When the sun goes down, travellers journeying to Maiduguri pass the night in the Yobe State capital, Damaturu, to avoid flouting the curfew imposed on Maiduguri residents.
Daily Trust on Saturday visited the Damaturu Motor Park, where over 50 travellers were seen at the mercy of some lads who were making quick business out of the situation. They had erected some rough tents called “Shinge” to provide cheap accommodations for the desperate travellers.
One of the lads, Muhammed Salisu, clustered around by travellers, said the business was three years-old and was borne out of piety to reduce the unending pain and difficulties of travellers on that route, who could not reach their homes, only a few kilometres away.
He said: “Before we started, passengers didn’t have a place to sleep. They sat on benches, chatting and wading away mosquitoes with their hands – although they still got bitten. Some others slept in mosques or abandoned vehicles. So, we felt we should help them with mats and mosquito nets, thinking the problem would be temporary.
But for several months, the situation hasn’t changed and the number of passengers has steadily increased.
Salisu said: “My boss, Malam Dalha, bought more mats and mosquito nets and started charging stipends to accommodate passengers each night. On a good day, no fewer than 100 passengers patronize us.
“Each pays N200 for the ‘accommodation’ and manages to catch some sleep before dawn. Those who want to share a tent pay N100 each. I make nothing less than N6, 000 daily and this business fends for over 20 people who work under me daily,” he said.
Doors for the business are usually open from 6pm to 9pm before the Damaturu curfew hour.
He said: “At times, customers arrive a little after 9pm but they are mostly strangers who come to do some menial jobs but don’t have anywhere to sleep in town.”
Another operator catching in on the opportunity, Mala Umara, said the business is flourishing and they are often overwhelmed by demand.
“There are times we run out of nets and some travellers pay N50 and only get mats. We don’t know what will happen to them now as the cold season is here,” he said.
There were more women and children than men at the park. Parents and their children sat closely together to shove-off the harmattan wind that vigorously shook their tents.
A traveller, Halimatu, said: “We could have carried blankets and food for these children but we never envisaged that the journey would turn out like this.
“Only God will protect these little children because the weather is too cold,” the mother of three said.
Another passenger, Hajia Kaltume, who regretted embarking on the journey, said she left Abuja in good time but the commercial vehicle she boarded developed problem along the way.
She said: “The car was fixed very late and we arrived Damaturu around 5:20pm. The driver suggested we slept in the park, because even if we proceeded, the journey would end at the military checkpoint in Benishek. We agreed and will continue the journey very early tomorrow morning.
“I must confess, we are in a very difficult situation here. The weather is hostile – especially for these children, the place is very cold, dirty and mosquitoes are everywhere. The nets do little to help protect us. Also, there is no provision for toilets.
“We know the curfew was imposed for our own good but we would equally want the government to look into our plight and device a means of reducing pains of Maiduguri travellers,” she added.
Daily Trust on Saturday observed that shinges for female passengers were demarcated with strong fabrics and fairly lit with rays from close-by shops. Many of them expressed concern over security.
Haruna Suleiman, another passenger who was equally trapped by the curfew, said he plies Damaturu/Maiduguri road weekly and checks into the shinge regularly.
He said: “Necessity makes us sleep here. Most of these passengers don’t complain because the tents are cheap. But, now that Hamatan has set in we don’t know what to do because the tents are all erected in an open space. Our prayer is for government to look inward and see how it can possibly come in to reduce our difficulty.”
Suleiman recalled one night he spent at a checkpoint in Benishek.
“My wife and three children slept in the car, and I watched over them until 6:30am when the roadblock was lifted,” he said.
Baba Gemu Alhaji Usman, one of the drivers conveying the passengers to Maduguri, said they were forced to make a stopover in Damaturu even when they had arrived in good time.
He explained that the duration of the journey to Maiduguri from Damaturu is no longer than an hour and thirty minutes. But motorists arriving Damaturu around 5pm don’t continue to avoid being cut off at the checkpoint, which is about 40 minutes drive to Maiduguri.
He said: “We resorted to passing the nights here, because one cannot pass the Benishek military checkpoint after 6pm and it`s risky to allow our passengers to sleep in the bush because anything can happen. That is why we always convince them to sleep in Damaturu.
“Assuming the checkpoint extends the time to 7pm, because the curfew in Maiduguri starts by 9:00pm, motorists will arrive Maiduguri in good time or even an hour before the restriction time,” he said.
On the bright side, he said breaking the journey in Damaturu gave the motorists the advantage of avoiding traffic gridlocks at checkpoints along the Damaturu/Maiduguri highway.
Usman said: “Truck drivers usually travel at night. They sleep at the entry gate and other checkpoints before Damaturu. Immediately the curfew period elapses at 7pm they rush and cause traffic jams.
“The shortest time we spend in this situation is between five and six hours. That is why we sleepover in Damaturu and continue the journey as early as 6am to avoid delay,” he said
He called on the authorities concerned to have a rethink and extend the checkpoint closure to after 7pm for people to arrive Maiduguri conveniently before the curfew hour.
The motor park is clearly saturated. Apart from the desperate passengers, all kinds of people pass the night there. Although most of them refused to comment, our reporter noticed that most of them were young men hanging out in abandoned vehicles.