I take the IRS flight to Maidugiri, capital of
Seventy minutes later, the plane touches down. Along with a clutch of others, I am directed to the right of the arrivals hall, while everyone else continues straight ahead. I follow the directions, not sure what and why. I walk through a door into an empty and dusty hall. A few people are hanging around outside a room, with Immigration written above the door. I wheedle my way in. A woman and a man in uniform are interviewing a middle-aged middle-eastern man, while a young white guy waits nearby, his passport at the ready. I ask the audience why we have to see anyone in immigration, it being a local flight. Someone to my right tells me that we have to be interviewed. I am the last in line. A couple of men are going to a medical conference, another man is on business.
After fifteen minutes, I sit down in front of the female official. With a hint of irritation, I ask her why there has to be an interview. She tells me it is because Borno has borders with other countries. I reply that the same is the case with
The road from the airport takes us on the outskirts of the town. I see a familiar face on a billboard near a t-junction. Then I realise it is the face of our downstairs neighbour. He is running for governor in the upcoming elections. The driver tells me he is well known in the state, and as he is backed by the PDP, has a good chance of winning. I wonder what will become of our compound if he wins. Already, senior politicians come to visit, with cars and armed police regularly filling the yard. To my disappointment, we do not drive through the town, but quickly find ourselves on a straight and increasingly empty road through the
My fascination with baobabs began with reading Le Petit Prince as a boy. In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s magical story, a pilot crashes his plane in the desert, yet survives the crunch. Just before he gives up hope of finding help and dying of heat and thirst, a little boy appears, and teaches him the secrets of living by describing some of the planets he has visited. He describes a baobab tree on one planet. Every child should know the story of The Little Prince, just as every child should then be able to look upon baobabs with wonderment. Just after entering
An hour and a half later, we enter Damaturu and hit a wall of traffic. The Action Congress party are holding a political rally. The symbol of the party is the African broom. Hired unemployed youth spill out of brightly coloured lorries, shouting and punching the air. The driver takes a short cut to avoid losing time. After driving down some sandy back streets, we find the office where I will be based. Nearby, some youths play football in the sand between baobabs. Some men are building a structure with lumps of mud thrown between the hard dried mud bricks. Life in Damaturu drifts on, as it has done and will do.
During the course of the day, I am taken to meet various senior ranking civil servants of the state. Inside one office (an auditor), papers and files are piled high on every available flat surface. There is an air of decay and dysfunction in the dimly lit room. It looks like electricity seldom graces the office with its favours. There framed photographs of the governor and an Emir. Next to these is an old schoolboy’s poster. I ask the civil servant about this. He tells me it was his college, in
Later, we eat dinner at Lizzie’s – the best restaurant in town. We are led to an inner room, which is done up in Nigerian posh: luridly fake flowers, gilded chairs, and the television with Channel O on in one corner. Lizzie is summoned. She is an imposing woman dressed in expensive looking red fabric. Within two minutes my new colleagues have rice and meat, confirming that African fast food need not be an oxymoron. My rice and vegetable stew takes longer. I find out that there are no aubergines or courgettes in Yobe.
I am later taken to my hotel, the Classic Motel. I have been booked into the Executive suite, which has an ante-room with its own bathroom. Two channels are available on the small television, beneath heavy layers of snow. My colleague asks if there is water in the room. “Plenty sah!” answers the porter. “It is running well well.” NTA has a station for Damaturu on Channel 7. Earlier in the day, in various offices, the TV was tuned to the English language Al-Jazeerah channel. Here, the satellite service is not DSTV. Once the satellite is installed, there is no subscription cost. Most of the channels are from the Arab world. In my host’s house a little later, we hop through channels from almost every Arab country, before finding BBC World. There is a strong sense of allegiance to
My companion for the night is an upended cockroach in the bathroom. I leave it wiggling its tiny legs helplessly, meaning I don’t have to face killing it before sleep, but also ensuring it cannot crawl about while hypnos descends. I call for the porter and ask him if he can procure a beer. Yobe being a Sharia state, this involves him leaving the hotel and going somewhere. He says it is possible, and leaves with two hundred naira. A few minutes later, I sup my semi-cool Star while typing up my work notes from the day. I consider statistics I’d read earlier about Yobe’s greatest asset: its livestock. There are more cows in the state than people. And unless I misread the figures, there are 880,000 camels in the state. That must be 88,000 surely? Speaking of statistics, Yobe State is the least literate in the Federation. For example, only one in five adult women in the State is literate.
Up early the next day, I pulp the still wiggling cockroach, and clear up the remains before entering the shower. I turn on the tap, only to find water streaming unenthusiastically out of the base of the shower pipe, at about hip height. Fortunately, there is a bucket nearby which I use to slowly gather enough water. So much for the water being well well.
After another day of meetings, I return to the Classic Motel to find there is no space at the inn. They had forgotten I had booked for two nights. I am directed to the Oasis hotel a short walk down a nearby street. When I arrive in the compound, there are men loitering around in the yard. They look like drivers. The receptionist is among them. He shows me to a dimly lit room with a dirty red carpet and a dirty looking bed. How much? I ask him. One thousand naira he replies. Having no other option, I take it. I silently praise my wife for insisting I take a duvet cover with me. It will ensure some level of protection against bed lice and skin infection. I unpack my wash bag and go to the bathroom. There is a strong smell of urine in the bathroom. I turn on the sink tap but nothing happens. Fantastic: no water for the night. Returning to the bedroom, the smell of urine has infused the room. I had anticipated a moment like this and so took out a joss stick from my suitcase and lit it. A few moments later, the electricity went, and stayed off for the rest of the night.
At six fifteen the next morning, the driver picks me to begin my journey to Jigawa. My mind feels fresh and alive with possibility. I decide to think about the relationship between chance and necessity. I arrive at the thesis that although contradictory, any metaphysical account of the world must somehow accommodate both chance and necessity. Chance refers to the initial conditions: oxygenation occurs on a planet’s ecosystem. Carbon-based life-forms cede to oxygen-based organisms. Humans and societies emerge. It is within the terms set by these initial conditions that necessity dictates the way. One has a certain character, therefore one will respond to the world through the ways of the character. As Sartre said, man is condemned to be free. I smile as the theory emerges, and select pathways into the metaphysical jungle to clear for the journey ahead.
A few minutes after passing through the gates to the city, we come across a tree trunk blocking the road. A few meters ahead of it, an orange broken-down lorry sits motionless, both cabin doors wide open, creating metal ears. Through the fug of early morning fatigue, a quiet bell of alarm softly chimes. Seconds later, about twenty men race in from the bush to the right of the road. They have bottles with yellowish liquid in their hands. The driver quickly reverses at speed, the Land Rover’s engine screaming in pain. Ahead of us in the direction we are now travelling, more men are emerging from the bush, aiming bottles at us. I expected the windows to crack at any moment. Seconds later, and we’ve cleared enough ground for the driver to turn and put the car into a forward gear, leaving the marauders behind. We park about half a mile down the road. A few minutes later, a car appears, coming from Damaturu. My driver flags it down and explains the situation ahead. The passenger is a Yoruba guy with a pot belly. Minutes later, more cars arrive and a lorry, each one parking behind, with men clambering out and listening to explanations. Everyone speaks in excited hausa, pointing ahead at the orange lorry in the middle of the road in the distance. Villagers appear from the settlement just off the road and join in the discussion. Then a lorry appears from the direction of Damaturu, and slows down while passing us. The driver ignores various pleas to stop, and carries on in the direction of the ambush. A few minutes later, we can see his lorry had stopped, just before the orange lorry. Ant like figures drag him from the cabin. He puts up strong resistance; I can see more and more ants joining in to drag him away. I ask an elegant looking man in sunglasses whether incidents like this were common. They are not uncommon on these roads, he replies, a little ominously. I worry for the poor guy in the truck ahead of us. Why had he ignored our advice?
About twenty minutes later, a man on a motorbike approaches from the direction of the ambush. He drives at speed through the crowd on the road. Everyone had expected him to stop. Someone says that he must be one of the robbers, going to see if the police are coming, phoning ahead if he sees them. I am momentarily overcome by panic: what if he has brought reinforcements from Damaturu, and we will be trapped on both sides? Seconds later, a BMW 4x4 with blackened windows appears from Damaturu, with Peugeot escorts in front and back. The convoy slows slightly while passing us, and then speeds up. Someone says it must be a local politician. My driver gestures for me to get in the car. All the parked vehicles roar into life, as we follow the BMW back to the scene of the ambush. I conclude that either the BMW or the escorts have weapons. A lorry drives ahead of us, while to our left, a car overtakes us at speed. I feel nervous about whether the marauders are still ahead, and whether there would be some kind of skirmish. I try to ask the driver whether everything is now okay, but he has no English. He understands the intent of the question however and responds with a soothing gesture with his hands. He then tries to overtake the lorry. There are about ten cars and lorries in our convoy, charging towards the scene. I took a deep breath, and swallow as much hope as I can find.
We come to the tree trunk. An estate car is passing the trunk in the opposite direction, full of passengers. I look left and right rapidly. There is only bushes and scrub. It doen’t seem possible that everyone who tried to attack us could have disappeared, the landscape is surely too sparse of flora. Our car slows to a few miles an hour as we pass the tree trunk. A few metres later, we drive to the right of the orange lorry. Inside the cabin, the driver’s seat has been ripped apart with signs of what must have been a vicious struggle. Then I realise that we have still not passed the lorry that had been stopped, that was before the orange lorry a few minutes earlier. Meanwhile, the driver has speeded up, and we are now on our way Westwards at one hundred and forty kph. Baobab after baobab whizz by, and a sense of alarm and panic slowly lifts. I try to work out what had happened earlier. The following hypotheses come to me:
1. The ambush, the driver on the motorbike and the blackened out BMW are disconnected events. The ambushers must have escaped in the second hijacked lorry.
2. The motorbike rider was part of the gang. He phoned ahead as soon as he saw the politician.
3. The politician was in on the ambush. The motorbike rider’s appearance was the cue for the ambushers to leave the scene and for the politician to begin his journey.
I also wonder about the motives of the ambushers. Why did they not have guns? Were they just poor villagers? Had they wandered into the state from
My mind grows heavy with these thoughts that do not resolve themselves, and I fall asleep.
When I awake, we are in
After three or fours hours on the road, we come to a rocky escarpment, with kuka seeming to puncture through boulders. We have finally arrived at Dutse, the State capital of Jigawa. Dutse means stone in hausa, and Jigawa means sand dune. I learn later that there are several large dunes in the north of the state. I imagine a tourist industry springing up around the dunes as in
Jigawa is a pleasant surprise. There is a general air of efficiency and purpose in the state government, in contrast to Yobe. I meet permanent secretaries who are knee-deep in detailed knowledge about their IT requirements and fully focused on reform. Jigawa has five emirates, four of which report to the Dutse Emirate. The state government is decentralised in accordance with the emirate structure. We take a trip to a Local Government Area. I had wanted to visit Hadeja where the wetlands are (one of the main stop-offs for migratory birds in Europe on their way to southern
Later, I read about the animal statistics in Jigawa. There are apparently 125,000 cattle, 1,171 camels, 5,502 donkeys. This confirms my suspicion about the camel count in neighbouring Yobe. Near the border with
When we arrive in the LGA, we are shown the local government secretariat. A telecoms mast lies unerected and rusting in the yard. Nearby, a generator lies housed in a corrugated shack, unconnected. I ask why the mast was not constructed, and why the generator is not used. About thirty men are standing around me in gleaming agbadas. I do not get a conclusive answer. Later, we drive to a school in the town. Here, a mast has been erected, but there is no antenna. A nearby generator has again not been wired. Just by the gen set, a classroom with thirty computers lies unused. The computers have plastic sheets over them. There is no power to use the facility, as no one has connected the generator and there is no NEPA here. What happened to the antenna? I ask an official why the easily-solvable problem has not been addressed. He considers for a minute and then answers. The computers need the internet to work, and because there is no internet, no one has thought to install the generator. Yes, he repeats, that must be the reason. I politely inform him that computers do not need an internet connection to work, and that e-learning cd-roms on maths and English could easily be bought in nearby
Later that day, I complain about what I have seen to senior functionaries. They have just told stories about late middle-aged colleagues who are happy to retire early and volunteer back in their villages. I suggest that Civil Society Organisations tap into this informal volunteer passion, and solve simple problems like that at the school. They dismiss my suggestion, for no obvious reason. The gap of trust between the public and the government opens up, and occupies the silences between our words. Later that evening, I go for drinks with a British development worker. The ‘bar’ is at the edge of town along a dusty road. It is where the police go to drink and have a smoke. After three Stars, I am not fully capable of walking in a straight line (I am not a drinker). I go for a piss outside. The night sky is velvet black. I suddenly long to be in the bush five hundred metres away, to gaze at the stars unadulterated by lights from the town. My hotel has water and almost constant power, I discover with gratitude a little later on.
The drive into