by Eromo Egbejule
You hear a lot of stories about North-East Nigeria, a slice of the country that has been at war since 2009, at the hands of Boko Haram. But we have largely only heard a single story. Sending a reporter across 7 cities, we tell a more complete story – personal tales of survival and recovery – that speak to hope, to strength and to faith. Stories that speak to life. Across 20 narratives over the next 3 weeks, you will hear the most inspired and touching stories about Nigerians – at their best, even when they have only just recovered from their worst.
When Boko Haram overran Maiduguri in the summer of 2013, Abba Aji Khalli was still an auditor working for the Borno state government happy to go home daily to the embrace of his three wives and twenty children.
A few months later, ‘Elder’ as his troops affectionately call him, became the commander of an 8,000-man unit of the civilian joint task force (civilian J.T.F), the local vigilante that is widely credited with chasing the insurgents out of Maiduguri, the capital when the military seemed overwhelmed.
During a three-year period, Khalli and his men, mostly young boys and men with little or no military or paramilitary training and armed with charms and locally fashioned weapons including sticks, daggers and dane guns.
“They are children of necessity because they were formed to fight the insurgents,” the 52-year old said about his ‘boys’ who volunteered to keep the peace. “There were places the military could not attempt going to in Maiduguri but my boys went there to liberate them. We cleared this city within one week.”
Growing up in Maiduguri prepared Khalli for his future life as a protector of his people. As one of his father’s nineteen children from four different wives, he was sent to live with his grandfather and often envisioned being a military officer. However, he did not follow through with his childhood dreams and eventually studied accounting at a technical college in the city.
For the children who equally gave up their childhood dreams and now serve as part of the civilian JTF, Khalli also wants a better future for them, away from the welcoming arms of crime. Before the crisis snowballed proper, many of his men worked as roadside vendors, selling airtime cards or working as black market fuel operators, with no tangible capital to return to these businesses, if they wanted.
“The Federal Government should engage these boys”, he says, almost pleading. “They have tasted war and can handle weapons so we need automatic slots into the security outfits in the country. There are heroes that we have lost and for some of them, their children can’t feed.”
Already, 250 of the local vigilante have been absorbed into the army and over the last thirteen months, the Department of State Security has employed thirty of them as junior personnel.
The Kashim Shettima administration has also setup a youth empowerment scheme to cater directly to the civilian JTF and 1,850 of them are paid a monthly stipend of N15,000 monthly. But that is a drop in the ocean for an outfit with over 12,000 members, a fact that Khalli recognizes, especially with the possibility of them becoming election thugs for desperate politicians or evolving into a full-fledged ethnic militia.
“The state government has a lot of responsibilities so it cannot do it all. “
For Khalli, the generosity of the Nigerian government in dealing with the principal actors in the Niger Delta crisis ought to be extended to those who fought Boko Haram.
“I ask the federal government: ’between the Niger Delta militants and my boys, who are more responsible? Who ought to be taken care of?’”
*The next installment will be published at 10am WAT tomorrow.