I don’t much like the title of this post, but if I wrote “The Only Bature in Mubi” you wouldn’t understand what I was talking about unless you spoke Hausa, in which Bature means “white man” or possibly just “foreigner” depending on who you talk to.
The streets are quiet on the morning of provincial elections. My fixer, Mr Chamba, tells me that the national elections two weeks earlier had seen Mubi flooded with people who trekked home to vote. But with Buhari firmly in place, and the need to make a difficult and possibly dangerous 3 – 4 hour voyage from Yola back to Mubi, where there is no electricity, no banking, and no policing system other than the army and the vigilantes themselves, a lot less people are bothering.
I am developing the first documentary in my new position as head of documentaries for Gotel Africa. It is about the vigilantes in Adamawa State who have joined the military in fighting Boko Haram and have been a key part of the recent success in driving back the insurgency.
Adamawa is one of the three states declared as a state of emergency in April 2013 and have remained so to this day two years later. Most people in Nigeria consider being in Adamawa at all rather insane, even though it is really quite a peaceful place at this point.
And Mubi? Mubi attained international fame as the place the Nigerian army dropped their weapons and fled in terror along with most of the town’s civilian population after Boko Haram’s invasion last October.
The town’s name still strikes fear in the heart of most Nigerians, even though it has been retaken and is completely secure. So most people I know think I’m a bit insane, not only being in Mubi at all but being there on 11 April, the second round of elections in Nigeria, for gubernatorial and local government candidates.
If Nigeria has a volatile security situation, it has been especially bad in northern Nigeria, and especially at election time. In 2011 over 800 people died in the north alone in the wake of the presidential elections. At least this time, the north’s preferred candidate won handily and things remained mainly calm, so by the time of the more local elections, danger seemed far less likely.
On the other hand, some contacts claimed that the local elections were more dangerous, more contentious, as the people were more invested in who would be running their state and their towns directly. And really in Nigeria, especially at election time, anything can happen. That’s why the government restricts movement and has a curfew from 6 PM to 6 AM before and after election day – once we hit Mubi, there is literally no escape.
To top it off, my coproducer on the project, Amina, a young and brave Nigerian woman without whom none of the project would be possible, comes down with a stomach flu on the morning we’re departing, so I find myself alone on the project in the passenger seat of a Toyota Hilux pickup.
Not entirely alone of course. There’s the driver, Alhaji Suleiman Namtari, the likely main character of the doc, commander of all vigilantes who patrol the entire state. And there are his two underlings who ride in the backseat in full uniform, homemade shotguns at the ready, one with a military style helmet.
We blow through all military and police checkpoints on the route, passing truckloads of refugees from Michika heading the other way, back toward Yola, where they will have to vote as election personnel cannot have their safety guaranteed in Michika. Michika is the next major town up from Mubi and it still utterly disfunctinoal – no power, no running water, no banking system, no shops, and almost no men, a town mostly still comprised of women, children, and old people who could not run away.
Mubi to be honest is not much better. There was far less destruction in Mubi partly because everyone ran away so quickly, partly just luck. And in Nigeria you have to go to your hometown to vote, so the population of Mubi is fairly thick at this point.
But when we wake up on Saturday morning and head out at 7 AM, it’s like a ghost town. The streets are almost entirely empty. No one is out, because nothing is open, except the polling stations. It is only at the polling stations that we see people, queing up to get their credentials registered and ready. Voting in Nigeria is a two part process – the morning is spent ensuring voters are correct; the afternoon they return for the actual voting.
As the day progresses, more people turn up – but the polls are not crowded, and are mostly orderly. We end up witnessing one fistfight, over a stolen voter’s card. But overall it is shocking how peaceful and relaxed the voting actually goes. The vigilantes hardly have to put a hair in place, for the most part.
The fact that I’m the only white guy plays a very minor role in my experience. It’s clear to everyone of course that I’m not Nigerian, and that I’m not there to vote, but then my camera and my press tag would make that rather obvious anyway. Everyone is friendly and welcomes international observers of every type. Arguments erupt among the voters in line about ballots being given out late, voting starting too late, and so on, but the lines are not long and nothing is going to cause much real disruption. Anyway Alhajee Suleiman and his trusty band of vigilantes are there to keep the peace every time.