On the 7th of September 2001, I uncovered the single biggest lie I had heard all my life up till that point.
We were always told right from primary school that there was one God. And that people served him in different ways.
On this Friday, I discovered that there were different Gods who asked different groups of people to act out their wills in different ways.
How else could I explain the religious crisis that broke out for the very first time in the state that epitomised tolerance and peace?
The two main Gods of Plateau State; the Muslim God and the Christian God, started a war on Bauchi Road after Friday prayers.
I was undergoing my 1 year attachment at the chemical laboratory of the Nigerian Mining Corporation. I closed from work and joined a cab heading to Ahmadu Bello Way. My intention was to see a friend at the then Lion Bank before going to meet up with my friends Ene, Grace and Inna at St Pirans church were a concert was supposed to hold.
As the cab nosed into the Ahmadu Bello Way, chaos we had never seen before was unfolding. Both lanes; to and fro, were packed with cars all moving in one direction. You know how it is in movies that disasters happen and everyone isrunning away from the disaster? That was what was happening.
We were confused in the cab and the silly cab driver wanted to go against the traffic. We shouted at him and he joined the cars. We were frantically trying to find out what the issue was from other people in other cars.
My eyes locked with a woman in a tiny car. The car that had a seating capacity of 6 including the driver had more than 10 people in it. This woman was sitting on someone and her head was bent so that she wouldn’t hit the roof of the car. Her permed hair was in disarray, she was sweating and her eyes were wide open. I gestured with my palms
“What is happening?”
That was how the nightmare started.
Cars piled up on the road and some people were so scared that they got down from the cars and started running.
I dropped at the junction leading to St Pirans Anglican church and walked down to meet my friends.
Information was filtering but it was sketchy. Apparently right after Jummat prayers, a girl was killed close to the mosque on Bauchi road.
Ene and Grace’s dad came to pick them all the way from Bukuru. Luckily he knew they were there (no cell phones in Jos then). I hitched a ride home. The town was eerily quiet as people had locked up and gone home.
We spent an uneasy night tuned to the TV and Radio. No one was saying anything.
On Saturday morning, the gun shots started. Then explosions and thick black smoke in the horizon. We could hear voices screaming and shouting. I was so panicked at one point that I asked my parents if the villages would be safer.
People came in droves to our house from the neighbouring houses. It was ridiculous because we had no security as well.
My best friend Bola and my younger sister Ronke were still in school i.e University of Jos. They did not come home. Maman Hauwa our neighbour came with the news that ‘they’ were killing University students.
I could not eat. I was petrified and tried my hardest to comfort my younger sisters with scriptures and prayers.
It started raining hard in the afternoon. I was happy. Those outside killing people in the rain would have to stop and find shelter I thought. I was later to find out that the killing spree intensified at moment.
At this point, nothing official was being said on radio or TV. Only CNN picked it up.
You need to picture this. Day 2 of free for all killing without a single security personnel on the road. NOT EVEN ONE.
The stories were rolling in. Pregnant women pierced through with sharp objects, heads being used as footballs, whole families were being killed.
Day 2 was the day that the indigenes ‘answered’.
People were killed mostly out of paranoia. They are killing our ‘brothers’ so we will kill theirs.
My mother had an Hausa Muslim man in her employ. He lived with his family in our boys’ quarters. We had to lock them inside their house with a padlock to give an illusion that the house was empty. Meanwhile, some young Muslim boys had escaped from a mob and jumped over our fence. They knew the family living with us. They locked themselves up in our toilet. I was the one that knocked to tell them it was safe to come out. Two terrified teenagers, dirty and bare footed.
Did you know that fear has a smell? A thick acrid terror laden waft.
They joined the family in the quarters.
Not long after that, a Doctor at Ahmaddiya clinic escaped to our house. The hospital had been raided and two patients killed. He did not stay long because rumours started swirling in our area that we were harbouring the enemies.
These ‘enemies’ were not strangers. They were people we had lived with all our lives. The Hajiya with a gold tooth had been neighbours for decades, so also the Mai shayi and Alhaji Lawal. Overnight, it became ‘them’ versus ‘us’. The local warriors came to our house to purge us of them. I still remember the heated arguments and people saying that our house should be burnt down.
Palpable hatred for people that had not committed any crime as at yet. The crime was that people that shared the same religion with them in another part of town had killed people we did not know personally.
Somehow the rage was deflected but the Doctor had to leave our house.
Battles were breaking out in other parts of Plateau State. Rumours created panic and fear. Panic and fear led people to kill. It was “If we don’t kill them, they will kill us.”
On the third day, a Sunday, the military were finally mandated to bring back peace. CNN claimed the body count was 16. LUDICROUS. In Jos South alone, bodies were ‘packed’ in trucks. The teaching hospital had a mortuary so filled up that bodies were being stacked outside.
The then Governor, Joshua Dariye was rumoured to be out of town when things imploded. They say he came in and passed through Bukuru express road. I do not know if it is true but they said that at the sight of burnt and hacked bodies flanking this road, the governor began to cry and wail with his hands on his head. It could be heard above the siren.
Never had we seen such a thing. NEVER. We were not Kano or Kaduna or even Bauchi. We were the state of peace and tourism. Easy going tolerant people. We all ate sallah meat together, we all ate Christmas chicken together. This was new.
The reasons people died were so far out, it was unbelievable.
You were wearing a pair of jeans and so people thought you were a Christian and killed you.
You were wearing a kaftan and so you had to be Muslim and you got killed.
The killings continued on Sunday. Mostly silently. People were ambushed on deserted paths or in vehicles. The killings started in the villages as well.
Communities had formed vigilante bands when the fight first broke out. They patrolled and defended their areas. When the soldiers arrived, this was met with joy till there was a realisation that fake soldiers existed too. A friend’s brother was killed when they came out of their hiding place to welcome the ‘soldiers’ to their area. They just opened fire on them, just like that.
Fear, mistrust, paranoia, rumours.
No word from the university.
Eerily, the radio stations just kept on playing music. Mostly gospel music. As though to make a statement… “we are a Christian state”
I recall hearing a presenter introduce Lagbaja’s song ‘gra gra’ by saying
“We in Plateau are peaceful people but if you gra gra us, we will gra gra you.”
I am only now coming to terms with how that must have sounded to people who were ‘settlers’ particularly the targeted Muslim Northerners.
By Monday, a bus was organised with armed escorts to get the university students in my neighbourhood.
Bola and Ronke were safe.
They told stories of how cult members became heroes because they were the only ones armed. They protected the whole school. On the first day the violence broke out, some big men had sent armed security men to take their children from the university. The students refused them entry. It was rescue all or none of us.
By Wednesday, the enormity of the happenings of the recent days was starting to dawn on us. But the twin towers in America got hit that day and the tiny international spotlight Jos got was eclipsed by this world event. The news was terrible to us. It was like the world was disseminating before our eyes. The sky had falln bringing death and carnage in its clouds.
A lot of people were killed in the first battle. It was just the beginning of a war. A peace enforced by weapons and security men is an uneasy one. It is like sitting on the proverbial keg of gun powder. Or more apt, it is like placing a foot on a land mine. Everywhere is still till the foot comes up and a massive explosion follows.
On the 7th of September 2001, Jos was the virgin that was brutally gang raped. Hymen and innocence lost forever.
A lot of fights broke out after this first one.
I personally think that the first battle was orchestrated. How do you explain how well armed the antagonists were? How do you explain fake army uniforms? Conflicts are usually designed in cosy rooms with sponsors of evil.
The resulting chaos was not planned. People literally defended themselves with sticks and stones. I hear in some areas, armed robbers came out of the closet, armed people and taught them how to use these weapons. You see, in conflicts like this, there are no sinners. You may not have stepped into a church or a mosque in years but you will die for Jesus or Islam.
After this conflict and constant reprisals, people changed. We people got used to the smell of the dying and death. People danced when an ‘enemy’ was killed.
The moment you hear a shout “An fara” which means “It has started” people became experts at locking stalls, leaving offices and markets in record time.
The conflict carried a chalk and delineated Jos into Christian and Muslim settlements. You build or rent houses around your kind. With the settlements came the Christian and Muslim markets.
If you are a stranger, do not wander about. You need to know where ‘your’ people are.
15 years gone and we are ‘other than who we were before the war broke out’ (The Casualties)
There have been many battles, bomb blasts and deaths.
Jos people are battle weary. There are no winners in wars. Everyone is affected.
I remember going back to my IT place with so much distrust. Not knowing how to relate to Hausa Muslims and I think the feeling was mutual.
The only people that benefit from these fights are probably politicians that gain from our paranoia and those that sell weapons.
There is no victory in lives ended abruptly by a fate usually reserved for animals.
Love died that day.
I fell ill when the whole issue settled down. When I finally ‘got’ myself, I wrote the following down.
Death of love
( To Plateau State)
I weep for the death of love
For surely it must have died
Where there was laughter and joy
I hear no sound
I weep for the death of innocence
For without a doubt it is dead
Where I was enfolded in its warm embrace
I stand naked and unashamed
I weep for the death of the dead
For surely they are no more
Where the years stood ahead with promise
I, the stoic, face alone
I weep for the death of love
For surely it must have died
Where you loved me so dearly
I stare at the blank look in your eyes