A climate of fear – pervasive, dull and inexorable – has descended on much of Nigeria. It is like the harmattan season of the northern part of the country – cloudy, chilly and, for most categories of people, oppressive. This fear is palpable, clear and unpretentious. You can see it everywhere – in homes, markets, hospitals, on the roads, etc. – showing on people’s faces even if not expressed by words of mouth.
In years gone by, we used to hear stories of things that caused fear in far-flung countries like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Palestine, etc. We used to hear, in the mass media, about bombs going off in public places, including worship centres, causing numerous deaths. They were like fairy tales, those stories, told by media that appeared as alien to us as the stories they told. Suicide bombings were the most outlandish occurence in those tales. A man (or woman!) strapping himself to a bomb and tweaking the control button, killing himself instantly in a blast? No, it could only happen in those lands. Here, we could not have anyone desperate enough as to take their own lives. Men with Kalashnikovs exchanging fire with policemen or even soldiers? Only members of the Cosa Nostra could do that – mostly in the movies or James Hadley Chase thrillers. Or, at worst, armed robbers somewhere in Lagos or the old Bendel.
Things have since changed. We have joined the global village. We are not neighbours to the village, but its occupants. Bombs started to go off in Maiduguri which, to many Nigerians, was another far-flung place somewhere on Planet Earth. A place tucked away near the border with Chad. Indeed, to many Nigerians, when you said Maiduguri they would wonder whether it was a city in Adamawa state, or even Katsina state. You had to tell them it was in Borno state. Yes, they have read the word Kanem-Bornu in their history books. And they could imagine that Borno was one of the states in Nigeria.
Now Nigeria is one big village itself. Reason: the killings we used to hear about are happening in our own neighbourhood, bringing Maiduguri closer home. Someone bombed the police’s national headquarters in Abuja. Another bombed the UN house in the nation’s capital. Bombs have gone off in Suleja and Madalla, killing Christian worshippers. Bombs went off in Kaduna, Damaturu, Bauchi, and Kano. And gun duels have taken place between angry militants and security forces in many towns in the north. In fact, as I wrote only two paragraphs of this piece, a friend who is fond of updating me on the ongoing violence in Kano phoned me from that city and said gunfire was being exchanged “as I’m talking to you” in the Na’ibawa area of the city.
The people of Kano live more in fear than others because a war is going on in their streets. The harmattan of fear in the region’s most populous city is like a heavy cloak that has descended on the people’s reluctant shoulders, forcing a belly-numbing chill that has refused to go away. Muslims go to mosques in fear. Yesterday, according to reports, most Christians stayed at home, fearing that they could be attacked in their churches. Igbo traders, who arguably constitute the majority of non-indigenes in the city, live virtually with their hearts in their mouths. Their ancestral leaders back home, recalling the pogroms of the late 60s, have asked the trading adventurers to start returning home. Even the President has said that these terrible times are akin to the Civil War years. No wonder the under-reported exodus of Nigerians from various parts of the country is continuing unabated in spite of assurances by community leaders.
The Kano killings of a fortnight ago have shown that the bombings and shootings can be indiscriminate. At least over half of the over 200 persons reported to have died in the mayhem were civilians who were caught in the deadly crossfires of the militants and the security forces. They were not carefully selected, but found themselves in the thick of the violence.
A terrible aspect of this saga is that this numbing and perpetual fear is multidimensional: soldiers and policemen now fear civilians and vice versa, the former because they cannot distinguish between an innocent passerby and a bomb-wielding militant. You can see the fear in their eyes at police stations or the check-points. They are not sure of who you are as they scrutinise you, their fingers hovering restlessly over the trigger as you open your car boot. In Kaduna last week, I learnt that many policemen have stopped wearing their uniforms. At police stations, the usual petty ‘cases’ are no longer being entertained. “Go and sort yourselves out,” was the usual refrain by cops to complainants. “We have bigger issues on our hands.”
Civilians fear security men because they know that if a soldier or a cop decides to shoot, no one would accuse him of anything, much less charge him for murder. It seems our security men have acquired emergency powers that they can use at will. They can detain a suspect for longer than is allowed by the laws of the land – or even kill him under one excuse or the other. They can invade a house or an office and ransack everywhere and take whatever they like. Many people live in fear of being accused of knowing a militant or of being one. In this climate, mutual suspicion is legion.
The cost of this fear is unquantifiable. To businesses, to development projects, and to politics and governance, the cost is gargantuan. Our roads and streets have become war zones, with blockades and check-points everywhere. Traffic snarls are a familiar eyesore, as well as their attendant waste of time, energy and resources. The biggest cost, however, is the loss of lives, innocent lives, lives that could contribute to the progress of the nation. People are dying without anyone accounting for their death. In government, no one is resigning for their failure in forcing the present circumstance on the nation. They have to be pushed out. The only fall guy (so far) is Hafiz Ringim, who smilingly handed over the reins of his office to the new inspector-general of police on Thursday. He will not account for anything, including the strange escape of the now mythical Kabir Sokoto.
Shall we ever see the end of this climate of fear? Your guess is as good as mine. But whatever your guess is, it should accommodate the notion that we are not on the road out of this dark and chilly tunnel. So, what do you do when you are caught in a tunnel wherein clouds of fear are thick and menacing? Just one thing: pray.
Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today