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Systems of Governance

In a Time of Boko Haram

by Elnathan John.


Beneath the oil-stained, flattened pillow that Mansir sits on lies the fulfilment of a promise; the source of a joy no one can understand but this young bright-eyed man. His veil and black bra and red dress are folded neatly beneath the pillow. Sitting on it helps, since there hasn’t been any electricity all night. He washed and hung the black veil only a day ago, after Zubeida, his mother, tried to dump it in the rubbish heap outside their compound.

He knows exactly how long it takes him to tiptoe from the dark room he shares with his brothers to the gate; how long he will have to listen to her tell him not to leave as he makes a dash for it, out onto the dusty street. It is because he does not want to upset her that he often dresses up in the uncompleted building in the street adjacent to theirs.

Twice he has been lashed in public and once taken to an Islamic exorcist to expel the shameless demons who make his round eyes light up when he looks at his made-up face in the small mirror in his handbag; the demons that won’t let him feel pity for his mother and siblings who are constantly mocked in Mando for having a crazy relative. After her many attempts, Zubeida is past the fury, past the incredulity, past the determination to make him right in the head, make him a good Muslim who knows how men should behave. There is no point dwelling on the pain she feels in her chest, she only stares at the body invaded by cross-dressing spirits which her son used to own, praying to Allah for a miracle.

The spirits, if indeed they are spirits, are interested in the goings-on of this poor, densely populated part of Kaduna. They love the light and forbid him to hide in the dark comfort of this small room. His mother might have preferred to hide her shame under the cloak that darkness provides – rumours can be denied, gossip can be ignored, but not a young man at midday dressed up as a woman.

A few kilometres away General Muhammadu Buhari, arguably the most revered politician in northern Nigeria, is stepping into the back seat of his bulletproof Prado jeep, one of the cars in a convoy, wearing his pristine white caftan and cap. He is headed out of Kaduna city to his country home in Daura, Katsina State. Kaduna is the political capital of the north and the city Buhari calls home. Kaduna is also the first main city outside north-east Nigeria that came under intense, frequent attacks by the militant Salafist group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, also known by the shorter, less nuanced name Boko Haram. Sometimes when everyone calls you a thing, you start to get used to it. Like when everyone tells Mansir he harbours evil spirits in his lanky body. Perhaps Mansir himself believes it – everyone can’t be wrong. His mother Zubeida, his older brother Ibrahim, the men in the mosque down the road who have asked them to seek help, the people in the neighbourhood who have known him since he was born, all believe it.

When bombs go off in Kaduna, everyone is afraid, even in the mostly Muslim neighbourhood of Mando. Bombs from a Salafist jihadi group do not stop and ask Muslims to leave, they do not know who is a Muslim and who is not. Earlier today, less than 30 minutes away, someone tried to blow up Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, a Sufi cleric of the Tijaniyya order, who often speaks out against the insurgency and against militant Islam. People are still huddled in groups on the streets, listening to the radio, receiving phone calls and arguing about the body count. This is after they have called their relatives and friends in the area where the bomb went off to make sure they do not know anyone who died, and if they do to accept it as Allah’s will. This is what frequent bombings cause: tragedy fatigue. You hear the body count given by the government, multiply it by two or three to get the correct figure and move on. You forward photos and videos of body parts strewn across the road. You thank God it wasn’t you. To read the rest of this article in full online, subscribe.

[ppw id=”95843774″ description=”to read in full, $1″ price=”$1″]

Mansir has heard the news of the first bomb, but he is really concerned about bursting into the reverie that dressing up brings. He lifts the small black bra and puts his arms through the straps. A few years of secretly wearing bras has given him the proficiency required to put his hands behind his back and pull the two hooks together in one quick motion. He adjusts the strap over his shoulders. He looks at the dress and smiles. It took him an hour to negotiate with the secondhand clothes seller who wondered at first why he wanted a dress. The price only came down when Mansir noticed a little tear in the dress and showed it to the seller. At home, Mansir patched it himself with a needle and thread, so neatly that no one would notice. Not that the people who hated his cross-dressing would bother about a little patch in his dress.

Buhari’s convoy tears through the wind, honking and overtaking cars in the traffic. They need to get to Daura before dark. As they reach the motor park in the last neighbourhood within the city limits, there is a deafening blast. Cars screech and people scamper to safety, screaming. No one knows where the bomb came from or who has been hit. The convoy tries to get away, but a man opens fire on Buhari’s jeep, before disappearing.

Mansir hears the tremor and knows what this is. Everyone who lives in Kaduna knows what a bomb feels like. He rushes out, having quickly dressed up and used an eye pencil to darken his eyebrows. His mother has felt the tremors too. Everyone rushes out to see what is happening. Zubeida sees Mansir heading out towards the area where the sound came from, towards the Kawo motor park.

“Where are you going Mansir?” she screams when she sees him already wearing the red dress.

“I am coming,” he replies without turning, clutching his purse and fixing his headtie.

By the time he reaches the scene 15 minutes later, the gunmen have long gone and people have started counting the losses – the smashed and burnt-out cars, the crater in the road, the dead bodies, some whole, some in pieces. He pushes through the crowd to see the remains of Buhari’s bullet-ridden car and the burnt-out bodies. He pushes too hard and a man turns around to complain. The man thinks it is a girl but realises that this is a boy in a dress. A boy? In a dress?

“See the bomber here hiding!” he shouts to others in the crowd.

From then on everything happens too quickly for Mansir to understand. He is being slapped and punched and called a bomber in disguise. A piece of metal cuts into his back and he falls to the ground. Someone is calling for a knife, another is calling for petrol and an old tyre. They want to do it quickly, kill the man who has caused all this mayhem. Mansir is panting on the ground, too stunned to cry. He can see the boots of soldiers approaching from a nearby post. There are a few more kicks to his feet and stomach before the soldiers fire a few shots into the air to clear the crowd and pick him up from the floor, his red dress ripped apart, his bra snapped in two by an angry man in the mob.

In the back of the military van, he stares at the soldier taking his photo. He does not know why his photo is being taken, why he is being made to turn around and show his injuries, why they are stripping him further.

Mansir does not use Twitter. He will not see the Nigerian Defence Headquarters tweeting his photos, celebrating his capture and calling him a disguised bomber. He will not read the story on their website calling him the man who masterminded the attack against General Buhari. In detention, he will not be able to count how many retweets his deer-in-the-headlights pictures will get. Everyone will read the story of the army and congratulate them for nabbing the bomber; they will curse the bomber, wish him a slow, painful death. And when his mother will speak to the one journalist with the sense to investigate this further, telling them how the evil spirits made him wear dresses and darken his eyebrows with eye pencil, when his brother and people who live in his neighbourhood will confirm that he did indeed have spirits who made him prefer scarfs to fez caps, people will have moved on to another Boko Haram attack. It will not be sexy enough to make the front pages or be retweeted many times. The few people who will bother to read the report will ask, “What the hell was a boy doing in a dress?” That will be enough to make him suffer.


Enemies. Your young son calls them haters. You do not know where these kids get their words from, but it sounds just right: haters. Haters as a noun; the name of a thing defining the whole existence of a person who is unable to conceive how you can get anything right. A hater. You like the word. Because you do not know how else to describe persons who refuse to see the roads, new clinics and new federal universities; who cannot appreciate that the reason why they are not in jail is because you uphold freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution. You are a democrat. Haters can’t see this. They choose not to see.

This headache, though, manifests differently from how the haters make you feel. You wonder if it is the drinks you had at 2am after your marathon meeting with the Borno state governor. Sometimes you do not know whether to hate him or to pity him. At first you thought he was like the others, the haters; like El-Rufai, the bitter diminutive opposition man who breathes to undermine you. You almost kicked the short whiskey glass when Reuben Abati brought the statement to you. The governor told the whole world that Boko Haram was better equipped and better motivated than the army. You wonder now if you should have lost your cool and told him that you would withdraw the soldiers in Borno for one month so he could feel the heat. He begged you at the meeting, swore that he did not mean it that way. Sometimes you need to threaten these people a bit, show them who is boss. People think you are stupid. But you can tell from a man’s eyes whether he is an enemy or not. You looked into the governor’s eyes and you knew that while he was not a member of your party, he was not a hater, just a man who by circumstance of birth had become a native of a region where your party is not a ruling party.

It is hard to get away these days with Zani. Especially because the rumours have started, albeit subdued, about you and Zani. You wonder how people know these things, who the snitch is in the villa or among your aides. You are discreet. Even the last time you were able to get a few hours together abroad. Just a handful of your aides knew. There is something that time with Zani does to you. It is like connecting to a power source and getting charged up. In the room with her you feel like God. She tells you, “There is nothing you cannot do, J.” It does not matter what has happened, how badly you have handled the situation. She shrugs it all off and tells you all is well. Her laughter is full of mirth, at once confident and carefree. Zani is the opposite of a hater. You want to swallow a shot of whiskey because you think this headache is a hangover. You do not know why you still do it. People say drinking some more in the morning cures the hangover. It has never cured your hangover. You send Zani a text message: “I miss you.” The protocol officer has knocked on your door to tell you where they will be dragging you today. As he reads the list, she replies, “Me too, Y.E.” She does this always with text messages, add “Your Excellency” to them. It makes you smile.

Reuben Abati is telling you about these Bring Back Our Girls people who are getting more and more international attention. This is the new frontline for your haters, the field on which people united in hatred prepare their assault. If it is not Boko Haram posting videos, it is people using hashtags to make you look stupid. Especially that woman who leads the campaign. You want to tell her to try being president for a day and see if what remains of her short hair will not all fall out from stress. She thinks ruling a country is running a ministry or being a small vice-president at the World Bank. Does she think she is better than Ngozi? Were they not at the same World Bank?

The thing about Reuben is that he likes the long route. He thinks everything is a damned column. That is why sometimes you are happy that Patience went behind you and brought in Doyin Okupe. Doyin knows how to fight dirty. He knows how to handle haters.

You cannot understand why it is you they want to bring back the girls, as though you sat down with Abubakar Shekau over goat meat pepper soup and planned the midnight abduction.

Reuben again. If he ever comes with good news you will buy him a shirt or some cufflinks. Explosions. On the outskirts of Abuja. Many have died. The security chiefs will call with a briefing in a few minutes. Haters. They want to bring you down, one bomb at a time. But you will not let them. You will not die. The rally in Kano planned for tomorrow will stand.

“Prepare a statement condemning the bombing. The usual. Let me vet it before you send it out.”

You think about it for a moment, weigh it up in your mind: scoring a point by announcing you are cancelling the Kano trip, visiting the victims and the site of the bombing or going to Kano to do a PDP rally. That Kano governor, whose face looks like that of a mouse, he will rejoice if you cancel. God forbid that Boko Haram determine where you can and cannot go. It is important that you make a statement. No campaign of calumny against you shall prosper. You will dance on stage to Hausa music sung by a Kannywood celebrity. Show Kwankwaso who is boss.

You call Doyin. He knows what it means to have haters. Reuben can handle the clean stuff, the big grammar, the speeches that will not offend people abroad, who have no idea what it means to run Nigeria. Doyin is close enough to fight shamelessly and dirty on your behalf, but distant enough for you to deny what he has said when things go wrong.

“Can we pin this on APC?”

“Of course, Your Excellency, sir. Just leave that to me, I know just what to do. My boys are already on it.”

This is another reason why you are glad you have Doyin. Initiative. He will start a fight on your behalf without you even asking.

Getting ready for Kano, you try out one of the five Hausa caps that your tailor brought in this morning. Staring at the mirror you hate the way it looks, its pointy edges and busy patterns. This is the part you hate about politics, keeping up appearances, pretending to love people and their cultures. People who, for decades, did not care if there were oil slicks in your drinking water or if the fish that kept your people alive were dead on arrival because of oil exploration. You are glad you do not have to sleep over there.

You walk over to the table where the whiskey bottle sits idly and pour yourself a glass. You still cannot get over how large these villa bedrooms are. The whiskey in the glass sparkles like oil on water. For a moment, before the glass touches your lips, you are back in Yenagoa, hanging out with fellow workmates, laughing uproariously, complaining about the heat and the lack of electricity. In that moment you are not president. You have no haters. And life is good.


The veins on my arms are popping out as I grip the handle of the machine gun which sits atop the armoured personnel carrier. My whole body vibrates as we grind along dusty roads and through fields. We get to a village and as soon as we enter, men jump from behind shrubs and trees and fire at me with AK-47s. It is exactly what I want, what I have been waiting for, why I am out, dressed in heavy camouflage in the heat. I grit my teeth and I squeeze the trigger. I scream as the bullets fly out of my machine gun. As I make the gun rotate, I see the attackers fall, one after the other.

It is always the same village, always the same roads, always the same fields and always the same moment I wake up, right after I have shot down about a dozen insurgents in the village. This dream used to energise me, give me something to wake up to. Especially since men in Hilux vans and on motorcycles invaded our community in the middle of the night, screaming Allahu Akbar, making all the men over the age of 15 line up and shooting them in the head and chest, and taking the women away. We were four friends who escaped that night and made it to the army post in the next village. Sale went to live with his uncle in Maiduguri. Yusuf and I joined the Civilian Joint Task Force. I do not know where Mohammed is.

I sharpen my machete. Yusuf doesn’t talk much these days. Twice now he has injured himself while sharpening his sickle. His mind drifts and sometimes only his body is here. I wish they would give us guns. Because now, when they attack us, we run. If they would give us guns, I would go right into the forest where they say Shekau is. Yesterday, when we caught a boy who was peeping and making phone calls, it was Yusuf who just walked over to where we had tied him down to question him, stuck a knife in his throat and walked away. Yusuf’s face then was as it is now: blank, with neither smile nor frown, his eyes staring but not looking.

We are heading out to a village where we have heard some Boko Haram are hiding. We are going with a truck full of soldiers. Sometimes it feels like our guys are braver than these soldiers who have guns and even bulletproof vests. When they tell us not to burn people’s houses, I wonder if they would say the same if it was their villages being sacked, if it was their wives being taken away, their brothers being slaughtered, their identities being erased by a marauding jihadist band.

I don’t know about the five other men that we have arrested. But this one boy, who keeps answering rudely, whose mouth is bunched up defiantly – he has to be one of them. We knock him around a bit first, to scare him into telling us that he is one of them and where they are hiding. If we know where they are, perhaps we can find them and kill them and stop them from invading our villages. He won’t talk. Not even as we break his arms and legs with rods and sticks. We collect salt from one of the houses and sprinkle it on his wounds. Now he is unconscious, but his body squirms a bit each time we pour the salt.

“He is pretending to be dead,” one of the soldiers says and smashes a brick into his knees.

Another one of our vigilante groups has called to tell us that they have caught and killed many Boko Haram boys in a village close to the one we are in. We head there after handing over the men we have arrested to the soldiers. The stubborn boy is on my mind. I wish he had told us where they are hiding. I am tired and hungry. One of the boys from the other group tells us that the men they caught were the prisoners who escaped when Boko Haram attacked Giwa barracks very early this morning.

We get to the other village and we see corpses everywhere. In one heap I count eight bodies. The boys are jumping and screaming and celebrating. I look at the feet of one of the bodies and I see six toes. I know only one other person who has six toes. I pull the body from beneath the pile and it is him: Mohammed, with whom Sale, Yusuf and I escaped. It is becoming difficult to breathe. I drop my machete and stare at his swollen head. He was not Boko Haram. He hated Boko Haram.

I drag his body away from the other bodies. And I cry like I have never cried before. [/ppw]




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