Habiba Nur Alkali is the author of Phantom Army, a book that tells a horrifying tale of terrorism, destruction and survival in the North-east. Habiba, an indigene of Borno state, is the daughter of the famous Zaynab Alkali, a novelist, poet and short story writer that is regarded as the first woman novelist from Northern Nigeria. In this interview with IBRAHIM RAMALAN, she speaks on her book, experience with insurgency among others.
What is The Phantom Army about and what inspired you to write the book?
The Phantom Army is my very first book. It was inspired by the many years of insurgency that ravaged my hometown of Maiduguri and its environs in the historic city of Borno.
I began writing the book in the year 2009 when the first incursion occurred. The book is fiction based but inspired by real life events and experiences and it was mainly aimed at capturing the general atmosphere of despondence in the fictional state of Rebni at the time of war.
This was widely aimed at honouring the forgotten victims of war anywhere in the world and at any time in history as they are often the worst hit but the least acknowledged when discourse often centres on the reasons, the politics, and the semantics of war.
The real impact of war on the lives of those who lived it is often not known and most times become obscured by a barrage of conspiracy theories and rumours. It didn’t actually start out as a book but more like a diary when I started to keep excerpts and accounts of events that had occurred over the years.
This was the first time such a thing had ever happened in the state. Although I was gripped by fear during the very first spate of attack in the year 2009, I was probably more driven by curiosity.
So, as the insurgency grew over the years, so did my collection and somewhere along the line it turned into a story when I started to create characters of the insurgents to try and demystify them.
Having been inspired by your personal experiences in the terror-laden atmosphere, what was the role of research in helping you collate these experiences into a book?
Sources for research were all around us. It wasn’t something that one had to go out and search for.
The experiences of every resident of Borno at the time were the primary sources that researches are made from. At the height of the insurgency, the victims, the army and the insurgents were all enmeshed like soup smack down in the middle of everything.
The risks were an everyday part of our lives and our lives and experiences were intertwined.
Now, as a victim this time around, can you tell us some of the horrifying experiences you have gone through during Boko Haram’s reign of terror while you were in Maiduguri?
Well, since I have never been shot, kidnapped or been a bomb blast victim, to refer to myself as a victim is being unfair to the real victims of the insurgency.
However, we were all victims of fear and unfavourable living conditions, we lost loved ones, colleagues and acquaintances, we were always in the face of imminent danger so those experiences are quiet too many to recount but I can confidently say that every moment of it was horrifying.
The worst experience that stands out for me though was during the Giwa Barracks attack. It was a day that for hours I didn’t know the whereabouts and fate of some of my immediate family members, the fate of very close friends and associates that were receiving the brunt of the attack and ultimately it was also a day that I had sincerely given up on my life and the lives of my family members because the threat seemed inevitable at the time.
Your book captured the travails of victims of insurgency, can you speak on some of them?
I am not so sure that I can authoritatively speak on this matter since in later years when the situation got bad, visitations that were made through our NGO the Nur Alkali Development Initiative became difficult and access to the camps became problematic.
What we personally saw during our visitation to the camps to provide relief materials within our capabilities were more like difficulties and challenges which I cannot be judgemental about how it was handled because no one envisioned a situation that would necessitate the mass influx of internally displaced persons in and around the city of Borno let alone plan adequately for it.
What we saw at the time was the challenge of insufficient supply of food and protective clothing. However, the worst part of the IDP situation in my opinion though is the fact that the situation itself has gradually turned into the status quo. Whatever the situation going on in there and whatever is happening, unfortunately somewhere, somehow it has stopped being an urgent and pressing matter and even the discourse around it has become comfortable lamentations.
What is your take on the allegation by Amnesty International that soldiers are taking advantage of these displaced people?
Authorities, organisations and other international bodies that are out there always have a mandate. A mandate is usually carried out by operational guidelines. In this case I don’t think individual opinions on the allegations of sexual abuses are relevant.
While I feel strongly that such allegations should never be taken lightly, I also feel strongly that the authorities that are in charge of handling it should be allowed to do their work using facts and figures which cannot be too difficult to verify. In the insurgency that occurred over the years, if there is one thing that we didn’t need was the barrage of conspiracy theories and peddling of unverified facts which only infuriated a situation and didn’t do much good except to treat very dire situations with very generic approaches at the end of the day.
Amnesty International is quite capable of carrying out its mandate without the interference of what I usually refer to as “empty noise”.
However, deplorable conditions in the IDPs camps are a source of worries to many concerned individuals and corporate organisations.
What do you think should be done to address the problems IDPs face?
Like I mentioned earlier, the worst thing about the IDP situation is that it has assumed a cold state and most of what is being done about the situation is alarmingly more of drafting sustainability plans rather than seeking for ways to return these IDPs into their communities.
I know a lot of efforts are being made to curb the situation but it’s like trying to fill up an ocean with a teaspoon. As long as the communities remain unsafe and the IDP situation becomes prolonged, there will be many ramifications including the exploitation of selfish interest by soulless individuals.
Unfortunately, the ultimate solution to the IDP situation is tied to the end of the insurgency. However, I can only prescribe what we have tried and succeeded ourselves in a very tiny capacity under the family NGO NADI which was to offer skill acquisitions to a few IDPs in the host communities and among which a lot of them are now back in their communities with a small-scale business set up.
Government and well intending individuals whilst feeding the IDPs can also invest in empowering them to get back on their feet and fend for themselves.
Some people still believe that Chibok and Dapchi abductions are hoax, what is your take on that?
Referring back to my earlier statement, for serious situations such as these, individual opinions especially those without any authoritative relevance or direct influence to the situation itself should not be allowed to obscure the real situation on ground thus hindering or influencing the actions and decisions of the stakeholders.
The Chibok and the Dapchi girls, their families and their loved ones know whether it was a hoax or not. The real problem would be if the relevant authorities think it’s a hoax. Opinions are just what they are and they should be relegated to the small spaces of the social media where they like to fester and thrive.
Did your book try to unravel the myth between what people hear of Maiduguri and the true state of affairs?
While my book is shrouded in fiction it was also a deliberate attempt to obscure the facts in fiction. This was because my aim was not really to unravel myths but to capture the travails and experiences of victims that are often forgotten during insurgencies.
It wasn’t meant to highlight political undertones or contain any investigative nuances. It is worthy of note that during this insurgency nothing was black and white as perceived by those outside of the situation.
Victims were made up of the residents and the armed forces and sometimes the kidnapped victims of the insurgents who unwittingly ended up as perpetrators and the perpetrators were also made up of some residents who cooperated with the insurgents, the armed forces and the insurgents themselves.
In this type of situation and in our kind of society where people care more about the conclusions that best suits their frame of thinking rather than objective deductions, its quiet a tall order to try and unravel myths in a single book that is shrouded in fiction.
Your debut was successful, are you mulling a sequel?
Yes, it has a sequel. I have obtained the first hundred and twenty pages of the sequel of the Phantom Army before I left Maiduguri in the year 2015.
Since my writing method was dependent on real time events, I followed the events that promised to lead to the end of the insurgency to complete the last book which is aimed at giving hope to a long drawn out affair but It seems that I might have to invade Sambisa Forest with my pen and paper and end the insurgency myself.
After that I hope to start on my next project which is a break from guns, bombs and blood but an equally challenging concept God willing.