By Tony Iyare
Life is ensconced in different strokes. Penultimate weekend, when many of our country men and women were enmeshed in revelry, savouring delicious meals and sipping choice wines with their families and friends at various events, it was heat for our gallant soldiers tucked away in the theater of operations in the northeast.
The terrorist group, Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly known as Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, which has seemingly grown fiercer than the dreaded Boko Haram, was in the offensive against our soldiers in Bulguma, Askira Uba Local Government Area, a pathway traversed severally by this writer long before BH conceived opening their operational base in Sambisa located within earshots. ISWAP which split from Boko Haram five years ago, pledging allegiance to Islamic State, has been fighting against the Nigerian armed forces.
By the time the staccato of their smoking gun had receded, one of our gallant generals, Brigadier General Dzarma Zirkisu, commander of the special forces and three soldiers laid dead. It was really tragic losing a general who actually called for reinforcement to confront the brazen attack from ISWAP. The terrorists were said to have arrived in the town with a massive arsenal of movable weapons and high calibre equipment with which to overrun troops but the soldiers stood their ground.
A statement from the Director, Army Public Relations Officer, Brigadier General Onyema Nwachukwu, says,
“Troops of Joint Task Force, North East Operation HADIN KAI have neutralized several Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists during a recent encounter in Askira Uba Local Government Area of Borno State. In the fierce encounter which is still raging as of the time of filing this report, troops supported by the Air Component of OPHK have deployed five A – Jet, two A-29, two Dragon combat vehicles and nine Gun Trucks.
“Sadly, a gallant senior officer Brigadier General Dzarma Zirkusu and three soldiers paid the supreme sacrifice in a very rare display of gallantry as they provided reinforcement in a counter offensive against the terrorists, and successfully defended the location. The family of the senior officer and soldiers have been contacted.
“The Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Faruk Yahaya deeply commiserates with the families and relations of the fallen heroes. He has also directed that the troops continue in the ferocious counter offensive and hot pursuit to eliminate the remnant of the fleeing terrorists.”
But ISWAP in a statement, however claimed 17 Nigerian soldiers were killed during two attacks on the LGA, putting the release by the Army on its head.
According to the group, 13 soldiers were killed when its fighters attacked troops at a military base in Askira town while four others were killed during an ambush at Bulguma, a few kilometres from Askira. The terror group later released a picture showing four bodies of dead soldiers including that of Brigadier General Zirkusu killed in Bulguma.
Until his death, Zirkusu was the commander of the 28 Task Force in Chibok. A report in Sahara Reporters say Zirkusu was said to have mobilised his men to provide reinforcement in Askira Uba which was under attack but his team was ambushed on their way to provide support for the soldiers battling the insurgents.
The insurgents also displayed a Saurer 4K 4FA armoured tank and Isotrex Phantom 2 APC captured from the army. The online publication, SaharaReporters explains that, “Saurer 4K 4FA is an Austrian armoured personnel carrier with caterpillar tracks while Isotrex Phantom 2 is a new version of the 4×4 B6 armoured personnel carriers. Other than a 5-door configuration, with a 360° gun turret and with two or three escape hatches, the Isotrex Manufacturing allows customers to customize the vehicles for the special client’s needs and requirements.”
ISWAP also displayed photographs of different weapons and ammunition stolen from the military.
Some civilians had said they sighted the terrorists in a long convoy of gun trucks along Ngude axis towards Askira. The civilians added that they reported the movement of the terrorists to security forces but no action was taken before the deadly group stormed Askira town hours later.
Since the death of JAS leader, Abubakar Shekau, ISWAP has been consolidating its grip in locations around Lake Chad.
The sect’s membership has swollen with the defection of hundreds of Boko Haram fighters under Shekau.
Just like how US Commander of Operations Desert Storm, General Norman Schwarzkopf, was always relaying a rosy picture of Gulf War 1 with his refrain, “all sorties met their targets,” the Nigerian Army has repeatedly claimed that insurgency had been largely defeated and frequently underplayed any losses.
In the past months, soldiers have been targeted by the insurgents, who waylay them. Hundreds of soldiers and officers have been reportedly killed since January 2021.
Straddling between Bornu state with part in Adamawa state, like the case with many border towns around Nigeria, Askira Uba is about 150 kilometres south of Borno state capital Maiduguri and lies along the fringes of Sambisa Forest, the operational base of both Boko Haram and ISWAP.
Long before Boko Haram laid siege to many communities in the northeast, these towns were quiet and serene with travelers heading to Maiduguri from Yola haven to go through Michika, Madagali, Askira Uba and then Bama. There are other detours from Maiduguri to Biu that could take you through Gombi, Song and Hong depending on where you are heading to. As a reporter covering the northeast for the Daily Times and later Newswatch, these routes were constantly on my itinerary.
Askira Uba is composed largely of the Putai, Bura-Pabir, Gude, Kibaku, Marghi Central, Marghi South, Nggwahyi and Nya Huba. It used to border the old Michika LGA in Adamawa from where Madagali LGA was severed.
Notable historical leaders of the Kamwe people who largely compose Michika were Gelmai, the first Kamwe ancestor who left Ethiopia, Kwada Kwakaa, the founder of Michika. Michika has also produced prominent individuals such as the first civilian Governor of Adamawa State, Abubakar Saleh Michika, former Governor Boni Haruna, former Military Governor of Bornu and Lagos States, Mohammed Buba Marwa, late Dr John Guli, late Tumba Ra Wandate, late Umaru Ngiki, Reverend Dr Samuel Dante Dali, former president, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, Catholic Bishop of Yola Diocese, Most Rev Dr Stephen Dami Mamza, late Major General John Samuel Zaruwa among many others.
Michika was also seized by the Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in September 2014 but the town was re-captured by the Nigerian military on 29 January 2015.
Both in the still borne transition midwifed by General Ibrahim Babangida and the fourth Republic enthroned by General Abubakar, most of the political aspirants to the Adamawa Government House, Dou Girei came from here. Apart from former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who hails from Jada in the old Ganye LGA, the business man, Sadiq Haske (Yola), the Numan born Architect, Lawrence Ngbale, the political war horse, Bala Takaya from Mubi, others like Anthony Apagu, Sale Michika and Boni Haruna took their ancestry from Michika.
Also a town and local government area in Adamawa State, Madagali is adjacent to the border with Cameroon. The LGA was created in 1991 when Taraba State was carved out of defunct Gongola State. It borders Michika to the north, Askira Uba to the west, Gwoza local government area to the south and the Republic of Cameroon to the east.
There are many ethnic groups here but the Fulani, Mafa and Margi are the most dominant. The major villages in Madagali are Gulak and Shuwa. Madagali is also richly blessed with fertile land which makes the people to heavily engage in agricultural activities.
On this trip, I was headed to Maiduguri in search of leads to a story which eventually took me to the Lake Chad town of Baga, popular for the highly delicious mangala fish. Early in 1993, an insidious whistleblower had written Newswatch magazine claiming that wanton extra judicial killings were being conducted in some designated places in Bornu State. It was my forte to nose after what my editors thought was a hot exclusive story. After the usual editorial briefs and I got through the rat race for boarding passes and the waiting game at the airport, I was soon on the 1 hour, 50 minute Lagos-Maiduguri flight on Nigerian Airways by midnight.
We got to Maiduguri in the wee hours of the morning, so I had to catch some sleep after settling down in my hotel room. It was the tradition in Newswatch to always return on such trips with a bagful of stories. This meant that you had to come back with at least five stories including a travelogue.
I set out in the morning to conduct vigorous checks on all the places mentioned by the whistleblower and talked to several sources. Unfortunately they turned out to be dud. I was compelled to compare notes with another colleague from Tell Magazine who was also nosing after the same execution story. After sizing up each other on our respective mission in Bornu and eventually found out we were working on similar leads, we then opened up and compared notes on all our findings and resolved the story was dud.
But thanks to the Newswatch in-house mantra, I was already working on other stories including the acute shortage of water in Maiduguri metropolis which for weeks had made the residents grown restive. They couldn’t reconcile the fact that the then Governor, Maina Maaji Lawan, who ascended to power on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), had travelled to Mecca with over 1000 persons while giving cocktails of excuses about paucity of funds to procure equipment for the water works to ease supply. So I requested to speak to Lawan, who later became a senator, after wrapping up the story.
It was a grilling session in which Lawan almost threw me out of his modest and spartan office for haven the effrontery to ask him to justify his trip against the backdrop of the suffering of the people. I had two stories already in the kitty by the time I was leaving Maiduguri including a political story on the then raging senatorial contest which had pitched the rich business man, Ali Modu Sheriff, who later became Governor against other contenders in the central senatorial zone.
Rather than hop directly to Jalingo where a Reverend of the United Methodist Church, Jolly Nyame, considered a dark horse, had just survived the rattling of the heated gubernatorial race for the soul of the new Taraba State, which saw him squaring against the Gboko based medical doctor, Ando Shiaki in the SDP and later the popular academic, Ahmed Jalingo of the National Republican Convention (NRC), I opted to go to Yola.
I had done a 197 kilometer trip from Maiduguri to Baga on the Lake Chad, located in Kukawa LGA and back which took close to 7 hours in an area lazed with heat from the blazing sun and needed to cool off before heading to Jalingo. Besides, I had a predilection for the big roasted fishes in Yola town, which reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s big pounded yam feast where guests only knew others were there when they had devoured a huge slice. Apart from haven to patronize these joints on the nose of the palace of the Lamido of Adamawa, I had to re-unite with some acquaintances both at the GRA and in Jambutu, then a slum on the outskirts of the new Yola city, which has now been transformed to a rich haven. From Joel Joram Fwa (J.J. Fwa), who later became the chief of Mbula Kingdom, a popular broadcaster, Timawus Mathias to Nathaniel Yaduma, Ngbale and the home of Atiku, another story was already brewing.
In fact, J.J Fwa, who passed on six months ago at the age of 82, was particularly warm. A former permanent secretary who had more of the traits of an English man, Fwa would always open his doors to me even in the small hours of the morning once he sees my complimentary card. And our discourses over coffee usually would range from the personal to the state of the country. He had deep passion for the development of Nigeria. May his soul find rest in the Lord’s bosom, Amen.
Jalingo was the climax. Thanks to my friend, Boni Haruna, who was then the personal assistant to Nyame, my trip to Jalingo was very successful. Haruna, who later became Governor of Adamawa State between 1999 – 2007, was a as PA to Nyame the de facto governor. He held the yam and the knife. At Haruna’s instance, Jaffet Wubon, the Chief Press Secretary to Nyame took me to meet both the Deputy Governor, Suleiman Danjuma and Speaker, Taraba State House of Assembly, Anthony Damburam. They were all amiable gentlemen who received me very warmly.
Early in the life of the state, a deliberate attempt had been struck to wedge the different groups composing the state in power sharing. While Nyame, a Mumuye is from the northern Taraba, Danjuma, a Jukun hails from Wukari, southern Taraba while Damburam was from the central senatorial zone. My fourth story was weaned from here. I also got an advert supplement of a N100,000 paid in freshly minted notes.
In spite of the disappointment of the dud execution story, I had four stories and a travelogue plus a paid supplement in the kitty. Mission accomplished, I headed back to Lagos with a swagger to brief my editors on a successful editorial trip.