“She has not learnt it till today, I tell you.”
“But it’s so simple na. It’s like Hausa one-o-one.”
“Scholar Scholar. You must relate it to school, abi?”
“As if you did not go to school yourself. You’re only here with me because of the East.”
“I know, I know. Back on topic. Amara has to learn how to say simple ‘Thank God’”
“No. Allihamdru Li–, it’s Yomi’s mother, Emeka. She’s strong again. We’ll get supplies today.” Rufiyat drew Emeka’s attention away from their conversation and his rummaging of his store to find his ledger.
“Oh, beautiful. But where’s Yomi? He never leaves his mother’s side in the market.
“Oh, there he is!” “Yomi!” Emeka called. “Yomi! Who is he walking with? That looks like a hajia to me o, Rufi–”
Rufiyat had already got up and was headed towards Yomi. Emeka wondered what the urgency was about. No. It was not Yomi she walked to. It was the hajia. Rufiyat knows a hajia!? Why are we still selling onions? Yomi walked up to Emeka and greeted. Emeka mouthed a half-reply. His attention was on Rufiyat who seemed to be suddenly ill at ease. She clutched her wrapper tightly and then held on to her chest, breathing heavily. He couldn’t make out their words, but the well-wrapped hajia looked menacing in the delivery of whatever message she had. Was she threatening Rufiyat? Were these market people planning on taking away her things again!? She pays her rent, damn it! The unconscious frown on Emeka’s face washed away a tad when Yomi called his attention back to him, “Uncle Emeka, when will you start keeping your beards again? I used to like them.”
It couldn’t be rent. Emeka smiled at Yomi and offered him some biscuits as he continued searching for his ledger. Rufiyat screams and rushes towards Emeka. “Emy, uhm, erm—”
“What is it, Rufy?”
“Erm, uh…chei….see, eh. Just take care of my storefront. I’m coming. I’ll be right back.”
“Rufy, hold yourself. What is going on? What did that hajia….?” Rufiyat knocked down a tray of white onions in front of her stall, and begun walking very briskly to the front gate of the market. Emeka followed, instructing Yomi to keep a good look at their stores. He did not want to make a scene, and was sure it was for the same reasons that Rufiyat only walked fast instead of running. What had happened? What news had she received? Where was that hajia? He spotted her in front of a stall buying garri. She was doing her shopping? At the front of the gate, Rufiyat turned around and Emeka swallowed hard. Tears were welling. She turned back again and ran.
Emeka stood paralysed for a full minute. He wanted to pursue after the one person he could actually call friend in this world, but also, he could not leave the store to Yomi. He was a kid and knew nothing about downstream onions business. There was also the matter of the hajia. She needed to be questioned. He decided to stay back. Rufiyat said she would be back, and she was not one to go back on her word, no matter the situation. She was calculative enough, and must have meant that she would return. He could not spot the hajia. He sent Yomi to look for her, after inquiring after her person. Yomi said he was giving her directions, that was all. It was his mom who may have an idea. His mom was Emeka’s supplier, and she had a temper. Emeka decided to smoke the hajia out instead, and subtly interrogate her. He was no stranger to utilising interrogatory skills to extract information. He carefully watched from his storefront, while Yomi reconnoitred.
His attention was split in four. He’s always been a bit of a multitasking extraordinaire, but this time, worry was in the mix. He observed and watched Yomi and the hajia, looked after his and Rufiyat’s stores, kept checking the broken wall clock hung by one corner of his store as time passed, and worried about what could have happened. Four increasingly antsy hours passed and it was break time. Rufiyat never missed praying by one. Emeka, at first, used that time to walk around the market or find something to eat, but then eventually got fascinated by Rufiyat’s devotion to Allah, and how much she trusts, obeys, and proclaims the goodwill of her God so much that one day he asked her to teach him some Muslim prayers. Break time became prayer time for both, but Emeka never fully converted; conversion was not at all Rufiyat’s intentions. She was glad her lifestyle could convince a foolproof Catholic Igbo man to chance praying with knees on a mat and repeatedly bowing head. She once teased him with the assigned Muslim name Ahmad, said he acted like an Ahmad. She would use that name whenever she wanted to make him feel uncomfortable. In time, she too learnt Catholic prayers and began to pray them too. They both were not afraid of blurred lines of faith. They did not even perceive it as such. They marvelled at similarities in worship, and how, sometimes, the only differences was simply choice of language – while Islamic scripts have been maintained in their original Arabic form, the Christian scripts of original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, had undergone transformations to suit whatever prevailing global language of trade per zeitgeist, first predominantly Latin, now English, but just exactly the same text, the same message, the same understandings – and so it was easy for them. They formed friendly bonds many would consider unholy, by giving each other a chance. They were like mother and son, and also like friend and friend, and their connecting thing, the sustainer of their connection was the one hour break time of 1 pm they had apportioned themselves to pray and eat, and missing it had been a non-issue because it was never ever considered by either party.
Emeka was the only one in his family to remain with his father’s Catholic roots, even though he could not remember when last he stepped foot in a church building. Amara came first for him. Well, she used to, until GSW. His mother’s dogmatic attention to the words ‘bible-believing’ had never availed either of them the chance to really agree together on what shall be about Sunday worship, and this creeped into other vital conversations as well, until necessitated customary greetings alone became their word exchange.
Granted, he sold less that morning and afternoon, and maybe even ignored some customers. Yomi had to leave with his mother – who did not have supplies for Emeka or Rufiyat that day – about an hour after break time. Thirty minutes later, Emeka locked up shop and went looking for Rufiyat. Opportune also was he, because the hajia was leaving market about the same time. If he would not find Rufiyat, he would track the hajia. He spotted Rufiyat walking in from the front gate of the market and before he could stop himself, he called out loudly to her.
His shout seemed to knock her out of her thoughts and she begun wiping her face. Something bad had indeed happened. They approached each other. Dirisu was asked for. Calling Ali was suggested. Tawfiq’s name was mentioned in the same conversation as the word ‘coffin’. Rufiyat continued on to Dirisu, maybe, as Emeka froze.
“Another burial arrangement barely years after Sefullahi!? God forbid it.”
The hajia was spotted turning into a street corner afar off. It was ‘find Rufiyat or track hajia’. Rufiyat had been found, but the situation was far from being placated. Emeka had the sense that something even graver than Tawfiq dying was afoot. The air about the hajia disturbed him immensely. He followed her.
Emeka kept good distance, he knew very well to. The genius in him that had been suppressed for quite some time was being awakened again. Her calculated walk – like one who knew she was being followed but acted otherwise to smoke her tracker out – made his hair stand. She weaved through streets with the surprisingly light shopping Bagco Bag she held. For someone who spent hours in the market, the weight of her purchase should have only required twenty minutes at most. Many times she used convoluted trajectories instead of going for the shortest distance from one point to another. Emeka pulled out his face cap and placed on his head, bending downwards a bit, maintained his three metres distance, and followed. She dropped her purchase with a flower shop owner way inside town, and increased her pace. They turned into the very wide two-lane GSW Street, and tracking through the throng of commuters proved tough. Then a chase by the corner of his eye knocked his attention off for a brief second. Returning his attention to the hajia informant, she could not be found. He turned this way and that, and nothing.
The chase between father and daughter that had distracted him turned raucous very fast, and led towards an alleyway Emeka had marked some time ago. His interest was piqued, especially because, after making out most of the words the father and daughter exchanged, he discovered this was the second time that day they were disturbing the peace in the streets, and also, they had both found themselves heavily drunk and passed out that morning, both unsightly and repulsed by the other; but most especially, because they had mentioned a name he had heard on the streets and had linked to that alleyway; a name Emeka had a thoroughly researched interest on.
Danladi Sambo. Also known as The Parliamentarian. The senate representative for Minna in the House of Assembly in Abuja. Ever since the Sambo v. Great Buy court case, he had been a person of interest for Emeka. Emeka followed this chase and promised to find this hajia another day. He traded friend for duty on the spot, and consoled himself with the fact that this duty that had shaped his life for eight years came before the friend that had helped him understand beautiful depths of the good human desire to form connections.
The marked alleyway led to an intersecting narrow street. The chase continued down that street and eventually burst out into a busy corner, and then through an old abandoned barely spacious stony alleyway that burst onto an abandoned building housing a number of men with their faces covered, except for their eyes, all lined up, save one in front of them. They were arranged like military, and they recited mantras in Arabic.
Emeka stopped following the moment the lady in front ran to the one commanding the rest screaming, “Ajiye ni, dan’uwana. Save me, brother.” This brother hugged her, and the moment he sighted the man pursuing after her, cast her away so brutally she slid on the rough concrete floor with her left hand. She screamed at the bruises formed. The arranged men moved uneasily. The brother, flustered, rushed over to her, probably to shove her again. He was the emotionally hot-blooded type, Emeka could tell. He picked her up by the bruised arm, and as he lifted her up, her long gown ripped in half from the waist. He did not care. She did not care. Their father walked up to the both of them. “Duty before family,” he instructed his son. The brother left her alone. “Go home, Fatima. Go and think about your sins and the penances to receive. To be seen in Sambo Street, at night. You’re a disgrace to Allah. Remove yourself from here!” The brother’s voice towered above the two-storey uncompleted building they were in.
Emeka made sure to be within earshot but beyond view. He was standing on an unsteady pile of rocks heaped unto an outside alcove of a different uncompleted building. A heavy stone slipped from his foot and resulted in a short noisy landslide, making him lose balance. He regained it quickly, doing his best to not jeopardize intel gathering that could aid him wrap up his eight-year investigations on account of losing balance on rocks. The noise, luckily, only reached the closest of the standing men to him. The man quickly turned toward the source of the noise. Emeka hid himself, but not before he caught a glimpse of the eyes borne by the man.
No. It wasn’t. Then, understanding dawned on him. The stones under him began trembling again. Had he gained so much weight as such? He had to quickly leave before he was discovered. He also had to make a phone call. As he left, he heard the men arranged chant, “Yad Allah Alyumnaa Lana! Allahu Akbar!” The Right Hand of Allah guides us? Allah be praised? These people were tarnishing Rufiyat’s precious Allah. It pained Emeka. But he was separated enough from Islam to be able to make his call to Ezebulu. The Right Hand does exist, and they were moving. He had to move too.
Back out onto GSW Street, Emeka dialled, and connected. “Onye agu tala, dị ndụ,” he greeted.
“Oke nwoke n’agha ka-ọbụ,” was responded by the man on the other line. Emeka sat by a bistro table under an umbrella in front of a coffee shop. He took in a deep breath. It was needed for what came next. “O rue omume,” he started, and described the hajia, the meeting place, Alyad Alyumnaa, and the suspected plans of bombing churches that had been insider rumours all this while. He explained the theory he had linking it all to Danladi Sambo. He was questioned if he was sure about that. Danladi was reported to him by Ezebulu as the man who was behind the explosion in Jos eight years ago that wiped out his family’s businesses alongside his father, Philip Ukadike. Ezebulu never agreed Danladi or that particular incident was connected to The Right Hand however. It was Emeka’s paranoia, Ezebulu kept saying. Other captains of God’s Army eventually started saying it too. Emeka, the captain who overreached; the captain who needed and devised a body upon which to exert his vengeance, the spy turned avenger. It had become much more than vengeance for him these days. Ever since meeting Rufiyat, having this other life as an avenger, or spy, or captain of a clandestine group aimed at foiling attempts by radical Islamists (sometimes attacking first themselves), had progressively lost meaning. The crossroads between ‘all Muslims are scum’ he used to quote and ‘religion is overrated’ he now quoted kept leaving him in gross dilemmas regarding his commitment to God’s Army. With time, he started justifying his retained involvement as ‘correcting misconceptions’. He would only act, or strike, when it involved teaching the Muslim offenders that violence is not the way. It was using violence to correct violence ultimately. If Rufiyat knew about all this, Emeka would think, she would chastise him and say, whether vengeance or correcting, it is one and the same if one cannot turn the other cheek. But she played for the opposite side, did she not? He would not listen. What did she know exactly of the pain of losing one’s future and sustenance in the blink of an eye because a group of selfish adherents bore hate as their standard? Emeka half-hoped the day would not come when he would have reason to become active again. Other captains of God’s Army had given up on him. Ironically, now, their big fish to fry was being handed to them by the captain on hiatus. Emeka wondered if God, his Christian God, was testing him with this. But he has not attended mass in so long; could he know a test if it stared him in the face?
“So, my son, after five years, will you become active again? Your mates are generals and majors now. You’re still a captain. I’m willing to let you handle this all on your own if you say you are in. You need it. You need to see them again for who they are. Forget your Danladi Sambo fixation. Slay these dragons today. You have barely two hours to ready your troops. Information from a different spy corroborates yours. It is certain they will act today, by evening. Probably 6 pm. You have been commissioned again. Are you listening to me?”
Emeka hated Rufiyat for changing him. He hated the convictions of his heart now. He hated that Ezebulu was leaving this all to him. He hated his first three active years of blindness, and hated this last five years of receiving true sight even more. He remembered the words of Fatima’s father to her brother, “duty before family.” He hated that that made sense. He hated the people who killed his father. “Ezebulu nna, I will do it,” Emeka returned. Ezebulu went on to instruct him on how to carry out the plan for the day. There was an armed bunker by the roundabout before Sambo Street. The troops will go in undetected one by one and get ready. It would be first an ambush mission, then forced interrogation, and finally complete annihilation using guerrilla tactics. It was to be a busy night.
What was Rufiyat doing now? Had she really met Dirisu? Was a coffin being prepared truly?
Complete annihilation. What did that mean? Complete annihilation was not ‘correcting misconception’. It was feeding into the cycle of hate. It was equivalent to striking first. What had he just agreed to? What was Ezebulu’s intentions? God’s Army was originally a recon team of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) who decided to stop veering the path of diplomacy like their parent organization. IPOB was fast becoming MASSOB, and that infuriated Ikpesa Okagbue, the leader of the recon team to the north, so much that he started turning members of IPOB to his cause. The belief was proactivity, by words and actions. They were descendants of Joshua, the military general who took down Jericho. They formed the army of God. Ethnicity was preached so much by IPOB and other emancipatory groups of southern Nigeria. God’s Army believed instead in the unity of all, but in the villainy of Islam. This enabled recruiting of members starting from the South-East, to the South-South, then the South-West, although very few, and finally, the Christian North. Jos was fertile ground for harvesting believers in the cause for so many years. Eventually, the Jos crisis became Radical Muslim groups versus God’s Army alone. Ikpesa Okagbue eventually started a church. He retired from active warring duty by actions, and took to active warring duty by words. Apostle Ikpesa became popular very quickly for his anti-Islam rhetoric in sermons. The Nigerian government grew tired of devising new ways to shut him up. He only got gutsier with each try, eventually setting up the headquarters of his church in Jos. Nobody knew for sure he was the leader of God’s Army, but there were suspicions and conspiracy theories, many so ridiculously off the mark that Ikpesa himself enjoyed reading them for leisure. The name Ezebulu was what God’s Army had intentionally leaked to the public, and its infamy rose so much that in many locales of the Muslim north, it was like referring to Voldemort or The Boogie Man. Of course, Ikpesa’s church and branches moonlighted as training ground for spies, technicians, agents, and soldiers of God’s Army. What was a concept and burning passion kept coming more alive and becoming more sophisticated by the years that it came to the point where only the higher echelons could afford to see or communicate with their leader. Presence was in all thirty-six states and the Federal Capital Territory; there was no shortage of ammunition, and the mystery of its acquisition would live and die with Ikpesa the way things seemed. There were no desires to claim terrorist status the way ISIS or Al Qaeda, or even The Right Hand did; their actions spoke for them. Their M O was universal. So was their greeting within them, and strictly in the Igbo language, no matter what tribe the person who greeted comes from:
“Onye agu tala, dị ndụ.” He who the tiger bites and lives.
“Oke nwoke n’agha ka-ọbụ,” He is a great man.
Emeka exchanged that greeting again and ended the call. He removed his face cap and placed on the table, rejecting an offer of the menu. The setting sun stared at him squarely in the face, and the clouds took up the sun’s train. His knuckles got colder, and his face stubbles itchier. Emeka let out air, letting his eyes move from person to person sitting, standing, walking along the boulevard where the coffee shop found itself. He rubbed off the goosepimples forming on both arms. Maybe the heat and friction would also help get him to stand from that chair. Sambo Street was a little way off the outskirts of downtown Minna. He had always sensed something off about the architecture of the roundabout on that street. The churches to be hit are the Gathering of the Saints of Wonders and The Bible Way Church, simultaneously. Ezebulu’s words swam around his head like a reverberating slither of sound. The echoes faded and rose. Something was spectacularly wrong with the forces of fate. Ngozi, his mother, was assuredly in church. He was not so sure about Amara. Amara was so far away from him these days. No. It was the way around. He was so far from Amara these days. It was his fault. It was all his fault. He should have tried harder with his mother. He should have stuck to his sister more than his bulbs and legumes and rhizomes. They both doused their inner anguish with over-participation, and overindulgence in what society prescribed as fitting for them. They were lost. Now, they were going to be dead too.
“Fuck!” Emeka screamed, alarming the beautiful couple sitting behind him. He picked up his phone and dialled his mother. No answer. He tried and tried again, and then remembered. The Bible Way has it as doctrine that all material and carnal distractions must be absolutely made away with during service. No way to warn her. He tried Amara. Contact was outside of reach, or whatever the hell the operator said. For people who preferred talking to their phones than to him in his presence, the wicked irony of their situation made Emeka chuckle a little. Hysteria is a bastard. Then he let out a tear and its running wetness on his rugged face woke him up, springing him to action.