Philip Ademola Olayoku
While I attended the launch of the anthology of faction, Ordinary Saviour at the end of August, it never occurred to me that I would begin the review of this symbolic piece of art with the sad recall of the execution of Hauwa Leman by the Islamic State of the West African Province (ISWAP), even as I vividly recall the audio message of her phone conversation, which gave a graphic representation of how hope gradually fades away within a transitory phase wherein a helper becomes a helpless victim, living as a captive for eight months. While ISWAP comes across as a faction that is disposed to negotiations, this brutal face just shown unravels a lot about the magnitude of the vulnerability and danger of being a humanitarian actor in Nigeria’s North-East. The reasoning that working for international organisations such as the Red Cross or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) makes Muslims ‘apostates’ in the Boko Haram ideological nomenclature, violates the conventional protection guaranteed to neutral parties in warfare. It also confirms the assertion by researchers and scholars that there have been more Muslim casualties with the distinction made between apostates (Muslims who are considered to have abandoned their religion by taking up positions with international organisations) and infidels (non-Muslims). While the verdict on the former is outright death, the fate of the latter vacillates between slavery and death, subject to the decision of their abductors.
My recent visit to Maiduguri showed that there could be the conviction on the face value that normalcy has returned to the troubled area, with people going about their activities, but the caution that comes with inquiring about access to different locations is indicative of the fact that there are potent threats to the survival of those who have chosen to return to their communities in defiance of the security challenges that obtain therein. The title of the anthology, Ordinary Saviour, is thus quite fitting to the present context of complexities in the region characterised by development amidst ongoing destruction, poverty amidst interventions running into millions of dollars, hope in an atmosphere of despondency and resilience amidst the fear of the future. The anthology containing eleven stories, edited by Richard Ali and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, is a product of the Global Rights mentorship platform known as the North East Intellectual Entrepreneurship Fellowship (NEIEF). The narratives have comprehensive thematic components that include hope, trauma, memory, friendship, displacement, despair, rape, vengeance, stigma, marginalisation, health, conflict management, education and vengeance, documented through the lived experiences of different actors including the locals, security agencies and terrorists, as they unravel the layers of victimhood and being perpetrators. As the editors of the anthology mention, the attempt is for the authors of the stories who have been part of the experiences to take ownership of the narratives on their experiences and the region.
This anthology fills the needed void of placing community driven narratives in the literary sphere, thus serving the therapeutic purpose by creating a platform for victims to let out their horrifying experiences in very subtle modes. It also gives legitimacy to their stories and enables people from other parts of the country connect with their plight.
The first chapter by Suzanne Myada, which gives the title to the book, details the agony of displacement of a young girl in search of her Aunty, without knowledge of her destination, having lost her family in the aftermath of the Boko Haram attacks. Fortune appears to have smiled on her when she finds her uncle through the help of Rosaline, herself a victim of misdirected youthful exuberance. However, her bid to avoid the marriage proposal at her uncle’s results in her becoming a victim of rape, having being molested by a soldier who takes advantage of her vulnerability. The patriarchal culture of delimiting the future of the girl-child to marriages and sexual gratification again resurfaces on her return to Madam Rosa’s shop, though this time she has the chance to return to school through the intervention of an NGO, with the suspense of her uncle being the only obstacle to the furthering of her education. The second narrative by Mohammed Modu, titled “Being Human”, centres around ASP Mohammedali, a patriotic police officer who becomes a victim of his quest for vengeance as he ends up killing the innocent family members of Yassir ibn Ubay, a notorious terrorist. The shared grief between these two key figures, who struggle to control the territory, lays bare the thin lines between victimhood and aggression within a system where community allegiance is based on protection from whoever had superior cohesive power. The revenge mission of Ubay ends in his defeat, though a pyric victory for Mohammedali, whose team also suffers casualties.
Nafisatu Mshelbila’s “The Aftermath” is woven around the controversial window of Operation Safe Corridor given to low risk ex-combatants who willingly surrender their arms to the promise of a better future. The protagonist of the story, Kamal, on a flight to Heathrow from Maiduguri, reveals the high prospects of ascendancy into the upper cadre of the class strata in the post-insurgency context. In telling his story, he comes across as a precocious hardworking young boy with a penchant for art before his dream is redirected by his parents’ death in an accident and the forced recruitment by the Boko Haram for their operations. Lucky enough to have been rescued during the military raids, he suffers from torture, while also accessing the opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration through the collaborative efforts of the government and an NGO. This psycho-social support empowers him with ripple effects on kids affected by the insurgency, and who become part of his internationally recognised The Factory Project. ‘Lost Identity’ by Chabiyada Eli tells the story of Aidaticha, a product of interrelated adversity who suffers from the aggression of her brother, Yaya Maksha. As the product of a poorly managed post-insurgency psychological complication, the latter ruins her wedding by revealing her identity as an unintended consequence of a union between a Boko Haram member and Aitiya, the symbolism for the kidnapped Chibok girls. Stigma stands out as the underlining theme of this story as her uncle, Yaya blames her for the death of his sister, who dies due to birth complications and is eventually subjected to public ridicule at her wedding, disrupting her grandparents’ plans to keep her away from shame.
Fauziya is the central figure of the story, “Home”, which focuses on the importance of girl-child education as a needed aspect of gender responsiveness in Nigeria’s North-East. The topic also highlights the interventions of NGOs, represented by Aunty Lawyer, in helping women suffering from domestic violence. Fauziya’s family was displaced as a fallout of the aftermath of inter-communal clashes between the youth of Sabo and Anguwar Ja, in spite of the fact that their community, Zazeri, had been neutral mediators. In the IDP camps, the health challenges get laid bare, with women and children being the worst sufferers. The story also mirrors the post-conflict context in some parts of Borno, with the infrastructural renovations, engagement of local vigilante for security and the employment of sports to create durable peace within communities. The story ends tragically with the death of Fauziya due to what could be termed the systemic failure to enforce traffic regulations, which makes everyone vulnerable. “In the wild” details the context of marital conflicts thriving on mistrust, a story which connects the experiential context of the North-East to the rest of the world. The improper management of the challenges due to the lack of communication between Zulai and Murtala degenerates the crises; the communication gap is largely due to the post-traumatic stress the former is suffering due to her abduction and forced marriage to a high ranking insurgent during which she was subjected to slavery, rape and the forced embrace of religion. Her anger leads her into the bush where she has their baby girl and encounters the kindness of a member of her civilian joint task force, whose mum cares for her and the baby, before returning her home to her husband’s safety.
This literary resilience in no less an important counter-insurgency tool as it helps to document the nature of the violent context, a necessity for precluding future occurrence. This text should thus be considered a blueprint for literary resilience and all hands must be on the deck to encourage similar efforts at documenting this aspect of Nigeria’s history.
H.K. Tijjani’s “Close Call” is an apt title for the narrative of Babagana’s close call with torture and death, having unfortunately visited a school where his debtor, Bukar Bashir, taught immediately after the insurgents had massacred the staff and students. His bid to rescue his sick mother in the hospital is met with the horrible experience of escaping from the military, not wanting to suffer another bout of torture due to mistaken identity as an insurgent. The impacts of humanitarian organisations is again highlighted as a saving grace for the underprivileged patients, as one helps in covering Babagana’s mum’s hospital bills. The themes of resilience, family and dispersal threads through Macxy Usigbe’s “Escaping Gulak”, a story which emphasises the need to look beyond the divisive to unifying factors in Nigeria’s diverse context. Mallam Isa’s defiance to live routinely with his family in spite of the security challenges leads to his death and the dispersal of his escaping family members to the South-West and South-Eeastern parts of the country respectively. The kindness experienced from the church and old friends helps his family members to thrive in different contexts, reunite and eventually conceive the plan to return to home.
The incessant farmer-herder clashes is the thematic focus of Benson Lee in the story “Friends or Foes”, with the need to probe beyond interests to the needs of the warring parties, including witnesses. The mediator, himself a victim having lost his father to land conflicts, reflects the need to embrace MedArb in the conflict management process. While the Lamboya – representing the farmers – and Zirgili – representing the herders – tell their sides of the story, Zamani who ought to be neutral portrays the importance of often marginalised groups in tracing the root cause of conflicts, as his refusal to speak up due to prevent events of marginalisation adversely affects the amicable solution of the crises. Adamu Galadima’s “A Family Tragedy” shows how the location of conflict infuses the identity of suspects to those of inhabitants, as captured in the experience of Bulama who is tortured alongside others by the military, after his father is killed on his way from work during attacks on Gonge. His father’s death makes the family despondent, while his dreams of a good life is also hampered. His arrest then results in the death of his mother and displacement of his sisters, during his two years in detention. The final chapter, “Uncertain” by Mercy Maisamari narrates the tale of Amina, who is struggling to cope with a past abuse which is taking its toll on her relationship with her daughter. She had been kidnapped and raped but still suffers stigmatisation from neighbours who suspect that she is a wife of the insurgents and had been sent to spy on the community. Her escape reflects the bravery that adversity instigates in victims, the kindness of neighbours and the clearance process from the military; even with her caring mother helping her to come to terms with her present reality.
This anthology fills the needed void of placing community driven narratives in the literary sphere, thus serving the therapeutic purpose by creating a platform for victims to let out their horrifying experiences in very subtle modes. It also gives legitimacy to their stories and enables people from other parts of the country connect with their plight. This literary resilience in no less an important counter-insurgency tool as it helps to document the nature of the violent context, a necessity for precluding future occurrence. This text should thus be considered a literary blueprint for resilience and all hands must be on the deck to encourage similar efforts at documenting this aspect of Nigeria’s history.
Philip Ademola Olayoku is a development consultant in Abuja and a senior research fellow of IFRA-Nigeria.