For years and months they had been cowed by the power of the gun. The gun of the military Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Restore Order, which had literally seized the soul of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. Their husbands were believed to have been members of the dreaded Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, that had unleashed a reign of terror on the state and beyond. Some of them had been captured during the clampdown by the JTF and have been held at various detention facilities.
So, for years, the women had managed to endure the absence of their husbands and children. But yesterday, they summoned courage to grumble about their condition. They even stormed the streets to protest the continued detention of their family members. But they had no placards. They merely sang and marched on the streets.
The rumour had gone viral in the state that following the alleged ceasefire declared by Boko Haram about a week ago, that the JTF was considering releasing all those arrested in connection with the terror.
So, over a hundred women Thursday hit the streets of Maiduguri, protesting the non-release of their husbands and wards. The women had trooped to the town hall meeting held by the soldiers along with the political and religious leaders of the state on how to curb the Boko Haram menace. The women were full of expectation of reuniting with their husbands and children. But it was not to be. The rumour was completely at variance with the plan and programme of the JTF.
Immediately the military hierarchy left the venue of the meeting at the popular Ramat Square without the release of the detainees, the women were disappointed. They decided to march on the Government House, Maiduguri to register their displeasure and disappointment to the governor.
They also planned to express their displeasure to the military officers from the Defence Headquarters who had relocated to the Government House to further parley with the elders, religious and political leaders on how to resolve the ongoing Boko Haram crisis.
But not sure what the protest could lead to, the JTF intervened and prevented them from going further in order not to cause a breach of public peace.
The planned protest march was aborted at the centre of the town, around the post office area, when a detachment of the JTF shot into the air to disperse the women.
Truly, the women scattered as they ran helter-skelter. They did not regroup.
Meanwhile, a deputy director, Civil Military Operations from the Defence Headquarters, Air Commodore Ademola Onitiju, who was sent to Maiduguri by the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, said the detainees could only be released after full investigation has been conducted and those found innocent are released and those culpable brought before the court of law. Onitiju said the suspected terrorists are still seen in military circle as "our people," compatriots and not enemies that should be terminated.
He admitted that there could be human errors in the operations of the JTF in the area but maintained that the task force was never sent out to kill members of the terrorist group but rather to bring peace back to the area. He said: "We are here to interact with the people to see where we have erred, how the civil populace can help us to achieve peace. How we can smoothen rough edges to achieve peace.
"Our operations were never intended to keep people in detention. The Chief of Defence Staff has sent us to tell the people that we did not intend to keep people in detention with impunity but situation warranted it."
Onitiju also revealed that the Defence Headquarters may soon constitute a panel to investigate the detainees in order to facilitate the release of the innocent while those who had breached the law would be made to face justice.
Vice-President Namadi Sambo had visited Maiduguri last weekend to assure the people of Federal Government’s determination to promote and maintain peace in the region. It was the first time in recent years that such a top government official had visited the state, which had been the bedrock of Boko Haram offensive.
Although the Islamic sect had declared ceasefire, the JTF had discountenanced it, with another arm of government saying that the truce would be taken serious if there was no attack within one month. That does not seem achievable as several attacks had been recorded since the ceasefire declaration by Boko Haram.