The New Road bus station in the heart of Kano is a scene of bedlam.
Men, women and children are milling around, with huge bundles and baggage in all shapes and sizes, waiting to be loaded onto half-a-dozen buses. Others are already on board. They’re in a desperate hurry to head south, leaving behind this troubled city in the north of Nigeria.
The exodus was prompted by the radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, which carried out multiple bombings on Jan. 20, that claimed nearly 200 lives in and around Kano, the largest city in the mostly Muslim north. The attacks have shaken residents in Kano, and particularly the Christians, who are a majority in southern Nigeria, but a minority in the north in a multiethnic country of more than 140 million.
Kemi Ezioha, a 32-year-old businesswoman and mother of four boys – who was born and raised in Kano — says she fears for her life.
“In the bomb blasts, they normally kill both Christians and Muslims,” she says of Boko Haram. “But they threaten us in church. We can’t go to church. We can’t pray. We can’t do anything. So the whole thing is just too much. The whole thing is just hopeless. Everyone just wants to go. We are not safe.”
Others standing nearby, like Glory Ndudi, nod vigorously in agreement. She’s wearing a red T-shirt and a deep frown etched on her forehead. Her five children have already taken their seats on a bus.
“Everywhere we are running. We can’t sleep. In the night, we can’t sleep. We can’t stay. We want to go. We are tired. Can’t you see the way I’m feeling? I’m shaking here. I don’t want to die here,” she says. “I’m tired, I’m crying. Let’s go. I’m going now, now, now, now.”
Christians Are Fearful
Both Ezioha and Ndudi are Christians, originally from southern Nigeria. They’re part of the Igbo business community that has lived in Kano for generations.
But Kano, an ancient metropolis that dates back 1,000 years, has been a flashpoint for violence the past few years, and the threat is growing from Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly in the local Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden or sinful.”
Sweating in the heat of the bus, Glory Ndudi’s 13-year old daughter, Clara, has this message for Boko Haram.
“We want them to just stop it and lead a good life, like other people,” she says. “They should look around at little children – they are taking their lives.”
In the past, Boko Haram targeted mainly government and security institutions, in what appeared to be a battle against the state.
In recent weeks though, the militants have also bombed churches and are warning Christians to leave the north.
Leonard Nwosu heads an umbrella association for the city’s Igbo community. He says that while the government has promised to step up protection for civilians, that isn’t enough for many people.
“It’s really sad – but what do we do? Life is more sacred, life is more precious. Life is first,” he says. “But those that are going, it’s largely a personal decision. If they wish to stay, the government has assured us of security. When they feel the security has finally been restored in Kano state, they might come back.”
Many observers say the problem in the north is not between Christians and Muslims, who have lived together in Kano and many other parts of the country for generations. Rather, they say, many Nigerians feel let down by the government and excluded from jobs, opportunities and education. And radical groups like Boko Haram have turned to violence in an attempt to polarize the nation and capture the attention of Nigeria’s leaders, including President Goodluck Jonathan.
But these explanations do not convince Kano resident Kemi Ezioha.
“I don’t really think I’ll come back to Kano,” Ezioha says. “I’m sick and tired of this place. I’m leaving Kano for good. Too bad, but I don’t have a choice.”