Africa

Nigeria: 'Cut off' under emergency rule

  • 27 May 2013
  • From the section Africa
Abdurrazak Namdas, a politician in Adamawa state, Nigeria

Zainab Yusuf, a middle-aged mother of two living in northern-eastern Nigeria, was distraught.

For three days she was unable to speak to her son, Ahmed, a petty trader in Maiduguri, the state capital of neighbouring Borno state - the centre of an Islamist insurgency.

Mobile phone services from Yola, Adamawa's state capital, where she lives, to Maiduguri had not been great since the Boko Haram militants began to attack telecom facilities in the region.

They have become far worse now due to the military operations that follow the imposition of emergency rule in the two states and the neighbouring state of Yobe nearly two weeks ago.

The security forces want to rid the states of the insurgency that has thrown the country into its worst crisis since the civil war of the 1960s.

At the peak of recent military operations, local news reports say, the Nigerian authorities allegedly cut off phone services in the region in an effort to deny insurgents their use.

The insurgents are said to be using mobile phones to detonate bombs remotely and to communicate among themselves.

However, the authorities have not admitted cutting off the phone services.

It was at that period that Ms Yusuf attempted and failed to reach her son.

"For three days I couldn't get him and I couldn't reach any of his friends there to get me talk to him," she said slowly.

She was reluctant to talk about her problems - and declined to be photographed too.

"On the fourth day, my phone rang and I saw a new number," she said.

"It wasn't a Nigerian number, but when I picked it up, I heard his voice."

Ahmed, too, had earlier tried unsuccessfully to reach his mother. On the day he got her, he was not actually in Maiduguri; he was in Gamboru Ngala, a border town, about 140km (87 miles) away.

"It was there he got a Cameroonian mobile phone line and called me," she smiled - the only time she did so during the discussion.

Beer blues

The Nigerian phone services around that area were so poor that residents now resort to using Cameroonian phone lines to communicate with their Nigerian compatriots, one resident, Sani Gamboru, told me - speaking from his Cameroonian line.

Even in Adamawa state, where the insurgency is marginal and military operations minimal, mobile phone services are poor.

In fact, on Monday morning all phone services in Yola were completely down.

Abdurrazak Namdas, a politician and local newspaper publisher who supports the imposition of the emergency rule "because it is possibly the best way to end the insurgency", is frustrated by the poor phone services.

"I can hardly reach my people the way I used to," he said. "You would dial a number many times before it gets through; and when you manage to get the line, it would sometimes go off before you finish talking. It's very frustrating."

Regardless of the communications difficulties, Ms Yusuf is glad that her son has not become a victim of the insurgents or the military operations against them, but she is worried that he still refuses to heed her advice and return home.

That was not her only worry. She is also battling with dwindling revenue from her restaurant business in Yola caused by the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the city, and the entire three states that are under emergency rule.

Businesses - like this bar - say they have been affected by the state of emergency imposed nearly two weeks ago.
Thousands of extra soldiers and equipment have been deployed to the three north-eastern states to find the bases of Boko Haram insurgents.
Other parts of Adamawa state have been more affected than Yola by the insurgency over recent years, but the city has banned motorbikes, so tuk-tuks are now mainly used as taxis - known locally as "keke-napep".
Many businesses and residents in Yola, like politician Abdurrazak Namdas (R), support the imposition of the emergency rule, but are frustrated by the curfew and poor mobile phone networks.
Muslim clerics have also said the current 19:00 to 06:00 curfew has affected those who want to attend prayers at mosques in Yola. Residents in Maiduguri say the state of emergency has seen food prices soar.
The security forces in Yola often shoot in the air at 19:00 to make sure people return to their houses.

She is not alone. Nnamdi Nwedu, the owner of the Happy Day Bar, one of the most popular night clubs in Yola, has seen his income dives "by about 70-80%".

Although Mr Nwedu declined to provide the exact figures of the bar's pre-curfew revenue, one of his staff said their average daily sale was more than 250,000 naira (about $1,600, £1,000).

Before the curfew, Happy Day Bar used to open in the evening and close after midnight - or at dawn during the weekends.

The current 19:00 to 06:00 curfew has effectively ended that.

"We're not against the action of the government because they must have seen something before they declared a state of emergency and imposed curfew," said Mr Nwedu.

"But let them understand that in this situation it is affecting people - the small-scale business people."

As he was speaking, one of his customers, Othman Joseph, sitting inside the bar with a bottle of beer on his table, shouted out: "You can see me here drinking in the afternoon because of the curfew.

"I used to stay here till 01:00, but now I have to go home by 17:00."

'Family time'

Near the bar stood a suya - barbecued meat - vendor, Sani Mohammed, who also complained of lost earnings.

"We used to slaughter and roast five rams every day before the curfew," he said. "Now we slaughter only one ram per day, and we hardly sell it."

This is in the biggest campaign to date against Boko Haram

The curfew annoys many Islamic clerics too because it prevents Muslims from performing the dawn and evening prayers in mosque congregations, prompting Adamawa Muslim Council to call for a relaxation of the rule.

But while all these people dislike the overnight curfew, many housewives are reported to be enjoying it.

One of them, a school teacher, who prefers anonymity because she does not want to anger her husband, told me that the imposition of the curfew has brought greater intimacy in her family.

"The curfew is good for us. We now spend more time together as a family," she said.

"The first time my husband returned home before 18:00, at the beginning of the curfew, his four-year-old daughter was cheerful."

There is no such cheer for many other families who are hit by rising costs of commodities, occasioned by blockades and closure of international borders around the affected states.

Military and police checkpoints mounted inside the states and at the borders with other states disrupt vehicles' movements.

Equally, the Nigerian authorities have closed borders with neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, preventing the transport of people and commodities into and from those places.

In Maiduguri, for instance, reports show that prices of essential commodities, such as rice and detergents, have gone up by about 30%.

"A measure of rice that we used to buy at N500 (about $3, £2) now costs N630," one resident said.

Residents in Yola say they have not witnessed such price rises but the severe restrictions caused by curfew and the sounds of gunshots that they sometimes hear at night are distressing.

The authorities said the sound of gunshots people complain about is the sound of shooting into the air by patrol teams to scare away people who attempt to violate the overnight curfew.

They said most of the troops deployed to Adamawa were sent to different parts of the state where suspected insurgents are believed to be hiding.

Many Yola residents hope the state of emergency will come to an end soon.

"We can't communicate with our friends and family on phones; and our communications business is severely affected," said a telecom staff worker.

"You can see me sitting down in the office doing nothing because all the networks are down."

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