I stood there, in the middle of the empty square in front of Maiduguri’s central mosque. The sun was scorching hot, and my skin felt as if it was being slowly baked under my khakis. I wanted to retreat to the shades under the mosque’s pillar but I chose not to. I welcomed the heat. It felt appropriate, given how cold I felt within. I had watched men die, yesterday. My men. Soldiers of the Seventh. I had watched the godless rebels we came here to fight cut and gun them down, shouting Allah’s name in wave after wave of fanatic onslaughts. We had been routed. Not here, in Maiduguri, but a few miles away, in Bama. I had withdrawn my men from the fight, and we retreated to the base to lick our wounds.
At the camp, I burned with rage and shame. I had fought more ferociously than any man out there, but I had failed. My first assignment as the new captain of the Seventh had come to a crushing defeat. I had underestimated the enemy. I had trained to fight men, enemies maybe but men still. Men fell back when they encountered mines. Men didn’t meet machine gun fire with open arms filled with bombs. Men did not keep throwing themselves into attack mode, no matter how many times they were beaten back. I brought my soldiers to fight men. Men I had known. Men I had grown up with. Men whose leader was my mate on the streets years ago. But yesterday, we didn’t fight men, we fought demons. And my soldiers had paid for my mistake.
At a little after 10pm, a little boy had come to the base, bearing a letter. “It is for the Captain!” he shouted as my aides tried to snatch it from him. I waved him through. He ran over and handed it to me, then turned and disappeared into the night. I opened it. It was from my old friend, the current leader of Beheading Inc. His tone was gloating. “I knew they’d send you to us,” he boasted. “What you’ve seen is just the beginning. We have staked our claim here. We will set the capital of the greatest Caliphate in the Sahel, right here in Maiduguri. I ask you to join me now, like the old times. Let us rule this place in the name of Allah, the merciful, the benevolent.”
He had rambled on and on and on. And then asked me to meet him here at midday, to bow my knees to him and swear allegiance to his Caliphate. So I had come. For an hour I had stood under the sun, waiting. He had taunted the weakness of my men, the way they tired under the sun and drank too much water. “Allah created the sun to train His faithful. Your men are weak.”
So even as my skin baked, I stood straight under Allah’s sun and waited.
Soon I saw a trail of dust trailing behind a Hilux in the distance. It was heading straight towards me. It slowed as it came to the open square, and then came to a stop a few feet from me. Several men in black robes and turbans jumped out of the open cargo area. Then they threw down the tailgate and out stepped the man I’d come to meet. Like me, he was in military khakis, but unlike me, he had a Kevlar strapped to his chest. Even under his beard I could see the contours of the old face I knew. Saliu. He went by another name now. One that every man or woman of honor spat on–Mujahideen.
He walked slowly up to me, flanked on each side by his men. He looked around, and then up at the sun and then back to me. “You always were too stubborn, Ahmed.” He nodded to his men and they retreated a few steps. He turned back to me, somber. “I apologize for your men. They died by the will of Allah.”
“Allah had nothing to do with this.”
Saliu smiled, but his eyes turned cold. “You know what? You’re right.” He came even closer until his face was less than an inch from mine. Our eyes were locked on each others’. He had a face that had grown rugged and beaten by rough living. His lips were curled into a sneer, and lined black from too much smoking and his eyes were wide and bloodshot. Marijuana, or maybe hashish. His features suddenly relaxed into a conspiratorial smile and his voice lowered into a whisper. “You’re right,Saliu. Do not let my men hear it, but wallahi, I do not give a shit about the will of Allah.” He smiled at the irony before continuing. “This is about crippling this country. Look at it. What have we gained from being part of this experiment cooked up by a few ignorant Brits who have since ran back to their London estates? What? Nothing but filth and more filth. That’s what they’ve left us. Everyone loots. Everyone steals. Everyone makes away with what they can. Everyone plunders wherever they choose. I have chosen the North. And the North sways to Allah’s will. Soon, I will rule here. Join me. I could use a man like you, my friend.”
The cold feeling in me was slowly being replaced by the familiar warmth of rage. I mentally took in the surroundings. He had six men behind him, a few feet away. All armed. Another two were in the front, one of them in the driver’s seat, and the other, riding shotgun. Both armed. I held down my rage and spoke calmly. “Give up this fight, Saliu, or I swear by Allah, your blood will wet this sand.”
He leaned away from me a little, looked at my uniform, the captain’s insignia on my shoulders and then threw his head back, and laughed. “The dog considers himself a lion. Aboki na, you’re just a captain. Do you know how many of those big men you take orders from who support me? Contribute to me? They bring tributes in Ghana must Go bags, to me. Do you doubt this?”
I shrugged. “They’re someone else’s problem. I’m just a captain and you killed my men.”
Saliu snorted. “And I will yet kill more, my friend.” He leaned back into me, his face dancing in front of mine, and his voice raised to a taunt. “I could kill more of your men. I could kill you, right here, where you stand. I could kill that little Igbo wife of yours. Matter of fact, I think I will. She seems to be the reason you will not come back to Borno and join the Mujahideen.”
A nerve twitched in my jaw, and the heat inside me grew. I cocked my ears, listening for a particular sound, but I did not hear it yet.
He chortled. “You’re angry? What will you do? We swept the area while you waited, you are alone. You brought no men. You cannot stop what is coming. I will save your wife for last, and when we are done with the others, I will rape her myself. I will rip her in two and rape her bleeding corpse, wallahi.”
The silence hung between us, heavier than stone. My nostrils dilated and I took a deep breath. The air that rushed into my lungs was filled with his sweat, his stench. As I breathed out, I listened again. There it was, the sound I was looking for. It was faint, too faint for their untrained ears to pick up. My eyes met Saliu’s again, and I smiled and finally let my rage boil over.
In a flash my left hand grabbed his head while my right fished the knife out of my forearm holster and lodged the blade in his throat. The briefest flash of surprise streaked through his eyes before they went blank, as the blood rushed into his windpipes and spurted down the sides of his lips. I had no time to savor the satisfaction as his men sprang into action, running towards me and unleashing a volley of machine gun fire. I backed away as quickly as I could, using the Kevlar strapped body of the dying Saliu as a shield. If there was any life left in him, the rain of bullets that tore into his limp body ended it. I pulled out my two handguns in quick succession and emptied the cartridge in their direction to try to slow them down, but the bullets kept coming, rapid and unrelenting. One ripped into my shoulder, and I winced. Just as I backed into the pillars of the mosque, another one ripped into the same shoulder. It was my shooting arm and the only unshielded part of me, and the searing pain overcame my ability to keep my hand raised at them. I collapsed into a heap at the bottom of the pillar with Saliu’s shredded body on top of me. I closed my eyes, expecting one of their bullets to end it all for me.
But by this time, the rapid drone of the military helicopters I had first heard was all over the square, and the guns blaring now were those of my men. The Mujahideen were cut down rapidly. I was able to look out and see that none of them were left standing, and my soldiers were rappelling down from the choppers onto the square. Then, overwhelmed by the heat, pain, the exertion and everything, I gave into the dark and passed out.