It is often said that journalists are endangered species. The truth is that journalists are always in war zones. And to effectively practise in a very dangerous zone like Plateau State demands prayers. From what I have seen and reported since I arrived Jos on May 1 2017, I will say Plateau State is the hotbed of antagonism.
But an observer is considering writing a book entitled: ‘Plateau State and its Killing Fields’. With my 28 hours detention by the military, I am now convinced that Nigeria is in serious trouble. The incidents in question happened between Saturday, October 6 and the night of Sunday, October 7, 2018.
I came back last (Sunday) night after spending about 28 hours behind bars over a former Chief of Administration in Nigerian Army, General Mohammed Idris Alkali (retd), who had been declared missing in questionable circumstances. Alkali was said to have retired a few weeks before he was declared missing on Monday, September 3, 2018, a day after gunmen swooped on Dura-Du in Jos South Local Government Area of Plateau State and killed 13 persons.
On that Saturday, October 6 2018, I went to the UBA ATM to do a cash transaction and decided to buy Irish potatoes and eggs at the popular Anne Breeze Restaurant in Rayfield area of Jos. The waiters had not brought my food yet when soldiers in two lorry trucks (about 30 of them), all masked and armed, swooped on the place, shot indiscriminately at sight and arrested everyone they sighted.
My initial feeling during the shooting was that they were either the Fulani herdsmen (who had been a ‘thorn’ in the flesh of the Berom ethnic nationality), fake soldiers in military uniform or Boko Haram. Many of them were masked.
Passersby were not spared. Women and persons who were living in nearby houses were arrested. Even my identification showing I am a journalist with PUNCH Newspapers didn’t help matters as they did not even want to see my card. We were 37 victims of invasion: 28 men and nine women. The soldiers who carried out the raid were called SPECIAL SQUAD from Maiduguri.
A source said the troops were deployed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. General Yusuf Buratai, from Maiduguri to handle the Jos crises, especially because of the mysterious disappearance of General Alkali. The COAS was said to have taken the decision “because of their excellent skill in dealing with Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east”.
The raid was led by one Captain Rabiu from 3 Division of Nigerian Army Headquarters in Rukuba Barracks, Jos.
While two elderly men in their mid-70s including a retired Chief Superintendent of Police, Chuwang Choji, were picked, a serving army general who was drinking with a young woman was spared. Mr Choji’s son, Chollom, was not spared as they were picked in their house.
The old man just returned home to face the invaders. The mistress of the ‘drinking general’ never betrayed any fear or concern, over the shooting, but instead made a mockery, and grinned like an ape as we fled for our lives. But unconfirmed sources among us claimed that the general tried to persuade the soldiers to exercise restraint because it was not yet time for the curfew which takes effect from 10pm.
The invading soldiers also picked the waiters at another pub (drinking joint) called Big Daddy and many other persons on the roadside who were trekking to their homes since it was already bedtime.
A Berom man and his young fiancé who is also daughter of a politician who contested the recently held governorship primary election in Plateau State was arrested. Three persons who came as wedding guests from Makurdi and Keffi, including the Information and Protocol Officer of Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Abraham Habu Ekpo, were unlucky.
They were accommodated in a hotel within the vicinity of Steffans Night Club and had just decided to take a walk. The casualties also included one Pam, a businessman; Michael Nigsuk, another businessman; three Yoruba guys, one engineer from Abeokuta, Ogun State whose name I can’t remember; Ayomipo from Ondo town, Ondo State and Gabriel Sunday from Ekiti State.
As the soldiers drove off with us, we were told to put off our telephones. The law was that ”you don’t talk, you don’t move”, and even when nature, for instance, sneezing knocks, you’re in trouble.
The 28 of us (men) were driven to the 3 Division of Nigerian Army in Rukuba Barracks, Jos kept in an uncompleted building. They confiscated all our belongings including telephones, money, ATM cards, car and house keys.
Many of the victims couldn’t take their cars and personal properties. We had no access to our families; I couldn’t communicate with my family, editors, friends, and colleagues because they took our phones.
There in the dungeon of 3 Division of Nigerian Army Headquarters in Rukuba Barracks, Jos, we saw over 30 persons, including a pregnant woman. These persons have been described as ‘suspects’ that will assist them (soldiers) in getting the culprits behind the missing general.
All the male suspects in captivity were chained in pairs, hands and legs. If one wants to answer the call of nature, his partner must go with him, under the security of a soldier. It was learnt that the women we met there were only chained the first day they arrived. But their chains were taken off.
The nine women among us, including the CEO of Anne Breeze, were kept in a separate place. Of course, they deserved soft landing and preferential treatment. But we (the 28 persons) were kept in an uncompleted building which was manned by heavily armed military police.
The building housing us cannot even take 10 persons, but 28 men stayed there. Our ‘anopheles’ friends (I won’t call them mosquitoes), welcomed us with stings, malaria-prone bites, while their wings came with uncomfortable noise. I learnt another lesson that even when people speak about cold in Jos, the cold weather in Rukuba is worse than that in Jos.
Moreover, you sit on the dusty floor, unhealthy for a life. Throughout our stay, one young officer always on mufti, who should be a captain kept issuing threats. I know I’m older than him, and something kept telling me that at 50 (which is on November 22 2018), I would have been a general if I had enlisted into the Nigerian Army since 1998. I know I’m older than him, but he’s doing his job.
My problem is that soldiers feel everybody, including civilians, should obey every last order, even where it is not applicable. After giving us our phones, preparatory to freedom, he seized mine and that of another man over suspicion that I wanted to make a call, which was untrue. However, I also commend his boldness.
During captivity, some of us couldn’t sleep, others snored ceaselessly. Before many slept. They gave up the opportunity to go out and urinate outside as many times as possible. But at bedtime, that grace stopped. We had to urinate in a Coca-Cola plastic container. Those who took beer (I didn’t) went many times. A very old Plateau man urinated more than 10 times before day-break. Baba said he was sick and on drugs which have been responsible for constant urination.
But we commend the efforts of the soldiers. They assisted us in emptying the can of urine one after the other. Those who went for the most serious call of nature were given the opportunity. A wedding guest visited the convenience more than seven times throughout our stay.
The next day, we were interviewed more than five times by the military police who kept us under constant watch. I heard some of the officers say that after screening us, they should have allowed us to go if we have no link with the masterminds. Some said those who arrested us went for the wrong targets.
Several photos were taken of us; my house address in Jos was taken. But I hope they won’t do anything funny; if they do, they will hear from my lawyers. On several occasions during the interview, I told them I am a journalist with PUNCH Newspapers and I only went to buy food. But they never answered me, until one of the interview sessions conducted by a commandant of the 3 Division of in Rukuba Barracks (I can’t confirm this, but they said he’s a General). I told him that I was working on the press statement sent to me by the Deputy Director of Army Public Relations in 3 Division Nigerian Army, Col. Kayode Ogunsanya, when the invaders struck, which was the fact. I told him I even spoke with Mr Ogunsanya. He asked for an evidence and instructed that they should get my phone. He saw the details of my chat with him and said I should wait. But he didn’t give me preferential treatment.
I am sure they called him and behold when Ogunsanya came, he confirmed we had been communicating. Mr Ogunsanya was dazed that despite introducing myself, they still held me. He then promised to “do something”, which I believe, he did in his capacity. At least, he confirmed that I’m a Journalist with PUNCH Newspapers.
My 28 hours detention in Rukuba Barracks has confirmed the thinking that in a room of 100 people, one man with a gun is a majority. Although one is not making trouble, I will await the advice of my lawyers concerning going to court to press for the enforcement of my fundamental human rights.
***Friday OLOKOR, Plateau State Correspondent of THE PUNCH, writes from Jos.