By Alex Preston for GQ Magazine
In the final hours of 30 July, the forces of the Nigerian state sowed the seeds of the violence that was to come, violence that would replicate the devastation of Maiduguri in towns and villages across the region. There is internet footage of Mohammed Yusuf, heavily bandaged, issuing a stumbling confession in a cell. An hour later, Yusuf was dead, executed without trial. While the police later claimed he’d been trying to escape, witnesses reject this. The 39-year-old Yusuf left behind four wives, 12 children and a legion of enraged followers. Worse than this, Yusuf’s assassination cleared the way for his second-in-command, Abubakar Shekau, to take control of Boko Haram.
Shekau is a sinister, shadowy figure, rumoured to have escaped from the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Maiduguri some time in the late Nineties. Despite Boko Haram’s eschewal of all things technological, he is a regular on YouTube, appearing in front of the group’s piratical flag clutching an AK-47 and spewing bile against Christians, the government and the evils of education. He drifts like a desert djinn along Nigeria’s borders, one day in Chad, the next in Niger, smuggling guns through the notorious Darfur Corridor. He has deepened the group’s links with Algeria’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia’s Al Shabaab – the two other major African terrorist organisations. Recently, the US government put a $7m bounty on his head.
Since Shekau took control of the group, Boko Haram has spun a web of terror across the north and central belt of the country, with devastating attacks on all of the regions’ major cities, regular bombings of churches and schools. Women and girls are rounded up from distant villages and forced into “temporary marriages” – Boko Haram shorthand for rape. In 2012, Shekau led Boko Haram to war in Mali, where they played a major, if losing, role in the battle against the French. They came back with guns, expertise and a thirst for blood.
Before travelling up to Maiduguri, I spent several days in Abuja meeting state officials and military sources, trying to flesh out my picture of the war against Boko Haram. A friend in England, the writer Noo Saro-Wiwa, whose father was executed by the Nigerian military dictatorship in 1995, had warned me not to expect much from these meetings. “You can’t ask questions like a normal journalist,” she said. “They just won’t respond to that. You have to let them think you’re on their side. Pose your questions carefully, and don’t expect straight answers.” Those days in Abuja come back to me now as a bad dream scripted by Kafka. The amount of time you have to wait to see someone is a sign of their status in Nigeria. So I kicked my heels for hours in the gloomy vestibules of generals, bureaucrats and politicians, staring out over Abuja’s unfinished skyline towards the National Mosque and National Christian Centre, which face each other combatively across a busy highway.
I met brigadier general Chris Olukolade in the red, black and green offices of the Nigerian Army Headquarters. A heavy, sad-eyed man, he coordinates the military response to the Boko Haram crisis. I asked him about the reports of human-rights abuses by the army in their efforts to clamp down on Boko Haram. He repeated lines I’d heard from the politicians with whom I’d had dinner the night before: that in holding terrorists without trial, in bombing remote villages they believed to be harbouring insurgents, in meeting the barbaric violence of Boko Haram with firm military muscle, Nigeria was only following a template laid down by the US and its allies in dealing with al-Qaeda. “Guantánamo” became a kind of code word in my discussions with the Nigerian military, as if American excesses on that shameful patch of Cuban soil provided an excuse for local abuses.
I told him that I’d spoken to experts on Boko Haram – Makmid Kamara at Amnesty, Eric Guttschuss of Human Rights Watch, Julia Knittel at Action On Armed Violence – all of whom had expressed significant concern at the actions of Nigerian soldiers. Olukolade frowned at me, practically spitting his next words. “Human-rights organisations, backed by foreign states, need to find evidence of brutality and military atrocities to justify their existence, to receive ongoing funding,” he said. I pressed him further. The army had gone into Baga, a town by the swiftly receding shores of Lake Chad, in pursuit of Boko Haram. Thousands of houses were destroyed, with locals describing the army as “berserkers”. Again, the brigadier general frowns, shaking his head, fixing me with those mournful eyes. “There were only nine graves in Baga,” he said. “The foreign press said 280. Nobody said nobody died, but the exaggeration was intended to paint Boko Haram as victims.” In fact, it was the Nigerian Red Cross who counted the bodies at Baga, and set the figure at 187. A local politician, Senator Maina Maaji Lawan, visited the scene of the massacre and estimated the death toll at 228. Even Olukolade had admitted in an earlier interview that almost 40 people were killed by his men, before reverting to the official government-approved figure of nine.
The brigadier general fixed me with his -mournful eyes. “The attacks on the school in Yobe,” he began, a catch in his voice. “They said they wouldn’t kill children, so they lined up the students and made them take their clothes off. The children stood there naked, afraid, and any of them with pubic hair were shot. Those who tried to escape were hunted down and executed.- Then they set the school on fire. Forty-two people were killed that day. This is what you should write about Boko Haram. This is the truth.” He picked up his BlackBerry, flipped open its Hermès case, and began to type. The interview was over. It was time for me to head north.
Flying into Maiduguri, you become aware of the engulfing vastness of the landscape. It is a city of a million people, clutched in the dusty palm of the Chad Basin, blasted by sandstorms from the Sahara. It is the sole major city in Borno State, nestling in the joint where Nigeria borders Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Maiduguri is closer to Darfur than it is to Lagos. This is a place at the very edges of human existence, facing economic depredation and an ever-encroaching desert. It is not only regularly called the most dangerous city in Africa, it is also one of the most remote.
Western journalists usually visit Maiduguri under military escort. Kidnappings are one of Boko Haram’s major sources of funding: the best you can hope for if you’re snatched by the group is several months in a malarial oubliette. More likely you’ll suffer the fate of British quantity surveyor Chris McManus who, after pleading for his life on video, was executed in the squalid dunny of the compound in which he’d been held captive for ten months. The price of freedom, at least for a French family seized in April 2013, is apparently $3m (£1.85m).
My photographer, Sunday Alamba, and I step into the yard of the airport, feeling suddenly vulnerable. I’m unconvincingly disguised as a light-skinned local, with a beard and a zawa prayer cap, a dark-grey Kanuri robe and sunglasses. I’m sweating, and it’s not only because of Maiduguri’s coruscating heat. It’s noon and 40C, massy red clouds stacking in the sky to the north. Gbenga Akingbule, our local fixer, ushers us into a burgundy BMW, which he drives as if Shekau himself is on our tail. People and goats flash by, scurrying between the umbrellas of shade provided by the dark-leaved neem trees that line the city’s streets. We pass cars whose licence plates bear Borno State’s motto: “Home of Peace”. Local wags have taken to scratching out “Peace” and replacing it with “Bombs”.
We move through checkpoint after checkpoint, some staffed by soldiers, others by the police, all of them hard-faced and inscrutable, ushering us by with the nodding muzzles of their machine guns. A procession of jeeps with Operation Restore Order emblazoned across their bonnets comes roaring up behind us, soldiers standing on the back seats, waving us aside. We pull over and watch as the jeeps race by, followed by bulky armoured vehicles, charging towards downtown Maiduguri like angry rhinos. After another checkpoint, this one bearing a turret gun that trains its eye suspiciously on us as we pass, we drive through large pink gates and into the city proper. We have arrived in Maiduguri.
I’d expected the moment to summon a jolt of anxiety, but Maiduguri is nothing like I’d imagined it – nothing like it is presented in the Western media. I’d pictured a cloud of fear hovering over bomb-blasted buildings, nervous locals skittering from one house to the next, a sense of defeat and trauma in the eyes of the few we’d persuaded to talk to us. Instead, there’s an extraordinary energy, as if, having been confined to their homes during the months of crisis, the people of Maiduguri are making up for lost time. The streets hum with -economic activity: buildings going up on every corner, roads re-paved, queues outside market stalls. Billboards are adorned with the owlish face of the governor of Borno, Kashim Shettiman (left), with peppy slogans like “No Shaking Now”. Gbenga points out a huge construction site that the -governor has commissioned to provide affordable housing for the city’s teachers. I’d expected- many things from Maiduguri, but never this sense of optimism and civilised bustle.