When I got an invitation to be in Kaduna for a very important assignment mid last week, my heart suddenly leaped into my mouth. I did not like the timing of the invitation at all. Travelling from Abuja to Kaduna in the past couple of months could be likened to venturing into a wildlife park swarming with dangerous animals.
The Abuja-Kaduna highway had been commandeered by kidnappers and armed bandits, operating without any let or hindrance. Many prominent Nigerians had been captured for ransom or killed in the process. The criminality went to the extent that, to use what has become my favourite cliché, it would be difficult to pound your chest like a gorilla while venturing into the notorious road and declare that you would reach your destination. Not even with the recent assurance given by the Acting Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, that a measure code-named ‘Operation Puff Adder’ has been foisted on the highway to guarantee commuters’ safety. For, a couple of days before my trip, two or so incidents of kidnapping were recorded along the road. Among the victims were babies and nursing mothers.
No one is safe along that road anymore. Virtually everyone plying the road has kidnap value, inclusive of hewers of woods and peasant farmers.
So, scared of these kings of the highway, I decided to make the trip by rail just as I did in June, 2017 when it was even relatively safe to travel to the Mafia City by road.
On Easter Monday, I called a female partner who was also billed for the same trip to enquire how she and her colleagues would make the journey. She shocked me by saying that it would be by road. Then, I asked myself, ‘Where on earth did she get her confidence and courage from?’ I feared for them and their lives because they could be captured or wasted by the marauding bandits along the highway. All I could do was to pray for them.
A day after the Easter, I checked in at the Kubwa Railway Station and offered to be ‘swallowed’ by the steel anaconda for the Kaduna trip. While waiting for the anaconda to arrive, I put a call to the courageous partner to find out about her trip and safety. My heart pounded for a while before the call was picked at the other end. It was a pleasant surprise when she told me that she and team had arrived Kaduna safely. They left Abuja by 5.30 am!
I felt like a coward and asked myself: ‘Clem, where is your childhood boldness?’ I had no answer. But I found consolation in a time-honoured axiom that says: ‘It is better to flee from danger and be mocked than face danger and be mourned’.
Growing up, I won the admiration of my friends for the courage that drove me to hunt for crabs by thrusting my hand into crab holes, not caring a hoot if the occupants were snakes or scorpions.
I had an unforgettable experience while crab hunting somewhere in the present-day South-west. In the company of my fellow kid hunters, I spotted a hole with huge tell-tale footprints. As usual, I sank on my knees and began to probe into the hole. My entire arm disappeared into the hole as I dug deeper. Then, I got a cruel handshake from the landlord. I let out an SMS or Save My Soul that echoed through the sleepy forest, causing my fellow hunters to backpedal in fright. At first, they thought the worst calamity had befallen me… that at long, long last, a snake had seized my hand!
I made a desperate retreat, revealing an extra-large crab as it dangled from one of my little fingers caught by the massive pincers. My friends rushed forward and attempted to rescue the intruding finger from the landlord. They failed. So, I raced towards a nearby tree and smashed the animal against it. The crab disintegrated quite alright but the pincers held on tight to my aching finger. My friends had to use a jack knife to render the pincers asunder. The pieces of flesh were gathered by my friends and we made a barbecue of them for lunch in situ. My friends insisted I should take the lion’s share since I was the victim. After that experience, I retired from crab hunting for good. The thought that I would have become a 9-finger man had the crab succeeded in executing a Sharia treatment for unlawful entry still haunts me till date.
If I still had that kind of raw kid courage, I would have dared the Abuja-Kaduna highway, with or without the presence of the Puffing Adder.
In a situation like this, I cannot but remember my maternal uncle, named Suberu as pronounced by the Yoruba folks (not Zuberu). Way back in the late 70s, I had cause to travel to the eastern part of the country during one of my annual vacations I decided to spend without having to jet overseas as I used to. I visited my mum at home first and when one of my maternal uncles heard about the trip, he panicked. The reason for his panic was that the eastern communities were swarming with armed robbers bred by the 30-month-old Civil War that ended in 1970. So, my uncle enlisted to fortify me with some charms without which I would be forbidden to go on the trip. I reasoned with him.
Uncle Suberu went to work and in no time, he produced three talismans. One was bullet dodger (“ayeta”) so that no bullet could hit me. And in case an attacker discovered that I could not be hit by bullets, they could use machetes. So, he added “okigbe” to my arsenal. With “okigbe” (not Okigwe, a town in the east), no cuts could be inflicted on me. The one that fascinated me most was “agbon”… stinging bees. To launch an “agbon” attack, my uncle gave me a preparation made with shea butter. All I needed was a bowl of sand around me. In the event of an attack by marauding criminal elements on the highway, I would just rub the shea butter in my hands, scoop the sand and spray it in the direction of the robbers. Imagine the shoal of bees in their thousands that would come from the grains of sand!
So, to the east I went. Armed to the hilt with these charms, I took off on the trip. I had never been so confident in my life. In fact, I was so emboldened by the charms at my disposal that at a point, I was squeezing my car horn to announce my presence on the highway. It was an invitation to the criminal elements to come out and dare me. It was such a huge disappointment because there was not a single encounter throughout the round trip.
Looking back now, I shudder at what would have happened to me if all the talismans had failed, leaving me at the mercy of the post-war marauders. They were not even tested before I embarked on the trip.
This is because talismans do fail. A talisman once failed me. Regular readers of this column would remember the experience I have recalled a couple of times over a failed talisman a juju man gave me after conning me of my cap made from leopard skin. I had tested the charm at a bukataria where I ordered some wraps of pounded yam and bushmeat as well as fresh palm wine to flush them down. The charm was to work in a way that no payment would be demanded from me. But to my greatest surprise, I was seized by the girl that attended to me, demanding payment.
Overfed with pounded yam and inebriated by the palm wine, I tried to explain what had landed me in the mess upon realising that the spouse of the owner of the eatery was the con man who arrived at the scene of my arrest just on time before they called in the police.
As I narrated how I was conned, interrupting with loud belching, the buka woman wondered in Yoruba: “Omode yi se ngufe bai? Se oje eran ogufe ni?” Meaning, Why is this boy belching like this? Did he eat goat meat? I responded by saying: ‘Rara ma; eran gbe ni mo je’, meaning, No ma, I ate bushmeat.
To shorten a long story, I was let off the hook because of the circumstances surrounding the talisman.
Finally, let me state here that whether the Abuja-Kaduna highway is safe or not, travelling by rail will be my first choice. The experience is always a pleasant one. Air-conditioned coaches full of comfort… no bumps, no potholes, no twists and turns. And above all, you have your heart in the right place.