Turaki A. Hassan writes about the death of innocence in the North

My great-uncle, Ibrahim Dada, whom I grew to know as my paternal grandmother’s oldest brother was already aged, tired, weak and blind in the mid1980s. In 1986/7, he told me he was 16 years blind.

He was tall, huge and masculine, even in his old age. I think it was in their family genes because my grandmother was also tall and fair in complexion like her older brother, some even called her Doguwa.

During holidays, I would visit him and he regaled me with fascinating tales of his youth, adulthood and even old age. He said in those days, there were neither cars, nor motorcycles or even bicycles. The only means of transportation were donkeys, horses and camels. But donkeys were the most used. His younger brother, Wakili, had many horses and we called him Kaka Mai Doki.

After harvest every year, he recounted, they would mount their donkeys with tonnes of grains, millets, maize, groundnuts, beans, sesame seeds, etc., and head west to Kano on a month-long journey, forming a long caravan of grain merchants.

They would spend 14 days from Potiskum to Kano and arrive Kano city on the 14th day where grain dealers were always at hand to receive them. They would sell and use the money to buy clothing and other necessities; it was trade-by-barter.

In those days, he told me, there were no armed robberies and violence of whatever form. On their way, wherever the sun sets, they would clear a place and lay their heads for the night.

Potiskum is perhaps the only town in Nigeria where five federal roads intersected, to wit: Kano – Potiskum road, Bauchi-Potiskum road, Gombe-Potiskum, Damaturu/Maiduguri-Potiskum road and Gashua-Potiskum road. These roads effectively made it the biggest commercial hub in the entire North east with the largest cattle and grains markets in West Africa.

In Potiskum, we measure wealth by the number of articulated vehicles or trailers that one has. These vehicles transport grains, cows, goats, sheep, etc., to southern Nigeria and the Igbos, in particular, had established flourishing businesses from hotels, bookshops, medical stores, supermarkets, beauty shops and vehicle spare parts. It was a booming town.

Sadly, in a blink of an eye, all these were grounded and Potiskum was raped, debased and almost destroyed by the activities of Boko Haram insurgents.

The last time I went home was in 2011, the very day the terrorists launched a major and so far deadliest attack on Damaturu, the Yobe State capital, 130 kilometres away, killing over 150 people.

The next day, I left and few months after, on a certain Friday afternoon, shortly after the Friday prayers, the insurgents took over major roundabouts, junctions and streets, mounting road blocks and check points. They received applause from ignorant folks who cheered them saying, “Boko Haram, Sai kunyi”, meaning, “Boko Haram, we hail thee”.

In return, they responded, “Ku shiga gida zamuyi aikin Allah”, meaning: “Go home we want to do the work of God or Jihad”.

These were narrated to me on phone that same day by my uncle, who by a hair’s breadth, survived the massacre of that day.

A year later, a senior northern political officer holder who was among leaders that visited former President Goodluck Jonathan specifically to address the insurgency recounted how the former leader accused some northerners of harbouring or supporting Boko Haram and he showed them a security report which captured people jubilating in Potiskum when the terrorists moved in. This, I confirmed to him, truly happened.

The rest, they say, is history. From one attack to another, Potiskum became desolate, rendered barren. People fled for their lives. Those who were lucky escaped while others, including my brother, Ado, some friends and relations were murdered in cold blood through suicide bombings and targeted assassinations. Houses and businesses were destroyed. People were forced to give out their properties, including family and ancestral homes, at give-away prices and those who rushed to buy them thought they had hit jackpots, not knowing that their joy would soon be short-lived as the beasts had no friends or acquaintances -all were and are still enemies so long as you do not subscribe to their perverted and warped version of Islam. Soon, business activities were brought to a halt and poverty conquered the land.

The monsters also turned on banks, civil servants, teachers, school children, doctors, nurses, and policemen. Anyone in the military or paramilitary services was an enemy. The rich were targeted and within a while, wealthy people became not only paupers but displaced, some forever.

It didn’t take long for those ignorant folks to realise that Boko Haram was and is still nothing but evil. They neither represent Islam nor any of their acts, teachings or doctrines. And soon, mothers would put a call to report their children to the authorities once they suspect and confirm their allegiance and membership of the dreaded sect. This, more than anything, helped in the fight against Boko Haram in our area because the people rejected them and helped the authorities with information.

On January 2nd, I once again had a glimpse at Potiskum when I drove through the bypass for a scheduled appointment with His Royal Highness, Mai Tikau, Alhaji Muhammadu Ibn Abubakar Grema Shuwa. I viewed and remembered with nostalgia how peaceful the entire north east was.

It made me recall how my great uncle who died in 1999 at over 100 years old, kept recounting how they used to form a large and long caravan whenever they travelled with donkeys to Kano, a distance of 300 kilometres, sleeping in forests and bushes without losing a needle.

As we passed Tike, the largest cattle market in West Africa, which also witnessed horrendous attack by the bloodthirsty terrorists in May 2012, where scores of people were killed, I reminiscenced how in the not distant past, people slept outside in front of their houses with their gates wide open.

Sadly, travelling from Maiduguri to Damaturu today is likened to the Liberian jungle during their Civil War or as my brother Bilal described it, “the Gaza Strip, miniature Tora Bora of the post 911 era or a Bermuda Triangle of some sort where people drive in but may not drive out.”

Violence has engulfed the entire northern region such that no one and no where is safe. The other day, Mai Potiskum, Alhaji Umaru Bubaram, was attacked in Kaduna, not Potiskum, Damaturu, Maiduguri, Biu or Michika and four of his aides killed.

Today, the beautiful history of this place has been shattered and the once peaceful north east and, indeed, the entire north, is the epicentre of mass murder, unprecedented violence and global headquarters of poverty.

Destinies have been shattered, families separated, children orphaned, wives widowed, while minors and teenagers are now soldiers of war and executioners of hostages. Sirs Ahmadu Bello, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Kashim Ibrahim must be asking, “What has happened to our estate?” These questions would be asked by generations yet unborn. Violent extremism can only be checked if we address its root cause(s).

Nowadays, the only regular news in Nigeria is that of abduction, execution and massacres such that life has become so cheap. The horrors we watched in movies or images from the World War II Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, the Liberian and Serra Leone’s civil wars have taken over our land. May the days of our forefathers who ferried grains from Potiskum to Kano return.

Hassan wrote in from Abuja