By Sumaila Isah Umaisha (Nigeria)
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SUMAILA ISAH UMAISHA is the literary editor of New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna, Nigeria; two-time winner of the Literary Journalist of the Year Award, 2004 & 2007 (awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors).
Ben, the Kaduna Bureau Chief of the New Nation newspaper, sat down to write his report on the riot. But just as he picked up his pen, he heard a violent knock on the door. And before he turned, the door had caved in under the heavy bombardment of police boots.
It was to be his third report since the riot began three days earlier. He should have written and faxed it to the head office long ago, but it had not been easy. The sun was spitting fire, making the office unbearably hot. The air conditioner was not working; the entire city had been without electricity since the riot started.
Many people had died in the riot. And many more were being killed as the rampage was still raging through the city and the neighbouring towns and villages. There was no official confirmation yet on the number of the dead, but rumours put it at ‘no fewer than four hundred and fifty’. In this report, Ben had intended to round it up to five hundred. Kaduna riot: 500 people slaughtered!
Ben was popularly known among his colleagues as Mr. Scoop because of his uncanny ability to fish out exclusive stories. He was always the first to report any important news event within his area of operation. There were times he even filed reports in advance of the events. But this riot somehow took him unawares. Unlike the previous ones that were usually heralded by rumours and wild speculations, there was no single sign to alert him. So it caught him at home and with a head-pounding hangover of a late night drinking spree.
He always woke up late every Monday due to his prodigal weekends. That Monday, on which the riot began, was no exception. At 11 am he was still in bed. It took Mairo, his girlfriend, over ten minutes to wake him from his drunken slumber. And when he eventually woke up, it took her another hell of a time to persuade him to take his bath.
By the time he had his breakfast, it was almost noon. And that was when he got the first signs of the trouble that had been on for more than two hours. Opening the door, the noise from outside invaded the room. Initially the noise appeared to him as if it were from the nearby primary school. But soon he sensed something odd about it.
“What’s that, darling?” Mairo called from the kitchen. She had also heard the unusual noise.
“I don’t know... Let me check.” He closed the door and went over to the window which had a better view of the street.
As soon as he opened it, the reality hit him point-blank. A few yards from the house people were running helter-skelter, screaming.
“At last!” he exclaimed to no one in particular. “Yes, the riot is here at last!”
“Did you say riot?” Mairo asked, abandoning the plates she was washing in the sink.
“Yes, the goddamn riot!” He moved swiftly to his first aid box, took a packet of Alabukun and shook out four sachets. To deal with the task before him he had to shut up his pounding headache. He took a cup of water from the fridge and gulped down the drug.
“Did you say…?”
“Riot!” He made for his camera and mini-recorder. “I have to go out there and see what’s happening.”
“Go out where?” she queried, walking up to him. “No, you are going nowhere…!”
“Please, I have to go… Don’t worry, you will be safe here. It is the safest place in town.”
“But you won’t be safe out there!” Tears began to well in her milky eyes.
“Don’t worry about me.” He patted her. “I will take care of myself. You just stay indoors; I will be calling you from time to time…” He kissed her briefly and dashed out.
“Oh, my God!” She collapsed in tears.
Why? she wondered. Why was he being so reckless? For how long would this continue before he got himself killed? The other day, just a month into their relationship, she nearly lost him to some gangsters who came to warn him over the special report he was running on the rising crime rate in the city. They had fired a warning shot at him, narrowly missing his leg. But he had gone ahead to run the series to the end. She was in constant fear of what might befall them someday, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave him. She had advised him, warned him and even threatened to leave him. But it was an empty threat. She knew she could not leave him.
She remembered how it all began two years ago when she was a second year law student at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She had come to his office to invite him to cover an event organised by the law students in Zaria. The forum, tagged Legal Clinic, involved rendering free legal service, enlightening the public on their legal rights and how to protect them or seek redress when they are violated. Being the Public Relations Officer, she was in charge of media and publicity for the event. So after the occasion, she escorted him to his car and subtly offered him what she called transport money.
“No, I don’t need any transport fare,” he had declined. “As you can see, I came with my car?”
“Just a token to buy some fuel...”
“It seems you want to bribe me,” he said jokingly. “You are tempting me to take a brown envelope...”
“No, not at all,” she protested. “It is not like that!”
“You know what?” he said, smiling mischievously.
“No,” she said, feeling somewhat embarrassed; embarrassed, not by his smile, which she considered charming, but his rejection of the offer. Maybe she didn’t present it subtly enough. Her colleagues had warned her to be tactical, that not all journalists accepted gratification directly. One needed to be diplomatic about it else one’s offer would be rejected and the story would not be published. Maybe she should have put the money in an envelope, pretending it was the speech delivered at the occasion. She shouldn’t have offered it so openly...
“I will take it.” He cut into her thought. “But not this one; I give it to you as a present; after all, you are students.”
“It is not from our pockets,” she said, seizing the opportunity to explain herself. “We sourced the funds from concerned individuals and organisations. And this one is part of the money budgeted for the media coverage. I’ve given the same token amount to the guys from the radio and television...”
“Save your breath, my dear,” he said, with the mischievous smile still on his face. “I mean I would rather take you than take this.” Her beautiful face broke into a dimpled, shy smile. She said nothing.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes...” she said somewhat reluctantly, avoiding his gaze. “But take this first...”
“I’m serious,” he said firmly. “I will call you when I get back.” He checked his phone to be sure he had saved her number which she had given him. “How often do you come to Kaduna?”
“I come every weekend. My parents live there.”
“Beautiful! Do you live with your parents?”
“That’s fine.” He got into the car and turned on the ignition. “I will call.”
“OK. Thanks for coming.”
“The pleasure is all mine. After all, if not for this occasion I would probably never have met a charming beauty like you.”
She responded with a smile and they waved goodbye.
Thereafter, the relationship grew rapidly. His rugged handsomeness and caring nature drew her irresistibly close to him. Soon she began to spend most of her weekends with him. And though he hadn’t mentioned it, she knew the relationship would eventually culminate in marriage. She also knew it would be difficult to convince her parents who would be vehemently against her marrying a Christian. But somehow she felt there would be a way out. The problem would surely be tackled at the appropriate time, after her studies. For now her utmost concern was his safety. She wished she understood him better.
It was not easy for anyone to really understand Ben. But the fact was that his actions were driven by the ambition to attain the highest position in journalism. He was not a journalist by training but a medical doctor. He had switched over to journalism after a year of medical practice on the grounds that journalism was more exciting and fitted his nature better.
In fact, journalism had been on his mind long before he made the change of job seven years ago. The popularity he gained as the editor of a school magazine back in his secondary school days had gone into his head and left an indelible mark. He became obsessed with the idea of having a degree in Journalism. It was quite a tug of war between him and his parents who insisted he must study Medicine. His father, who was a medical doctor, was particularly bitter about his insistence on studying Journalism.
“Why would you waste your talent on such a course when you have the requirements and the capacity to study medicine?” he had queried.
“That is where my interest lies,” Ben had responded nervously.
“Look, my dear, life is not as simple as that,” the old man had said with all the seriousness he could muster. “You can’t follow your interest just for the fun of it. To succeed in life, you have to subdue interests that won’t get you anywhere. This particular interest will only land you in trouble. How many journalists have really made it in this country? All they do is stick out their necks for others and get abject pay for all the trouble or even get killed…”
“But Dad, life is not all about money, you’ve always told me that. Life is also about making a name. I want to be heard; be known all over the place!”
“Beautiful dream,” he laughed. “But unfortunately you are in the wrong place. In this country people use journalists to make… or rather, fake names, to launder their dirty images, and dump them once the job is done. Yes, life is not all about money, it’s also about fame; but how many journalists have made names for themselves? You could make money and name at the same time, if you choose the right profession. And journalism is obviously not the right profession. It is certainly not the right job for you; you are too reckless for such a profession… Remember Dele Giwa, how they sent him a letter bomb and blew him to pieces? That is the way you may end up if you don’t give up this stupid idea of yours.”
“But that incident has made him a martyr, a role model…”
“Well, you can dream all the crazy dreams in your head, but I can only sponsor you to study medicine, period!” he said with a finality that left no room for further argument.
So at the end, the will of his parents prevailed. But even as he studied medicine, he seized every opportunity to express and develop his journalistic talent. In his very first year at the university he joined four different journalism-related clubs, including the Press Club and the Creative Writers’ Club. In his second year he became the assistant editor of The Clarion magazine, the quarterly publication of the Press Club. And by the time he graduated, he had become the editor of the magazine and chairman of the writers’ club, enjoying unprecedented popularity on the campus and beyond. He was not only a ladies’ man; even the men could not help admiring his talent and vivacity.
Consequently, he felt like a fish out of water when he graduated from the university; life became dry and uneventful, nothing to excite his fancy and intellect - not even his well paid job in his father’s private hospital. His life was miserable and he was always in a pensive mood, contemplating how to get out of the situation.
He was in such a mood in his office one day when his friend, a coursemate back at the university, suddenly turned up and offered him what he described as the way out.
“The only way out is to drop this stethoscope for the pen,” he had said.
“But, Ahmad, you know I didn’t read journalism.”
“Who says you have to read journalism to become a journalist? All that the job requires is the ability to write and the nose for news. And going by your performance at the Press Club one could say you are fully qualified.”
“I know that many journalists are not trained. But won’t that shortcoming be counted against one in terms of promotion?”
“Not at all; in journalism, promotion is largely determined by one’s performance. My being the editor of the Frontline newspaper is not due to the fact that I’m a graduate of journalism. It is by sheer hard work.”
“But my dad…” Ben said after a long pause.
“You have to persuade him, make him reason with you. You are no longer a kid; you have your life to live.”
“OK, I will try,” he said after another long pause. “I will get back to you.”
“When you are ready just let me know. Though presently there is no vacancy in my place, I have a couple of friends in other media houses that could help. In fact, right now there are vacancies for reporters at the New Nation Publications.”
As soon as Ahmad left, Ben set about mapping out strategies to persuade his parents. And, surprisingly, he was able to win over his mother in no time. Then after several days of combined efforts with his mother, they were able to extract a reluctant approval from his father.
“Well,” said the father, resignedly, “you’re old enough to know what is good for you. If you feel this is the best for you, then go ahead. I wish you the best.”
Shortly after the parental endorsement, Ben called his friend and everything was fixed.
And no sooner had he started the work than he began to rise through the ranks; from reporter to senior reporter, to news editor and then to bureau chief. Yet, he felt he was not moving towards his goal fast enough. His rate of progress was not rapid enough to justify his change over from the lucrative medical practice. He was supposed to have been the editor of the New Nation by now.
But he did not allow the delay in his promotion to bother him too much because he knew it was just a matter of time. Moreover, he believed his transfer from the head office in Abuja to Kaduna as the bureau chief was the last step to his goal. Kaduna was the hottest spot in the country in terms of news. It was the place where the competence of any reporter could be tested. And he was determined to pass the test.
This was Ben’s frame of mind, and in pursuing his goal, he never gave a damn about ethics. His guiding principle was ‘the best conduct for the journalist is that in which he finds himself.’ For him, to act out of tune with the prevailing circumstance was to play rugby by the rules of football. In this particular case, he considered himself as one in a game of rugby. So he had been playing it dirty. His two reports on the riot had been mercilessly sensational. And as a result, they had hit the front page, the target of every reporter.
His first report was mainly an account of what he saw on that first day of the riot on his way to the office, with a background on the remote and immediate causes of the crisis. A portion of the report read: “Though this particular crisis appears to have been ignited by the introduction of Shari’a law by a neighbouring state, the crux of the matter borders more on some deep-rooted ethnic rancour with a long history that meanders as far back as 1804.” The report was titled Kaduna boils!
On that Monday, things were really boiling up. He narrowly escaped death thrice as he manoeuvred his way to the office. His foresight was his saving grace. As soon as the Islamic legal system was introduced, he foresaw a bloody riot. So he had planned his strategies before hand. He had carefully mapped out safe routes through which he could get to the office if the riot caught him at home or anywhere in town, and kept some foodstuff and stove in the office. The office, at Ahmadu Bello Way, was at a relatively safe distance from the trouble spots, the ghettos. It was quite convenient too in terms of carrying out his job. Using his binoculars from the ten-storey building, he could survey the situation as it unfolded. And even if there was no power, as it turned out, he could still send his stories using the battery-powered fax machine.
Everything had been beautifully planned. Yet, in a situation like this, one could not rely on his senses alone to thrill his readers. The entire city was on fire, as it were. It was, therefore, not enough to give the readers only what he saw through the windows of his office. He had to complement his limited view with his imagination and the accounts of others, attributing such additional information to ‘reliable sources.’ That was how he compiled his first and second reports. Even the third one that was now interrupted by the police was made up of eyewitness accounts, rumours related to him by the five people taking refuge in his office and figments of his imagination. He had hoped to augment his next stories with reports from his four reporters, whom he had not seen since the riot began.
The three constables took positions while the officer in charge grabbed Ben by his tie.
“The game is up!” he barked, squeezing the tie hard against his throat.
“Officer…” Ben struggled to speak. “Inspector…what game…are you talking about?”
“The killing game; it is over!” The inspector dragged him away from his seat and smashed his head against the wall. He fell under the impact. He staggered to his feet. But one of the constables kicked him on the groin, sending him back to the floor. Then they bundled him out of the office, down the stairs, and pushed him into the police van and zoomed off.
Despite his dizziness, Ben instantly recognized the man lying on the floor of the van as his editor. This shocked him back to full consciousness.
“What’s happening?” He was boiling over. “What have you done to him? For God’s sake, this is a democracy, not a military regime!”
One of them made to shut him up with his rifle butt, but the inspector stopped him.
“Don’t touch him! I want him in one piece. I want him with his full senses, full consciousness, so that he could have a full taste of his own pills.”
They drove through the streets amidst raging flames from burning houses, vehicles, dead bodies, sporadic clashes and looting. They passed through the Muslim dominated areas where Christians were being waylaid and slaughtered. They also went through the Christian parts where the reverse was the case. At the approach of the van, the rioters would scatter, only to re-group again soon after it had passed. Ben was surprised at the virtual lack of security. The number of policemen and soldiers on the streets was obviously too small to cope with the situation. Dead bodies were everywhere; the driver could hardly avoid running over some. The sight was so horrible a grave silence pervaded the van.
“Do you see?” the inspector broke the silence. “Can you see what you guys have caused with your sensational lies? Can you see the carnage you have used your pen to cause? Is this the sense in which the pen is said to be mightier than the sword?”
“But inspector, we are only doing our job,” Ben responded matter-of-factly. “We are only informing the public of what is happening, we didn’t create the situation. People have to be informed…”
“People have to be fed on fabricated lies?”
“What are fabricated lies? The fact that people are being killed and maimed? The fact that the streets are gushing innocent blood? These bodies we see, are they not human bodies?”
“Now, tell me Mr. Journalist; are you a Muslim or Christian?”
“That does not answer my question, inspector! These mutilated and burnt bodies lying in the streets, are they not human bodies?”
“Are you a Muslim or a Christian?” The inspector repeated the question between clenched teeth.
“You know that my name is Benjamin Auta.”
“That makes you a Christian then?”
“But my editor is a Muslim. This has nothing to do with religion; we are just doing our work...”
“I know that by name your editor is a Muslim. He is called Muhammed. Muhammed Sadiq. But let me tell you, Mr. Journalist, being a Muslim or a Christian is more than just bearing a Muslim or Christian name. You may bear all the holy names under the sun; when you conspire with the devil to deprive people of their precious lives you are worse than the devil himself. Do you see those hoodlums out there?” He pointed at some fleeing machete-wielding youths. “You and your editor and all the other journalists who help to escalate this crisis by their sensational reporting are no better than them. They are all hoodlums and they will be treated as such.”
“But we are not the ones that introduced Shari’a!”
The inspector ignored that and ordered the driver to head for Kakuri.
The editor, who had been listening to the argument despite his condition, stirred, coughed and rose to a sitting position. He shook his head and looked round the cage-like van.
“So they picked you too?” he said to Ben in a voice barely audible.
“Yes, sir…” Ben was a bit relieved that his boss could still move and talk.
What a mess they had reduced him to; it was hard to believe he was the same man Ben met last week in the head office. Throughout the seven years they had been working together, Ben had known him as a man of strong personality. He remembered the first impression of him when he met him during the job interview. As the news editor then, he was among the panel of interviewers. His handsomeness and immaculate dress combined to give him a rich and sophisticated look that stood him out among his colleagues. He also had appealing manners; he was not given to too much formality. Even before the interview was concluded, he had hinted to Ben about the possibility of getting the job. “If you are really sincere about your reasons for going for this job, then I must say you will be a successful journalist,” he had said in his baritone voice.
“Oh,” the editor said raucously, adjusting his torn kaftan. Even his voice had lost its quality. “Why did you people arrest him when you have got the editor?” He retrieved his cap from the messy floor. “It is my responsibility; it is the editor’s responsibility… I sign the paper…”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Ben tried to console him. “After all, it won’t be more than detention. And we are no strangers to the prison. If we could survive the military dictatorship, we can certainly survive this child’s play…”
“You call this child’s play eh?” The inspector scowled at him. “And you think that prison is enough punishment for all the deaths you have caused? You journalists are very naive indeed when it comes to the issue of crime and punishment.”
“What are you going to do to us?” Ben asked, fear creeping up on him.
“You wait and see!”
The van branched off to the main road leading to Kakuri, the Christian controlled area, as it was now referred to. It was one of the most deadly spots. The death toll so far in the area could be compared only to that of Rigasa, the Muslim controlled area.
Ben’s fear was rising beyond control. The feeling that he would never see Mairo again gnawed at his heart. He looked at his boss’s face for some assurance. But the expression he saw was that of hopelessness. The editor was ominously quiet, his gaze fixed on the dirty floor.
Something had to be done before it was too late, Ben thought. He had to dissuade the inspector from carrying out whatever evil intent he might be harbouring.
“Are you a Christian or Muslim, sir?” he asked in a somewhat friendly tone.
“I’m a policeman,” the inspector retorted. “And please no more talking!”
“Sorry sir, I’m only trying to see if we could agree on something…”
“Agree on what?”
“Should we all turn ourselves into hoodlums because of the situation in which we find ourselves? We are all being pulled into this by the nature of our individual jobs; the journalist, the police… everybody. We are just victims of the circumstance. But I think we can say no to further descent down the abyss of death and destruction…”
“Sorry, but it is too late.”
“I don’t think it is too late, sir. One editorial is enough to do the magic. The fighting will stop; even the reprisal attacks in other parts of the country will stop…”
“Well, it is an order from above and we must carry it out!”
“Have mercy sir!” Ben could now see death staring him in the face. The inspector was no longer the inspector. The image he saw now was that of a monster, reaching out for his life!
“Have mercy, sir!” He broke down in tears.
Amidst the tears he saw a hazy image of Mairo, weeping and stretching out her hands, inviting him to come over. The image was unstable; it would pale into nothingness and then, like a cloud, reassemble into her form.
“Come over!” she whispered. “Come over before it is too late...”
“It is too late already,” he whispered back. “Mairo, they are going to kill me... I will never see you again!”
“No, they can’t!” He could almost feel her touch. “We will not die... even if they kill us. Come over... Now!”
“But I can’t... Oh, Mairo, I CAN”T…!”
“Hey, what’s that?” the inspector’s voice jerked him back to reality. “Have you gone insane or something?”
“Sorry sir,” he said in a voice that sounded even to himself as someone else’s. He reached for his mobile phone in his trousers pocket. Somehow he felt what he had just experienced was not a mere hallucination. The image could be Mairo’s departed soul. They had probably killed her... No! They had not killed her... How could they have killed her? She had just called shortly before the police arrived in his office. She had been in constant touch with him. If there was a threat to her life she would have hinted at it. She had always assured him that everything was all right; everywhere was peaceful except for the occasional cries of victims who ran there for safety. When he reminded her about the possibility of the rioters chasing their victims to the place, she had said the chances were very slim. In her last call she had assured: “Don’t worry about me darling, I will be there for you when you come back, when the madness is finally over.” And they had laughed. That was about an hour ago. Could she have died so suddenly?
The urgent need to find out how she was faring overshadowed his thought of impending death. He flipped opened the phone. But as he began to dial, the inspector snatched it from his hand.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Just trying to call my...”
“Call your what? You think you are on a picnic?” He flung the phone away.
The clatter of the phone on the road sounded to Ben like a metal curtain being drawn between him and Mairo. He got down on his knees and began to pray, something he had not done in a very long time.
As they approached the streets of Kakuri it became clear that even a police van could not get far through the rampaging rioters. So at some distance from the rioters, the inspector ordered the driver to stop. Then he grabbed the editor and shoved him out of the van. The van reversed quickly and drove off.
No one looked back except Ben. And what he saw was beyond words. He slumped.
“To Rigasa!” the inspector ordered the driver.