Looking gaily as he positioned the plastic chair reserved for him at the fun spot he agreed to meet with our correspondent during the week, his countenance was predictably bubbly. Now a youth corps member in Lagos State, his dream of a better life is gradually taking shape.
To have finished from an institution where gunshots and bomb blasts have almost become a norm, Nuru’s triumphant feeling became quite understandable.
“When I was admitted for Diploma programme early 2009, there was no Boko Haram. Maiduguri was very peaceful and then life was sweet in UNIMAID, as the school is popularly known,” he said.
He explained that even when he had to change to a degree programme, he didn’t bother trying other schools, given the school’s status, reputation for excellence, and according to him, it was a prestige to be a student of the school.
But one year after he resumed, the story changed and the rest of his four-year course was as good as living in hope or an investment in doubt.
“It started like a joke and even at that time when it didn’t have momentum, there was no bomb blast inside the campus. In fact, there were really no gunshots, except once in a while,” he said.
But that serenity soon disappeared, particularly the early morning of Friday, March 14, 2014. In a sharp recollection, Nuru said despite the pockets of violence witnessed from time to time, that Friday and the day he eventually graduated from the school remained the two notable dates he would not forget in his lifetime.
He recalled, “I witnessed several bombings, but the one of March 14, 2014 was so terrible. It happened in the morning as I dressed up and was about leaving for lectures. That was the first I experienced on campus. There were explosions almost everywhere. It was as if they planted them everywhere and they detonated them simultaneously. It was like the end of the world, and we couldn’t go out until the explosions stopped.
“Seeing the level of damage, deaths and injuries that day, I called my parents to send me money so I could go home the following day. I considered leaving the school for another because I never knew there would be another day and I thought the school would be shut down so I started packing my things. If they had sent me that money, I would have left and I don’t think I would have returned.
“At least, three students died that day and two of them were in their first year. They had just resumed. I doubt if there was anybody in school that would ever forget what happened.”
Even though a lot of students deserted the school, especially the new students, courtesy of the attack, while some never returned because of the fear of being killed, some others chose to stay, out of cheer optimism.
“I was in second year then. At least eight of my mates in the Faculty of Agric left and never came back. They left because of that March 14 bomb blast and we later heard some of them moved to another school. Most of those attacks were during exam. During my 200L, virtually all our exams were interrupted with bomb blast. So, we wrote exams under tension and it really affected students’ performance,” he added.
After that singular incident, our correspondent gathered that students left in droves. While some were away for some time, some never came back. And as the attacks escalated in the school and its environs especially, findings showed that the number of applicants to the school dropped, which was entirely understandable, more so that not many would be able to cope with studying under such a tense atmosphere.
Given such attacks, some might expect that the school would literally become a ghost town, but the number of students only went down, many stayed back and academic activities continued. Nuru was one of those who stayed back.
With a smiling face that afternoon, he said in spite of the attacks, if he had a second chance, he would not mind going back to the school, a statement many would find strange.
He said, “It never crossed my mind that I would die, so if you see it that way and you look at the school’s quality, I’m sure that is why many people didn’t leave. So, it could seem that we escaped death by chance, but I have no regret and if I have my way, I would still go back to the school, if not as a student, maybe as a lecturer.
“I have a conviction that I would never die of gunshot or bomb blast and I’ve come to understand that if one is destined to die, no matter where you find yourself, it will definitely come. It never crossed my mind that I would die, and anytime I was leaving my hostel, I never doubted going back home.”
Why such daring disposition to such scary venture was particularly intriguing, especially to those who are puzzled as to their survival in such an environment, he noted that the school’s reputation was another reason he would never stop loving the school.
“Getting an admission there wasn’t easy, so I couldn’t just throw that away because of Boko Haram,” he added.
His optimism was sterling, and as our correspondent would later find out, this is a similar view shared by many of the students and even lecturers in the school.
“Even though some of the buildings in the school had already been riddled with holes, a product of gunshots, UNIMAID is still a place to be. You would just love the school,” Nuru said.
Drawing from enduring historical strength
One could suffice it to say no other institution of higher learning had been hit by the Boko Haram sect like UNIMAID, which is described as primus inter pares in that region. It is about the most popular higher institution of learning in the north east. Established in 1975, the institution has produced some personalities including the incumbent Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shetima, his counterpart in Abia State, Okezie Ikpeazu, and that of Niger State, Abubakar Sani Bello.
Others include the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, the Director-General of National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, who was a lecturer in the school, his predecessor, Dr. Umar Buba Bindir, who graduated with a first class from the Department of Agricultural Technology, lawyers and other persons of repute.
Even though located at the extreme end of the region, students travel from other regions to attend the school, due to its reputation. The Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Prof. Ibrahim Njodi, said sometime in 2016 that the institution had produced 250 professors within 40 years of its establishment.
But for its good standing over the years, perhaps the institution would have become a ghost town. According to some of the students, UNIMAID had always been a hot cake and everybody wanted to go there, thus, it wasn’t easy getting admission and when they got it, they wouldn’t want to lose it just like that, which informs why they wouldn’t quit.
However, in spite of this remarkable record, many lives have been lost and property worth billions of naira destroyed in the three states that were the hotbed of the attacks.
In Borno State alone, as of February 2017, the state Governor, Kashim Shettima, said the insurgency had claimed about 100,000 lives, over 2.1 million persons had been displaced, over 52,000 orphans had emerged due to deaths or loss of their parents while over 54,000 widows emerged having lost their husbands.
While that is palpably regrettable, findings showed that many students and some scholars, mostly Ph.D holders have also lost their lives to the attacks, especially the ones that took place in the school premises.
The school was again thrown into deep mourning on January 16, 2017 when the Director of Veterinary in the university, Prof. Aliyu Usman Mani, was killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive close to the senior staff quarters mosque inside the institution, killing Mani and four others who had gone there to pray. In the process, 15 others sustained varying degree of injuries. His loss was described as one too many, but sadly, it was just one of many.
Few days ago, the insurgents again struck on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 when suspected members of the sect abducted some lecturers of the university.
The insurgents attacked a team, comprising lecturers, staff of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, members of the Civilian Joint task Force and military personnel and abducted some of the personnel.
Apart from the nine soldiers and one civilian that were killed in the attack, five of the lecturers of the school were also killed by the insurgents and their corpses brought back to Maiduguri, while four others were still missing.
The deceased comprised two geologists, two technologists and a driver. But in spite of this, other lecturers in the school said they remained optimistic that they would overcome and no evil would befall them.
Even though the attack didn’t take place in the school premises, lecturers of the school on their professional duties had been massacred.
The chairman of UNIMAID branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Dr. Dani Mamman, told our correspondent on the phone that no fewer than six lecturers, some of whom were Ph.D holders, had been killed in the process.
He explained that in one of the recent attacks, a lecturer that was about to be awarded his Ph.D, having done his defence, died in the bomb blast. A tragic end some would call it.
Mamman also noted that even though the bombing had affected the school’s curriculum, the people in the university community were already used to the attacks, and so they could carry on with their activities, even though in fear.
Giving the reasons why they still remained there after the different attacks, he said, “UNIMAID is one of the best universities in Nigeria and we feel we have put in a lot, so we can’t just quit. When teaching, we are not always focused because of the attacks, but this is the school we have known and that is why many have remained there.
“On the day of the last UTME, in which case UNIMAID was a centre, a bomb went off. Ordinarily, it should have disrupted activities, but it only delayed the exam for one hour. If it were in other places, they could have even cancelled the exam, but it goes to show that we are used to it.
“The VC has been a dogged and persistent person, and he has been encouraging us to continue with our programme. No doubt, the attacks have affected and reduced the number of applicants to the school, but you would still find many students around.”
After failing to gain admission for about two years, Aminat (surname withheld), 24, finally secured admission into the institution and is now in her second year in the Department of Animal Science.
As the only child of her parents, she recalled that her parents were largely opposed to her decision to attend the school because of insurgency, but that when the attacks subsided about the time she applied, she convinced her parents there would be no harm.
“And till date, nothing has happened to me,” she said, adding that, “I had always wanted to attend UNIMAID. I’m from Gombe State, but UNIMAID seems to be the most popular in the neighbouring states, so I made up my mind to go there. I only told my parents to pray for me every day and to God be the glory, nothing has happened to me.
“Besides, I’ve come to realise that in spite of the bombing here and there, there are still people in the school, the VC, members of staff and many students. What I do is that I avoid the known flashpoints, and that has helped. I can tell you that every session; students still flock to the school, even though it would have reduced, we are used to the attacks.”
Adams Mohammed, a third year student of the school, also believes that if he had been destined to graduate from the school, nothing, “not even Boko Haram” could stop it. He explained that having been around for a while, he already knew where not to go to avoid being a victim.
“We have heard stories, and personally, I have seen people graduate, and on the other hand, I have seen people die as a result of explosions. For me, I believe you can’t be an undergraduate twice, so, if you have a school you prefer maybe due to what you have heard, why not take the risk and go there.
“My two elder sisters attended UNIMAID and they told me a lot of things about the school. I’m from Jigawa State, and I don’t see myself going to any other school apart from this one. Yes, there are attacks once in a while, but it is not all the time, and if some could have survived it, why can’t I. And remember, there is destiny.”
Notably, most of the students who spoke to Saturday PUNCH seem to draw the same well of optimism, but to some, they certainly do not know what tomorrow holds for them.
For Hadizat whose sister graduated from the school in 2008, she said even though she had been in the school before Boko Haram started, she never saw herself leaving the school until she graduated in 2014.
She said she gained admission in 2009 for a four-year course, which was supposed to end in 2013, but she graduated from Business Education Department in 2014. According to her, she never really knew what the attraction was, but she just wanted the school.
She said, “When the attacks started, I felt bad, I was scared and at some point, I wanted to leave the school for another school but I later changed my mind. I felt it was too late to quit, whether to move to another school or rewrite another UTME. I didn’t see myself doing any of those, and by the way, which school would I have gone to? I can’t think of any, so I had to stay.
“I remember March 14, 2014. There were series of bomb blast that day. Most of us lived on campus for security reasons, so I was in the hostel when it started in the morning. At first, it was a like a joke because we were used to hearing gunshots and such sounds of explosion. But I got really scared and I never thought I would see the next hour. Almost everybody ran under the bed, some ran upstairs. It was real commotion.
“Some of us left after that incident, and in fact, in my class, we were more than 200 at the start, but by the time we were graduating, we were about 70. There was a time we had to vacate the school for about four months. Some left and never came back. However, for me, I never regretted going to UNIMAID because I believe it was God’s will for me to be there. I couldn’t have left the school, because getting an admission there was a tough work. So, I thought I had gone far. My parents were scared too but they believe that everything that happens is God’s will.”
Since she could not graduate at the appropriate time when her friends in other schools graduated, Hadizat said she felt bad about being left behind, but that she comforted herself on remembering that some had died and that “if you look back you would also see some people behind you.”
Another student who preferred to be addressed as Umar recalled that for good reasons he would not mind going back to the school. However, he noted that he would only be mindful of the places he would go to, having known the hotspots.
“There was a time they shot rocket-propelled grenade and it landed around Gates 4 and 5, because the insurgents know that students usually live around the school premises. It would interest you to know that when we were about rounding off, a friend in school wanted to leave because of the violence but we pleaded with him and the parents to let him stay. He was the only child of his parents, but we imagined how it would be if he were to go and start afresh.
“We all graduated together and today, he’s doing well. And I think many students prefer to endure knowing that their programme is timely and the current VC would not close down the school. When you combine that with the reputation that the school has, you see why most students don’t want to leave. It’s a nice school.”
Noteworthy is the fact that after the attack that killed Prof. Mani, there was, reportedly, another explosion at the female hostel where people also died, allegedly. But in spite of these, academic activities continue to run, perhaps an attempt by the management not to dance to the tunes of the insurgents to bring an end to “Western education,” which is one of the things the insurgents had been fighting for.
The current president of the Students Union Government, Abuhanifa Babati, who is in his fourth year, said the students were already used to the attacks. He said, “The students love the school because of its high standard and that is why you see that people keep coming and they don’t want to leave until they complete their programmes. The VC promised that these attacks would not affect our calendar and that promise is being kept.
“For me, I won’t mind going back to UNIMAID after my programme. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best institution in Nigeria.”
At the moment, a number of buildings on the campus have been perforated by gunshots, and a number of other properties had been damaged in the course of the attacks. The campus has continued to be at the mercy of the military, but regardless, these have not deterred willing students from preferring to go to UNIMAID.