Resilience in the Face of Danger 

Tossed right in the heart of Boko Haram’s battle against western education, the University of Maiduguri has perhaps overcome attempts to bring it on its knees, which would have meant victory for the terrorists. From the eyes of old and present students, Chineme Okafor, writes on how the citadel of learning has lived through the  menace and is still standing tall


When it was obvious Boko Haram had come to disrupt Maiduguri’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, which could extend to the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID), students perhaps had two choices – to continue with their studies, or suspend it until it was okay to get back to school.

Christiana John, was one of such students who chose to go on to complete her studies and got a degree in business administration. 10 years later, she came back to Maiduguri as an aide worker helping people affected by the Boko Haram’s war of terror in the state to regain their lives.

She told THISDAY she was glad she didn’t take the route of suspending her studies even though her sister and mother suggested that, and was there when the paper visited two young male students – Emmanuel Ebere, 21 years and a level four engineering student of UNIMAID; and John Joseph, also 21 who is in his second year of studies in mechanical engineering in the same university.

Emmanuel and John, had agreed to share their thoughts about choosing to stay back in school to complete their studies despite the Boko Haram assaults. In fact, Christiana, picked them out for the visit, assuring the paper they would speak honestly about their experience.

“When I was in school, their (Boko Haram) target was not the school, they were interested in the communities, and I lived in one of the communities – Meruguet, it was not far from Kalari, which was where we heard or experienced the first battles between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Army,” said Christiana.

Maybe an afterthought, Christiana’s decision to tell THISDAY her story after she heard that of Emmanuel and John, both current students of Unimaid, provided a recollection of how old students of the institutions handled the new situation which threatened their lives and studies.

“I woke up from a bang one night. I couldn’t make out where it came from, and was confused,” Christiana, whose family is from neighbouring Adamawa State explained before adding that she subsequently found out the blast occurred in Kalari, and not Meriguet where she lived.

The fight that night didn’t get to Meriguet, but then, “no one was actually safe,” she told the paper, and added: “We lived in fear most of the time I studied in Maiduguri.”

According to Christiana, unlike the accounts of Emmanuel and John, there was no record of attempt on UNIMAID by Boko Haram when she was there as a student, rather, university students struggled with an urban city that quickly transformed into a combat zone and thus regulated their laissez-faire lifestyles.

“We passed through checkpoints and got thoroughly searched frequently by the military. It could be embarrassing for ladies especially, besides, the military was very hostile then,” she said with a nostalgic expression on her face.

She told the paper that despite repeated battles between the army and Boko Haram, and the associated danger, she did not stop taking lectures and examinations. 

Defiantly, she explained that the school also remained open all through for studies, perhaps to buttress its firm commitment to what Boko Haram stood against, and which she wanted.

She told of when her mother and sister visited to be sure she was safe considering that telecoms network had been cut off in Maiduguri, and she turned down their suggestion that she should suspend her studies and go home with them. 

“I couldn’t drop out of school because I had gone far when the insurgency started. Most times you had exams to write and then a bomb blast went off, you still had to write the exam.

“My mother and sister visited, and advised that I suspend my studies, but I couldn’t because I had gone far. I continued and didn’t have any issues with my grades,” she stated.

Failed attempts 

Assisted by the PAGED Initiative, which works with journalists to tell stories of marginalised groups in Nigeria, THISDAY’s chat with Emmanuel and John, indicated they had a different story about their time in school and Boko Haram, to that of Christiana who graduated before attempts on the school stepped up.

Sitting on a multi-coloured motif patterned mat made of plastic and laid out in a wide car garage attached to a three-bedroom bungalow, an interesting conversation on Boko Haram’s failed attacks on UNIMAID ensued between the paper and these students.

As was told by Emmanuel, the low-cost bungalow built in an expansive residential area called Alkali Imam Estate had been home his family for years. Enormously wide, the plastic mat covered most of the garage from where Emmanuel had moved his mother’s Toyota car away for the conversation to take place. 

Occasionally, the subtle harmattan wind would blow in tads of dusts on the mat or even clothes of people sitting on it, reminding that it was its time of the year, but this didn’t stop the conversation which had become very spirited when a question about how UNIMAID had cope came up.

“That we are still up, for them to try more than once to penetrate the school is a show of our resilience. I am really proud but not 100 per cent secured. I think after driving past our school, the next major town would be Bama, and we hear of what goes down there, yet we have remained impenetrable,” Emmanuel said.

Continuing, he stated: “I remember a time (3am) I was coming back from class with a female friend and a bomb exploded from a distance, around ‘beauty’…that night no one slept in the school, we were not used to it.”

Emmanuel said he, ‘grew up in Maiduguri, and have been here all my life.’ According to him, until 2009 when Boko Haram became full-fledged, civil conflicts in Maiduguri were usually minor.

He however got admitted to study in UNIMAID in 2014, and by 2015, he had witnessed a couple of failed attempts by the terrorist to in continuation of their anti-west campaign, run down and take over the school.

“We were here one Sunday evening when we started hearing gun shots and after that, it made movement as a guy very difficult. You don’t even have to be of age, once you are of this height (making a hand gesture to indicate the height), you will be picked because the military personnel were frustrated with the situation.

“People found at suspicious places were sometimes picked up and taken away, if you make it back to your families, fine, if not, that is it,” he explained.

He added: “We started having bomb blasts in the school, and school became uninteresting. Everyone suspected anyone in funny clothes to school. Attending classes became difficult because danger seemed to lurk around so much. You probably didn’t know who you could run into or how it could end. Reading became a lot difficult and I had to leave the hostel to move back home.”

In addition to the 3am bomb blast he once witnessed, Emmanuel, said there were other failed attempt, one of which a lecturer was killed.

“During exams in my second year, we had a bomb blast, and we didn’t have the exams because the school was shut down. We had a lecturer involved, one male lecturer, I think. 

“After that, we hardly joined queues and no offense, students became too afraid of ladies in hijab. It really got that bad,” he explained.

Continuing with the 3am incident which was the closest he had ever come to such failed attempts, he said: “I was seeing her off to the hostel, and while we were walking, I noticed flashes of torchlight from the security men on campus…I waited a while to observe what was going on, and boom, the bomb went off.”

He said: “I ran first, but ran back after I realised I had with me a lady. We were lucky to have escaped the impact of the blast. If something like that happened, you can’t just run away because you may run into a deeper danger.”

He stated he has been lucky not to have lost a friend or classmate so far, but observed the situation has also changed completely for students, especially social life which is widely associated with university communities.

“In this school, you don’t go where you don’t really need to go. You don’t stay out late or do stupid things. Just stay conscious.

“Now, we have to get up early enough if you have early morning lectures to be sure you don’t run late after you go through all the checks. Before, we weren’t that conscious with time,” Emmanuel added.

Emmanuel spoke proudly about UNIMAID’s resistance to the campaigns of the terror group, saying, “Even now, we still see a lot of students apply to study here – I think the medical college of the university is the best in the North-east, and people still want to get the best. We still have constant electricity, from 6pm to 6am, and then from 11am to 4pm.”

In agreement with Emmanuel, John who also lived with relations in the same estate said: “When I decided to apply for admission, it wasn’t really easy, but my friends told me the standards had not dropped.”

“I had elder siblings that graduated from here and they know how good the school is. They wished me well and supported me to be here. During my admission, we had like 9000 students that were admitted out of the 28,000 that applied for different course of studies,” he explained.

Now in his second year of studies, he said his experience of Boko Haram’s failed attempts on the school was remote, but he understood the implications and the school’s spirited resistance.

“My experience is different. I saw a near-penetration of the campus by Boko Haram in 2017 – it was my first year and second semester on campus. 

“We were going back to the hostel at about 11.30am after our morning reading, and then gunshots from within a distance started off. The security guys made us run fast into our hostels for safety,” John stated.

He said he understood the need to go through multiple checkpoints to get to school, adding: “In a criminal situation everyone is a suspect.”

“Students were allowed to come in with cars before now, but not anymore. Even backpacks are often not allowed except on rare situations like medical students who have go for clinical studies.”