•My husband still missing –Victim
From TIMOTHY OLA, Maiduguri
The early morning wintry weather last Monday gave no inkling that tragedy loomed in the restive city of Maiduguri. As usual, a few residents, including university students and staff of the adjoining teaching hospital (UMTH) were already on the Lagos Street, the major road that leads to the two federal institutions. It was few minutes past 7 O’clock and the earlier cloudiness suddenly dissolved into a sunny morning in the Sahel Sahara and then, a loud, deafening sound.
“Wayo Allah!” (Oh, my God!) exclaimed little Amina, a primary school pupil, who appeared terrified and confused as she stood in the middle of the road around the popular Lagos House. Hell was let loose as residents ran helter-skelter, while motorists made U-turn or drove like bats out of hell, suggesting that all was not well with Yelwa, the city now known more for woes than reprieve in recent time.
Barrage of gunshots later followed, as military troops moved into Gwange area of the popular Lagos Street. “It appears we’re in for another trouble,” Ike, a resident of GRA, said in fear. Few minutes later, thick smoke billowed from the area. The sporadic gunshots continued until mid-day and residents of the old GRA had to lie flat in their houses to avoid being hit by stray bullets, while most part of the city was shut down throughout the day. By noon, the picture became clearer.
An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) buried at a bad portion of the Lagos Street near the NUJ Press Centre by suspected Boko Haram members had exploded when a JTF patrol van with some soldiers drove to the spot. An army lieutenant in the vehicle was killed, leaving two other soldiers seriously wounded. It was believed that the bombers had planted the explosive early in the morning with the possible connivance of some residents, waited for the JTF patrol vehicle and then detonated the bomb as soon as the Hilux van approached the spot.
“They must have fled as soon as they completed their dastardly act,” one of the soldiers said. A JTF sector commander, who later conducted the state’s Deputy Governor, Alhaji Zanna Mustapha, round the affected area, insisted that the community members allowed the sect to attack personnel of the task force. “After the first explosion on the road, another went off in a house near the spot of the first blast,” he claimed. Gwange, a bustling community known for its well laid out streets, was in ruins within four hours on Monday as over 100 houses were burnt.
At the time of visit on Monday evening, the fire continued to spread, affecting many other houses, business premises and shops within the neighbourhood. Women, children, few young men and the elderly were seen in the street watching their homes burn. “This is too much for us. The soldiers were brought here to protect us, but it is sad they have turned against us now. They killed our youths and burnt our houses. What have we done to deserve this?” a man in his 50s asked. Sources said over 10 people died in the shoot-out and confusion that followed the bomb blast.
A woman said her father, a blind man, was shot dead by soldiers shortly after the explosion. “They killed my father and I don’t even know where my husband is now,” she shouted in frustration. A military source said soldiers were angered by the incessant killing of their officers and men through IED planted on major roads in the city. “We are here to protect the people.
We didn’t come here to fight them and we have no business being here in the first place if not because of the security challenge, but it is sad that the people we’re protecting allow their houses and premises to be used to plant explosive devices,” the army officer, who would not want his name mentioned, said. Gwange is believed to be one of the flashpoints of Boko Haram activities in the city.
A week earlier, another bomb targeted at a JTF patrol vehicle in Gwange also killed an army lieutenant colonel, while the bomber reportedly set the corpse ablaze with used tyres. Perhaps, it was these incidents that ignited the furry of soldiers last Monday. But JTF spokesman, Lt Colonel Sagir Musa, claimed “no civilian or Boko Haram was killed by soldiers,” insisting that houses, shops and business premises were burnt by fire from the explosion.
“The IEDs, which content include acid and highly inflammable substance that propagates thermal effect, set houses and shops around the vicinity on fire.” He also alleged that explosive devices were kept in some houses in the area. Though residents said they were not convinced by the JTF claims, they however, said they had only one option: to flee the area. “Why and where should I stay?” an elderly man, who simply identified himself as Alhaji, said, adding: “I’m packing finally to my village since they don’t want us to live here.” Hundreds of residents have fled the area since Monday evening. Some fleeing residents said they had to leave because they were already displaced, while some said the area “is no longer safe.” “I can’t continue to stay here.
I have been here since 1988. I lost one of my children early this year and I don’t want to lose another. I have lost everything I laboured for in this city for over 30 years, and I think it is time for me to return to my state, Kano,” Ali, a trader, told Sunday Sun. Scores of residents besieged Borno Express Motor Park and Tarson Journey park on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Looking famished and unkempt, those fleeing Gwange rebuffed attempts by this reporter to get their reaction. No doubt, the Monday incident has taken a toll on their psyche. But Governor Kashim Shettima insists the “hard time will not last long.”
Shettima, who expressed “heartfelt sympathy to those directly or indirectly affected by the incident,” after a closed-door meeting with security chiefs in the state on Thursday, said he believes in alleviating the untold suffering the incident had brought on residents rather than apportioning blames. “I was out of the country when the incident occurred, but I immediately directed the deputy governor to visit the affected area that day and calm the people. I know many people expect me to condemn the JTF troops or even call for their immediate removal, but I don’t think that is the solution to our problem now.
What is paramount to us is how to address the hardship of our people and families of those who lost their lives rather than playing to the gallery to get applause from the people,” he said. He also constituted a 12-member committee headed by Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Alhaji Baba Kaka Bashir Garbai, to assess the extent of damage that would assist government in determining the level of support for the affected persons and families within seven days.
The committee is expected to list victims, houses and vehicles affected, determine cost through evaluation, recommend ways of averting such situation in future to government. While many residents condemned the Monday killing of the army officer and the reprisal that followed by the JTF troops, it appears the task force would need to go the extra mile to win back the heart of the people in addressing the security challenge that has lingered for too long.