Ibrahim Saheed said. “People have started going to the moon for their weekends, but we are still where we are.”
Still, the reconciliation has just started. It is folly to expect the rising tensions in the community to immediately dissipate into thin air, like gas. And Ensign knows this.
“What we learned in the breakout sessions was the fact that people were saying ‘nobody has ever listened to us or created an environment where we could talk about our feelings and what we went through’,” she later told THISDAY.
“So we’ve learnt that you have to give people the environment to talk about what happened; they lived through what we can’t imagine. So, this was a good start. We’ll continue to go back as much as we can and as our resources and time allow. But it’s not just about listening or us being committed to this. People are hungry there, they have no employment, the schools aren’t working. So, we can do what we can but unless the infrastructure and economic structure comes back, people don’t have much to look forward to. So, we believe these kinds of troubling incidents happen where there’s no future and no hope. So, the government and international community and anybody who’s working on this have to get schools opened, open health clinics, provide food and help generate employment opportunities. But it has to be replicated throughout the North-east.”
After the sessions, group photographs, including members of the community and the AUN/API team, were taken. It was a fleeting moment of hope where it was easy to believe that the demons of the past had been exorcised and peace had been restored, as Christians and Muslims mingled freely together. But as the convoy pulled away from Michika, and members of the AUN/API team became memory, it was clear that hope, just hope, would not be enough to bury the devil.