A combat-ready soldier delicately held the anti-aircraft gun at the back of an open van, three other armed soldiers precariously stood beside him scanning the morning traffic as we drove out of Maiduguri. Soon enough we were cruising out of the city; escorted by another van mounted by stern looking soldiers at the rear.
These were the complements the theatre Commander, Gen Lucky Irabor had described as unbroken special escort when the leader of our delegation, the Vice Chairman of the PCNI Alhaji Tijjani Tumsah led us on a courtesy visit to the Command a day earlier. Their task that day was to take us to Chibok and back safely. The town had grabbed global consciousness after the abduction of girls from Government Girls Secondary School Chibok on the 14th of April 2014. The pristine and consistent work of the Bring Back Our Girls movement has also ensured the incident remains prominent.
We were passing through the Damboa road as it was re-opened recently. Soon enough, the sights of wanton destruction, mortar pockmarks on walls came into view shocking those who were seeing them for the first time. The emptied shells on the right and left shoulders of the road and fallen mobile phone masts all told tales of death and devastation. We passed empty settlements, homes that had become the abode of insurgents until early 2015. Every few kilometres one was accosted by the ruins of hamlets that are now fading memories in the minds of the townsmen.
We passed soldiers at desolate intersections, lonely sentries waiting for slight movements in the shrubs to shoot. Shortly after passing Masba village, a loud ricochet followed by a volley of bullets interrupted our chatter; it stunned us into our thoughts as our eyes scanned to see if there were any movements around the shrubs. Fortunately, they were simply warning shots by our escorts; however, our hearts had skipped several beats at the possibility of a terror attack.
Hundreds of thousands of persons from Damboa were hitherto part of the IDP population in camps in Borno State, but four months ago, they went back home after a safety assessment by the army. Today, there were clear signs of a bounce back, amidst great reconstruction going on there. Along the roadsides the greatest sign of recoveries are the fresh oranges, guava, carrots and the vegetables on sale. There were also lush green farmlands of spring onions spreading as far as the eyes can see and truckloads of commodities passing through -a testimony of livelihoods slowly coming back after years of displacement.
At Damboa, we took a detour to Chibok, passing through an undulating and never tarred road. We were told it was more torturous and impassable during the raining season. The journey from Maiduguri should not have been for more than an hour; but it took us four hours to get there! At last, we arrived Chibok and drove straight to the school where the girls were abducted, and we were received by Mr Yaga Yagarwa, the Local Government Chairman and elders of the Community. We went round the ongoing reconstruction of the school which will include a race track, ICT halls and staff residencies when completed. The project is intended to be a model institution in defiance to the Boko Haram ideology and a tribute to egalitarian values.
The Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima continues to personally be involved in the development of the Chibok Community. Last year he spent Boxing Day with them and pledged to continue working in the interest of the released Chibok girls. Most importantly, 1.8 Billion Naira has been earmarked for the 55-kilometre Damboa-Chibok-Mbalala 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 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 Programme by providing support for small businesses while the Forster Care Project places orphans under the care of forster parents and pay them a monthly stipend. The PCNI sub-committee on Education under Prof Hauwa Biu is also committed to revamping the educational infrastructure in Chibok Local Government and scaling up the livelihood support in the area.
But the Chibok we saw needs more from NGOs and more importantly, individuals. It needs boreholes, 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 of studies, 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 around intersections and clusters of towns 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.
Abdulkadir is the Head of Media and Communications, Presidential Committee on the North East Initiatives, PCNI