Ben, the Kaduna bureau chief of the New Nation newspaper, sat down to write his report on the riot. But just as he picked his pen, he heard a violent knock on the door. And before he knew what was happening, 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 ago. 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’. 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 unaware. 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 long minutes to persuade him to take his bath.
By the time he had his breakfast, it was almost 12 noon. And that was when he got the first signs of the trouble that had started several hours earlier. 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, a 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? 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 swell 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.
Ben’s zeal to excel was fired by the ambition to attain the highest height 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. He made the change seven years ago and since then he had risen 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 fast 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 worry 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 a bureau chief was the last step to his goal. Kaduna was the hottest spot in the country in terms of hot 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’. To him, acting out of tune with the prevailing circumstance was to play rugby by the rules of football or vice versa. 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. Consequently, 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 reads: “Even though the crisis appears to have been ignited by the introduction of Sharia 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 maneuvered his way to the office. His foresight was his saving grace. As soon as the Islamic law was introduced, he foresaw a bloody riot. So he planned his strategies before hand. He mapped out how he would 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. 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 was beautifully planned. Yet, in a situation like this, one could not rely on his own 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 and 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 came over and 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 civilian regime, not a military dictatorship!”
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 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 and sporadic clashes. They passed through the Muslim dominated areas where Christians were being waylaid and slaughtered. They also went through the Christian populated parts where the reverse was the case. At the approach of the police van, the rioters would scatter, only to regroup 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 is a fabricated lie; the fact that people are being killed and maimed? These bodies we see on the streets, 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 carrying 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 Sharia!”
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 asked Ben in a voice barely audible.
“Yes, sir…” Ben was a bit relieved that his boss could still move and talk.
“Oh…” The editor adjusted his torn kaftan and retrieved his cap from the messy floor. “Why did you people arrest him when you have got the editor? It is the editor that takes responsibility for everything. I sign the papers…”
“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 regime, 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 negotiated unto to the main road leading to Kakuri, the Christian controlled area, as it was now referred to. It was one of the hottest 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’ 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 try and 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 the South 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.
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 fainted.
“To Rigasa!” the inspector ordered the driver.
© Sumaila Umaisha.