By Abdulkareem Haruna
In the morning of the Nigerian Election Day, residents of Maiduguri, Borno State, woke up to thunderous sounds of explosions as Nigerian soldiers exchanged fire with Boko Haram fighters attempting to invade the city.
More than a dozen deafening explosions echoed over the city as residents cringed inside their homes.
No one knew the direction from which the sounds were coming. It was not yet dawn, everywhere was dark and no one would risk going out to find out what was happening.
But many people knew there was an attack the previous night on a suburb of Maiduguri called Zabarmari in Jere local government and it was confirmed that Boko Haram was responsible.
But as the explosions were happening on election day, the police quickly came up with a statement denying there was an attack.
The police said what was being heard was “friendly firing” by security forces on a show of force exercise.
The statement issued by Edet Okon, the police public relations officer, read; “Owing to the sound of heavy gunfire heard this morning around Maiduguri Metropolis, the Commissioner of Police Borno State, CP Damian Chukwu, wishes to inform members of the public that there’s no attack on any part of Maiduguri and hence no threat to public peace and order.
“The gunfire was not targeted at members of the public but was for security purpose.
“The CP, therefore, calls on all qualified voters in the state to come out en masse to vote for candidates of their choice.”
However, later in the day, as people went out to cast their votes in various polling units designated by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), facts concerning the explosions began to emerge, and it became obvious that the security forces were not saying the truth.
There was indeed an attack by Boko Haram, and what the security forces were doing in the earlier part of the day was not a friendly firing but repelling the attack.
As voters met at the polling units, those who came very close to the attacks began to give accounts of what they saw or experienced. It became clearer that the multiple explosions were not of the usual Boko Haram suicide bombs, but from bombs mechanically fired from a distance over and into the city.
It was indeed a day Maiduguri residents witnessed the rain of rocket-propelled grenades (RPG).
As the news began to spread around the city, the police had to come up with another statement which contradicted an earlier one issued by the PPRO.
This time around, the police confirmed that the explosions had to do with Boko Haram attempting to attack key military formations in Maiduguri.
“Police have confirmed that at about 0520hrs, suspected Boko Haram terrorists operating from the outskirts of Maiduguri town, fired sporadic artillery shots into Maiduguri, ostensibly targeted at strategic locations, especially security facilities, to disrupt ongoing electioneering activities in Borno State.
“Some of the missiles were said to have strayed into vulnerable locations like Teacher’s Village IDP Camp. However, no casualties so far, but two expended shells of mortar bombs were recovered at Teacher’s village IDP Camp, near the HQ of 7Div Garrison.”
“More details are yet to be accessed, but the election processes are not being hindered.”
The Ignored Casualties of Zajeri
While the Nigeria security operatives continued to deny any form of casualties in respect of the attack on Maiduguri, the residents of Zajeri, a crowded suburb of the city had different testimonies about the attack.
It was not certain from which side it came, but a particular RPG fired from a distance landed on a residential compound filled with women and children and left the entire place in rubbles.
PREMIUM TIMES visited the heartland of Zajeri, where 95 percent of the residents are poor.
According to the witnesses, who are mostly victims, the warhead landed on their house at about 5.20 a.m; when the residents were either up or out for prayers.
One of the victims in the compound where the RPG landed, Hadiza Muhammed, said she was still in bed when the missile landed on their house.
“All I could recall was that there was a loud explosion and I became deafened,” said Mrs Muhammed, who is in her early 50s.
“I was still in bed; everywhere was dark and filled with thick dust. I could not stand up because my legs were shaking, so I started crawling and groping in the dark for the two orphaned grandchildren living with me. I could not see clearly but I heard one of them calling out for me, until we bumped into each other and I picked them up.”
Mrs. Hadiza said she still felt pains on her head and was having difficulty sleeping because of “the fear another attack might come.”
Another victim was Amina Ali, a mother of two who is in her mid-20s.
She said she was performing ablution within the compound for her morning prayers when she heard a whistling sound.
“The sound was coming with speed, then suddenly, I was blinded by lighting,” she said.
“Within a short while, everywhere was filled with thick dust. I was pushed by the vibration to the ground; so I crawled to find my two children who were crying inside the room.
“My husband ran back from the mosque and I heard him shouting my name because he could not see me. When we finally found ourselves, we ran to a corner of the house and ducked while we continue to hear sounds of shootings like it was coming from all over the place.
“My husband was injured by shrapnel. I could not sleep well since then. The entire house has been blown apart.”
Aisha Muhammed, 28, was the luckiest. The RPG landed on a small stall at the gate of the compound demolished the shop and levelled her room.
But for the fact that she had passed the night with her parents in the next neighborhood, she would have been dead.
She said she was woken up by neighbours who called to inform her that her house was bombed.
“I ran back only to find my room in rubbles,” she said.
“The entire walls have fallen as well. They said it was caused by a bullet; and I still cannot understand what kind of bullet will do such a thing to a building. But my joy is that I was not in when that happened because it occurred at the time I used to be fast asleep.
“Now I have been rendered homeless in my matrimonial home, so I have to pack few of the things that did not spoil and return to my mother’s.”
The women want the government to come to their aid, especially in getting their homes rebuilt.
“We want government to come to our aid, since we have nothing left here,” one of the women, Hadiza said.
The RPG did not only destroy the home of Hadiza and her neigbours’, it also shook most of the houses around them.
A cleric, Sayyinna Abacha, in his mid-70s said he had performed his morning prayer when he heard a sound like that of a jet.
He said it was followed by an explosion as something landed in the compound behind his.
He said the impact of the explosion pulled down a makeshift apartment where some Almajiris used to sleep.
“Some of the children sustained injuries like cuts from zinc roofing sheets but none had any fracture,” said the cleric.
It was the first time the terrorists would fire RPGs on Maiduguri.
This has left many citizens worried especially with the insurgents now having the capacity to deploy a shoulder-fire anti-tank weapon system from a distance into the city.
Experts said RPGs are usually fired to neutralise an enemy battle tank; hence its use in a civilian location is the most barbaric act of warfare.
The Boko Haram/ISWAP had claimed credit for the attack. In an online post, the group claimed it fired “10 missiles” targeting military locations and the airport.
An AFP report quoted an undisclosed military source saying “one soldier was killed and 20 were injured.”
But in the poetic lines of J P. Clerk, “… casualties are not only those who are dead.”
The people of Zajeri who lost their homes and peace to a warhead that they don’t even know its correct name are also casualties.