I was in Saudi Arabia observing the Hajj exercise when I first read about the disappearance of Major-General Idris Alkali (rtd) somewhere in Plateau State.
My first thought was that he may have been abducted by kidnappers along the Abuja-Jos highway. But few days later, I read another report indicating that the general had in fact arrived Jos before he went missing and that the Nigerian Army had narrowed the search area to Du.
I got concerned, and began to scout the internet for any news of an attack around Du before his disappearance. I stumbled on a report that an attack by gunmen had claimed 11 lives in Lopandet Dwei of Du on September 2.
My heart began to race and I remember engaging in a monologue as to whether the people of Du would go as far as killing a retired military officer to avenge their dead. I concluded that if they did, it was simply because they had no idea who he was.
With reports of Alkali’s disappearance getting national attention, I began to itch to return home and join my colleagues who had been covering the investigation.
I returned a day after women in Du staged a protest and tried to scuttle military operation around the Dura-Du pond. With that action alone, I immediately concluded something was amiss.
For anyone who has been in Plateau or covered the state, certain patterns speak volumes. On sighting the picture of the women protesting and hearing their contrived reasons for the protest, I exclaimed, “So this general has been killed?”
My mother, who is from Plateau and was sitting beside me, quickly interjected to remind me that the man was only missing not dead. I looked at her with an expression that said, “I know what I am saying.”
I would later remind her that I was right when Alkali’s remains were eventually recovered from an abandoned well in Guchwet village of Shen district in Jos south.
On that day, the 3 Armoured Division had called to alert me to be on standby for a possible pick-up at the NUJ secretariat. That has been their usual signal since the investigation into Alkali’s disappearance commenced.
So I quickly joined other journalists but what could have been a morning assignment dragged till noon when 16 of us were crammed onto a bus, with two military personnel seated in front.
Because none of the soldiers will scoop out what the day’s investigations had unlocked, I was left to my thought and eventually narrowed my hunch to two things: it was either they had found Alkali’s remains or another car had been recovered from Dura-Du pond.
But I immediately struck out the latter when we passed the pond and headed in another direction. We then stopped at a place called 10 Commandments to await the arrival of a security guide.
But for the chirping of birds, an eerie silence that was both frightening and serene had engulfed the entire Du. The community which was once the envy of other Berom communities in Jos south, Riyom and Barkin Ladi council areas was suddenly a shadow of itself.
Its lavish but empty road networks, constructed by immediate past governor Jonah Jang, who hails from the area and maintains a residence there, now seemed unending.
The silence made way for the mind to conjure up horror thoughts of being in Alkali’s shoes at the time he met his doom. But those thoughts were soon chased out by the honking of a Police hilux vehicle which appeared to lead us to Guchwet.
A few minutes of trailing the hilux, it seemed we lost our way and had to make a U-turn to take another direction. I remember thinking: was Alkali lost when he came towards Du? Or was it a road he was familiar with and often followed? What could I have done if caught in the web of angry, merciless youths? Looking round the very tall grasses and hills, I knew there would be no refuge for me just as there was none for Alkali.
We drove in silence for almost 10km before veering off unto an untarred road. My earlier guess that Alkali’s remains could have been found gradually turned to confirmation on sighting military officers and what looked like forensic experts in lab coats, masks and hand gloves.
That Wednesday afternoon of October 31, I joined many others around the country to heave a sigh of relief as the two months of intensive search for the remains of the missing general came to a conceivable tragic end. His body had been stuffed in a sack laden with stones and dumped in a narrow, deep well in Guchwet village.
As I stood by his remains after it was hauled up from the abandoned well, the stench of a decomposing body covered in dirt sneaked through my nostrils as the body bag was partly unzipped for our viewing.
It was my closest encounter with the man that had dominated my thoughts in the last two months. Fear and sadness engulfed me and I muttered Inna Lillahi wa inna Illahi rajiun (We are from Allah and to him we shall return). My mutter caught the attention of a senior military officer who glanced at me and saw his eyes brim with tears. The body in the bag could easily have been any of us caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The search that took the Nigerian Army from an old mining pond in Dura-Du, where Alkali’s car and two others were recovered, to an open shallow grave in ‘No man’s land’ had finally ended in a well. It would have been his final resting place, if not for the military’s commitment and resilience.
Finding Alkali’s remains filled me with déjà vu for I had casually mentioned on the day journalists were led to the shallow grave that the search for his remains should extend to abandoned wells. Five days before the corpse was recovered, we had walked for almost a kilometre through rough, slopy and narrow footpaths to reach ‘No man’s land.’
Despite trying to gain on the brisk walking soldiers and other colleagues, I struggled through my wrapper and high-heeled wedge shoes that only left me regretting that day’s wardrobe choice.
At the end of Brigadier General Umar Mohammed’s briefing by the foot of the shallow grave, we were ready to leave and again, I dreaded the thought of walking up the hilly terrain in my shoes.
Surrounded by corn fields, tall grass and rocks, Mohammed, who heads the search and rescue team, yelled at his men, “Don’t leave anybody behind.” And yet, I was almost left behind as I struggled through my wedges and wrapper to catch on, only propelled by the presence of three hungry looking sniffer dogs on leashes walking behind me.
Now that Alkali has been buried and a chapter closed, I am most appalled by the attempt to cover up such a crime by some members of the Du community.
I was enraged that women who are known to be kind hearted would join in such a disturbing cover up. All through the search for Alkali, my ears itched to hear the Gbong Gwom, who is the paramount ruler of the Berom and who owns a school and a home in Du, to say something, to tell the world that this was merely a criminal act by criminals who are found in every community, but I got a disappointing silence. There is still silence.
I’ve never believed in the principle of collective punishment; it never solves problems, instead it inflicts fresh wounds. This is why the people of Du deserve to return home and, I hope, learn a lesson from what happened.
Those who have been arraigned for the murder of Alkali will have their day in court. But they are not the only ones accused of wrongdoings; we are all responsible for the many Alkalis who have either been killed in their sleep or while travelling through angry communities. It is something we all have to live with.