On frontline of Nigeria’s jihadist war, nightlife fights the blues
At Hot Bites, the party is in full swing and there is beer, dancing and boy-meets-girl until curfew time hits Maiduguri, the cradle of the Boko Haram jihadist movement. “We need to move on,” said 18-year-old Fatima, her almond-shaped eyes rimmed with eyeliner, teetering on high heels with a dress sporting a plunging neckline. “Maybe I can find my future husband here,” she said with a laugh. Nightlife is slowly returning to the northern city, where the Boko Haram insurgency erupted in 2009 and has since spread havoc and destruction across Nigeria and its adjoining countries.
At Hot Bites, the trendiest nightclub in the capital of Borno State, northern Nigeria’s many cultures cavort, with dancers in veils next to writhing women in sexy glittering dresses. Beer flows as indulgent soldiers watch on, taking a welcome break from the rigours of the frontline. After years of being under siege, Maiduguri is attempting to return to normal. The ceasefire has been pushed back four hours to 10 pm, and there are fewer policemen and soldiers on the streets. Boko Haram’s violent campaign for a hardline Islamic north has claimed more than 20,000 lives in Nigeria alone and led to more than 2.6 million people to flee their homes. Teens like Fatima have spent half their lives living in fear: fear of being abducted, raped or killed, or having someone in the family murdered.
‘I just drink beer’
But tonight, Fatima is out to snare a man, and has dropped her hijab toward that end. “I live with my grandma, so I can’t dress like that, she doesn’t even know I came here,” she said, adding: “I changed my clothes on the way.” Although Borno is conservative-Sharia was decreed in the state in 2001 well before the Boko Haram insurgency broke out-Maiduguri has always been more relaxed, attracting youths from across the north seeking more freedom and fun.
Christians and Muslims party together at Hot Bites, grooving to hits from Afropop stars such as Wizkid or Mr Balogun, born more than 1,000 kilometers down south in Lagos, Nigeria’s teeming seaside economic capital. Muna, her hair tucked under a black turban and a cigarette in hand, downs a third beer perched on a bar stool. “I just drink beer, I don’t take anything else,” she said, adding that many of her peers did drugs. Tramadol-a powerful pain killer which is used by Boko Haram fighters and can lead to addiction-is sold round the corner. Heroin and cocaine are also easily available in Maiduguri, humanitarian workers say.
‘Can’t live without music!’
But revelers at Hot Bites know that the conflict is not over, that Islamist fighters are hiding out at the nearby Sambisa forest and that they have to scrupulously respect the curfew. Some hardened veterans lock themselves in and party all night long over weekends. “We are free to do what we want” in the pulsating nightclub, said a 32-yearold official named Sunday. “Everybody is welcomed, except for Boko Haram.”
Hot Bites’ owner Ayo Deji organizes poolside parties with local artists on Sunday afternoons. “We suffered too much. Young people just want to relax and forget the troubles,” Deji said, adding that Boko Haram members or their cohorts would spy on the young to see if they were adhering to traditional Islamic mores. “When Boko Haram was there, they forbid us to listen music. Even on the phone you couldn’t listen to music or they shoot you,” he said. But that left him undeterred. “They can launch bombing attacks, I’ve never stopped listening to music. We, the Nigerians, cannot live without music!” he said.
A picture taken in Bama, northeast Nigeria shows a fuel station destroyed by Boko Haram. The conflict with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria has displaced more than 2.6 million people.