By Henry Akubuiro
Roller coaster ride: the thrills and discomfort you encountered on Gombe-Biu Expressway in Nigeria’s northeast this Friday could be summed up in few words.
From the Gombe border to Biu in Southern Borno, the roadsides bore some of the most fascinating sights you would ever find in Nigeria, but the road itself typified misery with its countless potholes. Yet the drivers plying this route, Saturday Sun reporter witnessed, threw caution to the wind, driving at breakneck speed and bumping into gallops at will, like antelopes fleeing from marauding lions in the wild. But nothing was after them. At least, nothing visible.
Reuben Bwalya, a Biu indigene conveying this reporter to the Southern Borno’s commercial hub from Gombe Airport, responded casually when asked why everybody drove with nonchalance on a bad road: “Even if I close my eyes, I can spot every single pothole on this road and manoeuvre it easily,” he said. “We are used to potholes on this road. It’s part of us.”
For anyone travelling to Biu, Gombe Airport is the nearest to the ancient town. It’s a 128-kilometre journey, while that of Maiduguri in the state capital is 173 kilometres apart. The cost of travelling by public transport from Maiduguri is twice that of travelling via Gombe. In the stormy days of Boko Haram, Maiduguri-Damaturu-Biu and Maiduguri-Damboa-Biu roads were cut off at some point, but Gombe-Biu road remained open.
On the road this afternoon, overloaded vans with goods heading for Biu were a common spectacle. Often, the loads rose up to 15 feet (4.6 metres) into the sky, swaying as though they were about to fall off any moment as the vehicles galloped away in between cruise control. For a stretch of about 15 kilometres on the Gombe side of the border, teenage girls of school age displayed their wares, ranging from groundnut cakes to cheap water melons. A watermelon you would buy at N1,500 in Lagos would go for between N300 and N500 here. Well, they were produced by local farmers.
Bayo Local Government Area is the gateway to Biu Emirate and Borno State from Gombe. Like in most parts of Biu Emirate, nature offers an unadulterated, aesthetic panorama, from mountains, rock formations and diverse fwa (trees). Dry rivers at this time of the year are also a given. A section of the road is currently undergoing rehabilitation to ease the pains of miserable road users.
The last time this reporter visited Biu six years ago, Boko Haram was still claiming swathes of territories in Borno State. Though it was less active in this part of the state, there were occasional raids, which made travelling by road risky. But things have changed for the better.
Compared to the heavy military and police presence on this road six years ago, there were only five military checkpoints from Gombe to Biu now. Then, there was a checkpoint every two kilometres, which made a trip nightmarish, with regular stop and search. Travelling on this road now, to an extent, showed how much progress the Nigerian Army had made in the North-East in the fight against insurgency with safer passages.
A few kilometres from Biu, the town stood majestically on a plateau with its escarpment weaving an elegant tapestry on the horizon. A thing of beauty! If you haven’t been to Biu in years, chances are that you might think you have missed your way. There was a significant difference as the vehicle made its way to the elevated plateau, leading to the town’s entrance. The Nigerian Army University, Biu, occupied several hectares of land by the right, adding to Biu’s scenic beauty with new, modern buildings. Established four years ago, the university just had its first set of graduates.
Biu has always been a major academic centre in the entire emirate. It is home to institutions of higher learning, including College of Education, Waka Biu, established in 1986. It is affiliated to the University of Maiduguri. The education level in this part is high.
At the popular Biu Junction, the town’s important location in the North-East is highlighted by the arterial roads that run through it: Damaturu-Biu-Garkida-Yola Road, Maiduguri-Biu-Gombe Road, Biu-Numan Road, and Biu-Gombe Road.
However, the streets of Biu town were said to have been designed by the Kuthli and town planners. Even the streets in the older part of Biu were designed with sufficient allowance made for dualisation in the future. The widening of the streets has been traced to Kuthli Ari Dogo and Kuthli Ari Gurgur, who reigned in the first half of 20th century.
Biu as a safe haven in the North-East
Biu is an ancient civilisation founded by the great warrior, Yamtarawala, a Kanuri prince, in 1535, who bonded with the local population he met on ground to form a formidable group. For the avoidance of doubt, the population of Biu and the emirate of four local governments (Bayo, Kwaya Kusar, Biu and Hawul) are not Kanuri people. They belong mainly to a distinct ethnic group called Bura/Babur, and its Chadic language is unrelated to Kanuri.
Strategically, Biu is located on a high hill. No matter where any group of invaders are coming from in the North-East, they would be spotted from mountain tops. This aerial view advantage has made it a fortress hard to penetrate without grave consequences right from ancient times.
Though Biu was established by Yamtarawala in 1535, the domain became formally a kingdom in 1670 during the reign of one of his descendants, Mari Watila Yamta. History has it that, in the late 18th century, Buba Yero, the Emir of Gombe, waged a jihad against Biu, but Biu’s king of that era, Watirwa, mobilised his warriors and defeated the aggressors. There were, however, other Biu kings who didn’t fare well against Fulani invasions, leading to royal casualties.
Historian, Dr. Bukar Usman, recalled how those invasions positively affected Biu and made it a bastion till this day: “The Fulani invasions made the need for a more fortified capital a continual consideration. Biu was probably walled, with its two entrances secured with gates, in the time of Ari Paskur, who ruled between 1838 and 1873). The foresight of Mai Paskur, the 21st Kuthli and founder of the present Biu Town, continually became more evident with subsequent security challenges.
“His strategic considerations have withstood the test of time and have effectively served the Biu community not only against the jihadists and Rabeh’s warriors but also significantly against colonial subjugation and, currently, against the insurgents of Boko Haram.”
Biu has become a symbol of Boko Haram resistance in the entire North-East. Part of credit for this goes to the Emir of Biu, Umar Mustapha Aliyu of blessed memory, who organised locals to work in concert with the Nigerian military and other security agencies to checkmate attacks.
James Mshelia, the village head of Marama, told Saturday Sun that the entire Biu Emirate had been a peaceful haven in Borno: “It’s God that secures; that’s the first thing. It’s God that saved the entire Biu Emirate during those waves of attacks across the state. Apart from God, we had a strong emir, Mai Umar Mustapha Aliyu, who died in September, 2020. The present emir is following the same footsteps taken by his father, and we are well secured. Up till now, we didn’t encounter insurgency because of the seriousness of our traditional institution.”
The late emir of Biu never fled his kingdom while town after town fell to Boko Haram between 2013 and 2015. In contrast, many emirs in the northern part of the state all abandoned their domains and fled to Maiduguri as the insurgents overran their communities.
Compared to other parts of Borno State, Biu, as a major town, has had the least attacks. The first was staged by Boko Haram at a military cantonment located in Abogo Largema, Biu, on January 14, 2015.
It took seven years for the insurgents to visit Biu again, attacking soldiers at Ghuma along Maiduguri Road on February26, 2022. But most of the insurgents were killed by the soldiers. Save for the aforementioned isolated incidents, Biu has remained relatively peaceful.
Umar Sanda is the Galadima of Biu, a powerful position that sees him deputise in the absence of the emir. In fact, he acts whenever the emir travels or is unavailable to perform his function. Traditionally, the title was Thlerma, but, with modernity, it transformed to Galadima.
Recalling the practical step taken by Biu to stamp out Boko Haram elements in Biu, he told Saturday Sun it was a combination of factors. First, the insurgent elements from the area were identified and dispatched to the great beyond, which stemmed the tide before issues got out of hand.
“Again, the late Emir, Mai Umar, was sagacious in administering Biu and putting in effective human machinery in patrolling and combing the entire town 24 hours a day so much so that any untoward happening was nipped in the bud. The Biu topology helped as any attempt to enter Biu was effectively checkmated through the vigilantes’ 24 hour patrol,” he informed.
“Biu also put up a spiritual fight against the insurgents, which saw the late emir assembling marabouts and embarked on vigorous prayers aimed at exposing evil intents of Boko Haram and taking remedial actions to checkmate their attempted incursions.”
Emir’s palace as repository of history
The palace of the Emir of Biu is an iconic structure. Though the palace has been in existence for over a hundred years, the current modern, imposing palace wasn’t a pre-colonial contraption. Located off Gombi Road, it occupies several plots of land and was started in 2007 by former Borno State Governor, Ali Modu Sheriff,and completed by Governor Kashim Shetima in 2011 to replace the existing one found to be structurally defective.
Today, traditional warriors were stationed at the entrance to the palace and others could be found within the premises and around the courtyard, in addition to regular security guards. The emir, Mustapha Umar Aliyu II, is a busy man, and, if you are thinking of seeing him immediately when you visit, you have to wait for a while.
“You are welcome to Biu, one of the most progressive and peaceful emirates in Borno,” he said from his royal throne, with a plethora of awards and plaques occupying different corners, to attest to his achievements within a short time.
The front of the palace has a post colonial outlook, but inside has a rich history in stock, tucked in ancient monuments. Before the new entrance to the palace was constructed, there was an original gate with red mud, which had existed for over a hundred years.
In this passage, you would find scores of merry birds reciting anthems. These birds have been residing here for ages. A corridor houses traditional drums and trumpets which are beaten and blown during important ceremonies.
The king owns more than a dozen horses in his stable of many colours. Lamido Gombe is the horse keeper, who sustained the horses with grass and water all day. The ceremonial functions of the horses were highlighted by the horse keeper: “During Salah festivities, the horses are dressed and rolled out. They also play important roles during the visits of political leaders like the governor or ministers.” The ages of the horses range from seven to 15.
These horses have been part of the cultural heritage of the people for generations. Before the Europeans came to Northern Nigeria, the horse keeper said, the horses were used during wars and as symbols of royalty. “This is how our people adopted it for cultural use right from time,” he noted.
In pre-colonial times, Biu town was initially divided into two broad parts: Wuyaku and S’I-Undla. While Wuyaku was inhabited by native Bura people, the latter was inhabited largely by strangers.
S’I-Undla is the equivalent of modern-day Sabon Gari in Kano or Kaduna. Biu, however, became a permanent seat of the emirate in 1904, though it had hosted the seat on two previous occasions.
Biu isn’t a town noted for skyscrapers, but it has a modest urban and serene setting. The town has a fairly good road network, and Numan Road is undergoing repairs. The cost of living is cheaper than in major cities of Nigeria. With only N200 in your pocket, you can have a dinner of fried yam, potato and akara by the roadside.
Locals greet you by raising clenched fist towards the right chest. Though there is no immediate security threat, security measures in place include stopping the operation of Keke drivers at 10 pm and passing through routine security checks mounted by soldiers and vigilantes here and there. Portions of roads leading to checkpoints were narrowed with stones in zigzag patterns, aimed at slowing down oncoming vehicles.
Overall, the pulse of life is normal in Biu, and this normalcy has resulted in rapid development of Biu with new private and public structures everywhere. The town has medical facilities, schools and a new FM station, Harmony Radio. Biu has also expanded into the housing estate of Kogu located along Damaturu Road.
Biu Main Market Market and creative artisans
Biu is an agrarian society and one of the food baskets of the North-East, with traders visiting its popular Main Market to buy grains and other staples from different parts of the North-East on Mondays. A second market day, on Thursday, has been added to the regular Monday trading at the Main Market.
In the market, one would also find foodstuff, clay pots, calabashes, fabrics, local brew, household items, herbs for traditional medicine, domestic animals, grains, farming and cooking utensils made by local blacksmiths, among others.
Sanusi the blacksmith has been making farming, building, fashion and domestic materials for 16 years, which he displays in front of his workshop. He told Saturday Sun he inherited the trade from his father who also learnt from his forefathers.
“I produce knives, hoes, pliers, tools for mechanical agriculture, bangles, rings, and others,” he said. “The market moves both during rainy and dry seasons. But the peak period is between March and April at the start of the rainy season and farming.”
Artisans like Sanusi need peace to reign to flourish, for if the farmers are chased away from their farms, as witnessed in some parts of Borno State by Boko Haram, nobody would come forward to replace their tools or buy other homemade goods which boost the local economy.
“People come from all over Biu Emirate and beyond to buy my goods in large quantities to resell in their shops,” he echoed. “The way I inherited from my father, that’s the way I would like to hand over the legacy to my own children,” he added.
A group of wizened Fulani women squatting on the floor could be spotted nearby soliciting for customers to buy fura da nono. In an instant, their creamy, natural yogurt caught the eye of this reporter. It turned out to be thick and sweet when he got a measure: just as seductive as Biu’s natural ambience and cosy weather would make you feel in the North-East.