My extraordinary journey to Kaduna started from Enugu on the Saturday morning of 28th September 2013. The Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), a joint programme of the British Council (BC), International Alert and Social Development Direct (SDD) had invited me to a four-day extraordinary planning workshop in Kaduna. As one of its consultants, working in its Niger Delta section, adequate and safer air travel arrangements were put in place for me and other participants, to travel and attend the event. But like the saying, using one stone to kill two birds-such air travel can be faster, comfortable and shorter, but wouldn’t give me the rare view, time and raw materials needed for a good travel article (also called travelogue or itinerary).
The NSRP’s primary aim is “to help Nigerians manage conflict through non-violent means, thereby reducing the frequency and severity of violent conflict and its negative impact on the most vulnerable populations. NSRP will achieve this through a combination of service including technical assistance and advice, capacity development, operational research and small grants to official agencies, appropriate civil society groups and community organizations.” The Department for International Development (DFID), the British aid agency, funds BC, SDD and International Alert to implement the NSRP.
I had chartered a fairly new taxicab on that Friday, 27th September 2013 and got to the Enugu city, former coal field around sixty-five p.m. I checked into the popular Naiko Hotels Limited in the Garriki area, south of the city. Naiko was a rendezvous of most Nigerian Nollywood stars and their producers until kidnappers went on rampage around. Early Saturday morning, 28th September, about two o’clock, a heavy rain dripping from the mouth of dark clouds over Naiko pounded the city like bomb bangs. It continued until seven thirty a.m. when darkness had disappeared from the skyline and gave way to daylight. The rains soaked the rare Enugu red earth and dusts. Pools of water on the ground and nearby gutters looked like pools of blood. That wet Saturday was the last one in the month of September.
Every last Saturday of the month (from seven to ten a.m.) is usually earmarked as “Environmental Sanitation.” It is mandatory for residents to shut down any activity and clean their surroundings. Movement of vehicles and humans is banned within this period. I don’t know of animals and aircrafts because I saw them moving around this period. Nonetheless doctors and others on essential duties are permitted to go about their duties during the hours. Defaulters are arrested, prosecuted or made to pay some fines. Enugu, the headquarters of the former Eastern Regional government is a military town. Heavily armed soldiers and policemen were seen patrolling the empty streets of Enugu, to arrest defaulters of the statewide Environmental Sanitation. I had expected the Enugu State Government to cancel the exercise since the Enugu rain had done it for them.
A Saturday before, equally deadly torrential rain had knocked the Igbo city of South-East. A drunken upcoming Nollywood actor got drown in one of the tidal water channels. His corpse was found in another channel, some kilometres away days after. Some secondary school students on same Saturday reportedly died in the fearful Enugu rain waters.
I turned up at the old ENTRACO Motor Park around 10:45 am. The park is a small one, located on about two plots of land. The entire stretch of the park is roofed with zinc to protect travellers from rain and sun. It is located along the Onitsha Road, not far from the Enugu prisons, and opposite the “Radio Nigeria – Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) – Coal City 92.8FM”. Small grocery shops, eating joints and shoe- making outfits dotted the various corners of the park. It wasn’t as noisy and chaotic as most typical motor parks in Nigeria. The park had a wide range of vehicles, travelling to only northern parts of Nigeria. A loudspeaker mounted on the park rooftop, proclaiming, “ Makurdi, Lafia, Akwanga, Jos, Bauchi, Gombe—come this way oooo”.
There was no vehicle going straight to Lafia, the capital of Nasarawa State in the north-central Nigeria. I had planned to spend at least two days there, to investigate the Ombatse uprising and proceed later to Kaduna. I had to join the bus going to Jos, Plateau State capital, and drop off in Lafia, some distance before Jos. I paid three thousand five hundred naira (less than twenty-five dollars) for a seat, which is the Jos fare. I was issued a ticket, which had on it “Plateau Express Services Ltd, Jos”. I was the only Lafia passenger. We spent over an hour at the Enugu Transport Company (ENTRACO) Park before we took off. We were supposed to be fifteen passengers, but we were sixteen passengers in the ‘Plateau Rider’ bus. The driver was a quiet, but tiny man in his late fifties and wearing a faded navy blue trousers and white shirtsleeve. He had collected another fare from a young boy and asked him to seat uncomfortably with one of the passengers. The fare wouldn’t go to his company, rather for his pocket. We were ten men and five women, and a one -year -old girl with one of the women who was pregnant. Majority were Muslims, few Christians. I was the old odd one in their midst. The Plateau Rider was loaded with bags of garri (one of Nigeria’s staple food extracted from cassava tuber), yams, dried fish and crayfish. There was no space to move one’s leg; rather the odour from the various foodstuffs cobwebbed our nostrils.
The driver jumped into his seat. The bus steering wheel was bigger than him. He handled it uneasily and took off. The engine cried helplessly under the overweight of humans and loads. The weather was bright. We travelled northward on the road, which ran in between valleys and hills. We had spent ten minutes heading toward Okwo-Ngwo around the Udi area with its beautiful hills, when a team of police at a checkpoint asked us to slow down, on their van was written “Urban Patrol”. They never harassed or collected bribe from us.
After few minutes we were at 9th Mile, on the outskirts of the city heading out. 9th Mile roadside were full of shanty houses with corroded zinc roofs on them. The neighbourhood is a rowdy one with a mix of tankers, trucks, long buses and cars parked along the road. Young boys, girls and women hawking all sorts of foods – cashew nuts, groundnuts (peanuts), soft drinks and others. Along the road ahead was a damaged truck which belongs to the Dangote Group. One of the passengers who saw the truck commented, “ Dangote drivers are reckless”. We passed the Pepsi depot, just few metres away to another police checkpoint.
Less than two kilometres before Amoka village in same Udi Local Government Area, a female passenger at the backseat said that smoke was coming out of one of the back tyres. Other commercial cars passing us were pointing at the affected tyre. We had to stop to find out what the problem was. We parked closer to another police checkpoint. On both sides of the place where we parked were extensive vegetation, and tall trees and wide-ranging branches. There were also lots of cashew trees, but without fruits. We got out of the vehicle. One of the tyres was emitting white smoke. “What is the problem” I asked the driver. “I nor know”. He said in his weak Pidgin English with his Hausa ascent. One of the male passengers at the back seat suggested that the driver should pour water on the smoky tyre. I got out my small zoom auto camera to take picture of the stranded bus. The driver did and the smoke stopped. We continued our journey slowly, turning from one small porthole on the road to another. Along the road were several iron boards, same size, same design, and on it, decorated shamelessly, ‘FERMA Project – Federal Road Maintenance Agency.”
We had spent about twenty minutes on the Amoka-Enugu Road when we perceived the unpleasant odour from the tyre again. The smoke from it increased. The driver needed water to quench the smoky tyre and miserably, there was no water. He stopped on the left by the Umuoka Community in same Udi. I called out four other young men in the van, to accompany me to the nearby compound to beg for some water. One of the young men stood in front of me, hit his right leg on the ground like a statue and threw his right hand palm to the right hand side of his face to salute me in a special military way. I smiled, “My brother, I am not a military man.” I don’t wait to give any false impression to any person. The young man, said, ‘thank you sir’ and saluted me militarily again. I was curious a bit. I asked who he was. He told that two of them in the vehicle had spent one year undergoing rigorous military trainings in Enugu and were given few days off to see their parents and return to base. The two young men did not believe that I am not a military man. My well-shaven head and composure may give them the wrong impression that I was a military man.
Like the head of a special commando unit, heading for a military mission, I led the other four passengers into an isolated Umuoka compound. The compound was located about a kilometre from the main road. The place was lonely and serene. Warm and fresh breeze flying from the vegetation and trees softened my head and body. A member of our team wailed sonorously, in his Igbo language, “who is in this compound?” A small boy who was sitting alone by a bonfire with a small tripod on it and a small dark pot with water in it boiling on sighting us ran out. “Uchenna, Uchenna”, was shouting his elder brother’s name(Uchenna) while running to the main building in the compound. A scared plump, middle-aged woman who was sitting on the veranda shifted into one of the rooms, while, a boy in his early twenties, responded by shouting,“Kelechi, who is that”, in his Igbo language too. Uchenna was also terrified, but was courageous. Uchenna, the lad’s elder brother came out of one of the rooms. He attired a dark t-shirt, boldly written, “Kick Battle – Culture the Fashion”. I asked others to move back, as Uchenna came closer to us. I spoke to Uchenna and his people kindly in Pidgin English. Their fears were dispelled and they received us very warmly. Uchenna led us to a water reservoir in the compound and asked us to take as much water as we wanted. The ground was dug up to a certain depth and blocks constructed in a curved shape. A small tunnel made up of zinc linked from the zinc roof on the main building was made obviously to channel rainwater into the reservoir. The surface was covered with zinc sheet too. During dry season the water is used for cooking, bathing and other purposes. Several Igbo communities around have this kind of water storage tank in their compounds.
The compound was so natural, I felt at home. Uchenna’s water helped us a great deal. He was with us and ensured that we set out safely. We continued our journey to the Ogbede junction in the Igbo-Etche Local Government Area. About twelve twenty-seven p.m. the smoke started again, and even wilder and alarming. On the right hand side of the junction was Ogbede Motor Park and the ever-busy Ogbede market. On both sides of the road were massive billboards with a fine portrait of Sullivan Chime, the Governor of Enugu State; smiling and adorned in his Igbo traditional outfit with his red hat. “Igbo Etiti Local Government Supports “Ezeabunike(Sullivan Chime) for second tenure. One good term deserves another”. The board read.
Our driver parked the bus at a mechanic workshop on the left side of the road, which over-looked the Ogbede market and motor park. In front of the workshop was a green, shadowy armour tree. An average, well-built and light-skinned man, who looked like one in his mid-thirties, abandoned a truck he was working on, to receive us. The man stood for few seconds, gazed at the affected part and smiled. I was a bit relieved. I assumed the problem with the bus was a small one. “The wheel bearing is damaged which affected the oil seal. That is just the problem,” the man said in Igbo, repeated in Hausa and English Languages. “So, what should we do? I asked him. “The driver should go and buy a new wheel bearing with oil seal. It won’t take me anytime to fix it and you continue with your journey”, he said.
The driver looked very worried. He had to join a public vehicle to his office, near the prisons in the heart of the Enugu metropolis, to get money for the parts. As he left I sat with the mechanic to discuss with him. His name was Jacob Ngwu Paul, fifty-year-old, father of seven children and a panel-beating mechanic of over thirty-three years of experience. He said he escaped from Bauchi State in the northeastern region of Nigeria in 2008 when Kalo-Kato, an Islamic sect struck. The group killed two soldiers and six others as they demanded for release of their leaders. The panel beating mechanic hails from same Igbo Etiti.
He told me that the Kalo-Kato sect swept through Bauchi like a whirlwind, and had a lot of under-aged children (almaljiris), young boys and matured ones as its fighters. Almajiri (in Hausa, means a beggar), and in several parts of Nigeria, especially the northern axis, children of poor parents are sent to an Islamic cleric for guardianship and teaching. Such poor kids oftentimes end up to be victims of fanatical brainwashing and become ready tools for violence during religious conflicts. On the other hand, in most parts of southern Nigeria, fanatical Christian preachers brand poor children as witches. This caused them to be tortured and maltreated. Children of the rich never turn out to be either almajiris or witches, only children of the poor who are either almajiris or witches.
Jacob narrated to me of how one of his kinfolks from Anambra State got converted to Islam. He joined the Kalo-Kato Islamic sect and became one of its leaders. He said the man was a hardworking and wealthy auto parts dealer who had two wives (first one from Bauchi and the second from his Anambra state). And that during the 2008 Bauchi crisis he was arrested and held in prisons, but his sect members attacked the prison, and made way for his escape to his home state. He lost all his wealth and is a poor man today. As Jacob spoke about Bauchi and other parts of the north, I noticed when a deep sense of nostalgia overwhelmed him. “The northerners are good people. They are better than our people, but their only problem is their religion.” he said, “Well, Islam and Christianity are the same religion. Religion had always been one of the problems of society. I mean the brainwashing associated with it,” I said. “To an extent you are right because even in churches the kind of messages I hear today, are not of God. Well, is only God that knows his own people,” he answered me.
This is a travel article, and doesn’t represent the objectives and views of the NSRP. The writer lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital.
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Source: SAHARA REPORTERS.