This was such a colorful scene that I could not resist the urge to take this photo.

Photo by Namnso Ukpanah / Unsplash

Studying Under Fire: Life in Nigeria at the Birth of Boko Haram

TW: Violence and assault

Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno State, was known as the most peaceful place in Nigeria. I gained admission into university there in 2009, to study Business Management and Education.  Everything kicked off nicely as me and my fellow students were admitted into the system. At this stage, we were trying to understand the bureaucracy, navigate the town and  find our feet. Then, Boko Haram emerged. 

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant organization whose ideology is against western education and civilization. At the start, their headquarters were situated in Maiduguri. 

The emergence of this sect led to a drastic change in the security and safety of the city. It became a shadow of itself. Life at university became scary. Gradually, instances of students being killed, lecturers being tailed and murdered in their own homes became more and more common. Across from the university campus there was a student community in private hostels, where a lot of killings also took place. In response, the Nigerian military would stomp onto the campus and cart away students who looked suspicious. 

We were directed by the school management to carry our student ID card at all times, to avoid being taken by the military. This was even scarier because the students who were taken were being tortured into agreeing with narratives that they were affiliated with Boko Haram. The deaths of students and lecturers were not investigated. Nothing was being done. We kept attending lectures as if nothing was happening. 

When we needed to leave the campus for grocery shopping or other things, we would go by car and step out of the vehicle and raise our hands whenever we reached a military checkpoint. We would walk through the checkpoint while the driver and vehicle were searched, meeting them on the other side. This was the routine every time we arrived at a checkpoint, and there were usually three to four to pass through before we even arrived in the town. Often, the soldiers pointed their guns right at us.

We continued to live in fear, often going to bed to the sound of explosions and gunshots. In a day, we might count about thirty or more bomb blasts. These would make the walls vibrate, echoing in the fear and tension felt by the students. I couldn’t understand why the university didn’t close, although some parents withdrew their children.

Eventually, Boko Haram cut off the electricity supply and mobile network across all of Borno State. Everything was incommunicado. It was like a dead end. Our parents and loved ones couldn’t reach us. We ended up sending letters and going to the university café to buy airtime to access the internet and send emails or Facebook messages. The banking system became almost impossible. ATMs had no cash, as there had been attacks on banks. 

Food became scarce. As a city that relies on imported food from neighboring states, it became hard for vendors to bring in supplies as they would be targeted as they entered Borno State: killed and their goods taken. Attacks intensified and things escalated. Boko Haram would send letters, threatening to attack the university. The situation stayed this way for a while, until the threats magnified and the university had to make a drastic decision – asking all students to vacate the premises within eight hours, through a circular pasted on the campus walls.

The decision brought a lot of tension. There were no cars for evacuation. Transportation fares tripled, and finding cash to pay was difficult. Many students did not have a place to go, and university authorities were not willing to compromise and let students stay longer. University staff were throwing out students’ belongings and locking hostel doors. I saw students abandoning much of their belongings, only taking those things that were most important to them. I did the same. Many of us walked from university to the motor park, seeking transport. Some were lucky enough that their parents drove for hours to come pick them up. But when my friends and I arrived at the park, there were no vehicles. The park authorities assured us that they had contacted other travel agencies to send vehicles and that some should be available the next day. 

We slept in the park – because we had nowhere to go and we didn’t want to miss out when the cars arrived. We were out there in the cold with no security – and a lot of mosquitos. That was how we slept, with one eye open. It was the longest night ever. We were praying for daybreak. When morning came, the cars arrived. The hustle to get a seat was the next challenge. Prices were inflated but after much bargaining we were able to reach an agreement and leave Maiduguri. 

We were lucky, because the road wasn’t safe. Some vehicles filled with students were stopped. People were killed, including people I knew. A friend, who was in her fourth year of medicine, was murdered as she left Maiduguri. Boko Haram decapitated her, leaving her body on the side of the road. 

The university remained closed for a year. So, students automatically lost valuable study time. Some parents enrolled their children in other universities, while a lot of us had to sit tight and wait for the situation to improve in Maiduguri. 

Finally, it was announced on national television that students could resume their studies. The resumption date was shared, and I was happy to go back because it was my final year. We thought things had changed for the better, and expected to go back to a peaceful school. But this was not the case. We were back to the same old situation, now even worse. Explosions and gunshots rocked the streets of Maiduguri day in, day out. It was a challenge to maintain our basic human sanity. I have never been as terrified and been so close to death as I was then. From the window of my hostel room, I could see rockets and RPGs flying across the sky. As I saw them, I would think of where they might land, and how many casualties they might cause. Weapons are definitely the worst of human inventions. 

I would often have panic attacks during explosions that sounded nearby, the ones that caused buildings to quiver. It was petrifying. But I was in my final year, and this was the only thing that kept me going. I would often say to myself aloud, “Nafisat, you are in your final year. Hold on a little. You will soon graduate and leave. Nothing is going to happen to you”.  Even then, how was I to protect my sanity amid all this chaos, with all the death threats, and the noise that wouldn’t stop. 

Friday 14 March, 2014, was one of the most traumatic days of our lives. A fighter jet flew over the university from the early hours of Friday to Sunday evening and repeatedly fired on the campus from the sky. People died, others were injured. I saw my neighbour in the hostel shot through her neck, blood gushing out rapidly. I froze in fear. I couldn’t move. Then another explosion rocked the building. This brought me back. We took shelter under our hostel bunks. When it was safe, we moved to help my injured neighbour. She was rushed to the university clinic, then transferred to hospital. I was so scared. 

There were bodies on the floor. People were crying and praying – different prayers, in different languages but under the same bunks. In that moment, nothing mattered except staying safe. We embraced each other tightly and stayed under the bunks for hours. There was no help or rescue. Some students advised us to avoid open spaces and keep our heads down. I remember a first-year student I knew stepped into the hostel courtyard to buy some akara, a local street food, and was hit. He died on the spot. Later, his parents were informed but didn’t want to come and pick up his body because of how unsafe it was. They said he should be buried immediately instead. This was the chaos we lived in.

On top of everything else, there were prisoners who had escaped from the prison running to the university to disguise themselves as students. I began to question why I had returned at all. Some students who couldn’t endure it left. We didn’t hear a word from the university management. We only had ourselves to rely on. This peak of non-stop gunfire lasted until the following Sunday, 16 March. On the Monday, as we couldn’t hear the sound of the jet anymore and the gunfire seemed to have ceased, we went to class only to see another circular from the university management saying they were sorry for the ‘little mishap’ that happened over the weekend and that all school activities could now continue. I was livid. Lives were lost, scores were injured, so how could the entire management be this unreasonable? All the students felt this way – labelling the day ‘Black Friday’. On each anniversary of the day, we say a prayer to all the departed among us. 

I still can’t explain where I found the courage to stay back and complete my degree. But the university hadn’t been willing to transfer any of its students, and if I left I would have had to start all over again. So, I guess the thought of starting from scratch scared me. The uncertainty of the education system in Nigeria did, too. These were part of my decision to stay.

My mates and I kept supporting each other through all the assaults. We kept reaffirming that it was our final year and we had to graduate – and so we did. 

We all graduated on September 9, 2014, we are proudly graduates of BSC in Business Management and Education.