By: Habeeb Abdul
It was the 24th of June, well over a week since exams ended at my faculty and the day of the rescheduled UI’SU elections.
Before that, I had kept half a mind on badgering my liaison, seeking to know the details of something that would later launch me into more episodes of self-doubt and physical distress than I had ever felt. When I did get my answer, something that wasn’t in the realm of the uncertain replies I was now fairly accustomed to, it was the night before the event itself.
Having sent me somewhat of a travel advisory over text, Mukhtar, then Secretary-General, had responded ominously to my question on the distance, “it’s far, but not far.”
The same night, I mapped out my plans for the trip. I would gear up in loose clothing, complete with a jacket, equip myself with a sizable loaf of unfinished bread just in case, convert my crossbody bag into a mini on-the-go utilities carrier slash snack bar, and most importantly, have some cash ready should I decide to bail. I was prepared. After all, if Akufo, as Mukhtar had described, was only “after Apete,” it could indeed not possibly be that far. The next morning, I arrived at the Indy Hall ‘War Room’ of the Man o’ War some minutes after the scheduled 8 am under slightly drizzly weather. An acquaintance there remarked that I seemed dressed for camping and I could hardly disagree.
The patriots were much more martial. From one end of the wing till the next were members bedecked in the brown combat attire of the paramilitary unit. There was morale blasting out of a speaker in one room and multiple new faces from units in other campuses. Aside from a number whose markings told me they were likely from the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, there were participants from the Federal College of Agriculture, Moor Plantation, Eruwa Polytechnic, and Olabisi Onabanjo University. And while I was intrigued by the readiness they all seemed to embody, a few oddities caught my eye.
First was a lady whose outfit intoned anything but an intention to hike over a long distance. Dressed in a frilly skirt and denim jacket, she had accompanied her Man o’ War partner all the way from AAUA in Ondo State. Then there was a couple of wiry boys who seemed to be no older than their early teens. One, a 13-year old member of the community-based division of the organization, confirmed my assumption later in the day.
Preparation took awhile as the officers waited to receive participants from other institutions. By 9:36, we were finally ready to march and proceeded in a column from the Independence Hall gate. I took up a spot at the rear end as the contingent settled into a steady walking pace, singing as they did so. In time, we advanced into the rhythmic jog I was familiar with. I relished the sound of boots as they struck the tar even as I switched between long strides and jogging in sync myself. We went down the road before the Kunle Adepeju Building, made a beeline for the Central Mosque then turned right into the road leading to the Catholic Chapel. It was drizzling more intensely now and our lines broke occasionally to sidestep puddles from the last night’s rain.
The warbays’ energy was also at a high. As we trotted into the Security Office’s parking lot and circled out of it, they sang loud greetings to the officers — a call in English by the squad leader was answered by choruses in Hausa.
Ranks were beginning to split along institutional lines. I was now firmly between the point where the first column, consisting mainly of UI patriots, ended and the next, of students from other schools, began. As for the drizzle, it showed no promise of letting up. I hoped vainly that my windbreaker would protect me from the shower.
As we emerged from the university’s gates, a handful of participants had donned plastic jackets, transparent yellow nylons worn by motorcyclists to ward off the elements. Many others took it as it came.
And as we marched, it became clear that there was no real intention to stay out of the traffic’s way. The officers were well adjusted. They assumed traffic control positions, waving vehicles to a stop as the main party was shepherded to the inner edge of the lane for oncoming vehicles from Sango. So long as we stayed in two lines, one abreast of the next, they did not seem bothered.
However, we were also fair game for tyre splashes as vehicles of all kinds raced past. On our end, we suffered each other by kicking through floodwater as we passed. And if I had borne any hopes of dry sneakers and clothing, I was resigned now. The consolation? With my cap on, I could worry less about blinking through rainwater.
When we arrived at the Sango bus stop, we veered down the left of the pair of narrow lanes leading down to what the signage suggested was the Polytechnic of Ibadan.
Still staying on the inside of the road, directly opposite the oncoming traffic, we thinned into a single file. There was a small team of guides several metres ahead of the entire party to show the way. They parried vehicles away from our group and patriots chanted zealously to keep energies burning. Inwardly, I had begun to contemplate an endpoint. I anticipated divergence into untarred roads even as I immersed myself in the scenery of a location I had never had cause to visit. The skies were relentless. It poured endlessly with no sign of easing soon. I pondered whether we were simply in the wrong place, if it was raining so heavily back in UI. I could not track distance nor take pictures with a device that was safely stored in the bag across my chest. And as I made mental notes of landmarks, filing them away in hopes that I could digitally estimate later, I busied myself with sweets and the amusing oddity kept the warbays singing even as they slowly receded into doubts about our destination.
The road had widened again. We settled back into two lines, watching the Regimental Sergeant-major as he took long strides far ahead of the main team. We had also attracted attention. More than a few heads turned or stared at our party as we trudged on, beleaguered by the climate. I was steadily becoming interested in the person next to me. While there had been little to no conversation and we had each been replaced by other people a handful of times, he had mostly seemed to remain at my side.
He had applied to the Nigerian Defence Academy two years ago, he told me. He did not make it. A non-UIte, he had also joined the march because he had learned of it from a different person.
Once, we were required to hold hands. We dropped them. Before that, a driver stopped midway so we could scare his child. We moved on. And on and on and on. I had given in now. The destination was not in sight. I did not know what “in sight” meant. The rain hammered. The few times I extracted my device, it would not respond to damp fingers. It was damp too. I knew we were past ten kilometres, at least – the most I had gone at once on any march. We approached an intersection that bore the markings of the Eleyele Police Station, crossing it into yet another road.
This time, we were on the outer end, the part closer to roadside shops. I removed my cap in a surge of vanity, so I could feel the rain on my face. Every other time I would make the same motion would be out of genuine distress. It was intense now, the pain that had been creeping slowly up the back of my legs. You were aware yet you couldn’t stop. No one did.
The singing continued as we advanced over a seemingly endless stretch of road. There were enterprising patriots, those who would stride far ahead of the main group, on into the distance. Notable too were the bursts of energy as drillmasters bellowed songs to get their troopers going.
When I inquired from the officers about our destination, their replies did little to help matters. “Hours away,” they implied. Somewhere in the advisory shared before the trek was a warning to take no drink till the commanders permitted it. I was keen on staying true. If anything, the rain was already doing enough for hydration.
Still, as we went even further, a desire to purchase fresh snacks began to take hold. Stall after confectionery stall, I was tempted to indulge. I would not. My restraint could only go so far, however.
Before long, the shops I had counted on began to thin and disappear. Beyond centres that offered little more than non-edible services, nothing in sight promised a replenishment of energy.
When I eventually found one, it was after the first two tries had winded up in disappointment. Our ranks were very obviously split now and I was practically alone when I crossed the road to procure buns. There was no reserve. Without concern for manners, I dove into the thankfully hot doughs, right there by the roadside, vehicles speeding past.
We continued walking in twos and threes this way until we arrived at our first rest stop. This was a shack somewhere after a railway track in the Akufo Farm Settlement. The rain had eased and a look at my device told me it was 20 minutes after 1 pm and we had done up to 20 kilometres. Sachet water was distributed amongst the group and I kept myself occupied with some bread. By 2, our break was interrupted by an announcement that we were to resume the march. It was 15 minutes shorter than it should have been.
And so it continued. Once, we briefly missed our way and did a U-turn into some untarred and muddy road. We entertained ourselves with boiled corn from sellers here. Some time after, we were back on even ground, a road paved with concrete that was several inches thick. Participants from other schools were starting to grumble now. I overheard threats that promised UI cadets a similar fate and counter-jabs from the UI team at the guest squads. Again, the lines thinned and I occasionally managed to stay somewhere between the leading group and the rear end.
I learned that the location we were headed to had been scouted earlier by a reconnaissance team that made the trip on foot. There was nothing to point it out, though, as the Regimental Sergeant-major and the Chief Training Officer, both members of the recon squad, maintained an unwavering distance ahead of the group.
As we went further, we arrived at a rural community where we were greeted with scattered cheers. And for the first time ever, I understood a fragment of what liberation feels like, that moment when victorious troops recover territory. From here, we went deeper into roads flanked by foliage on either side, connectivity steadily becoming a major issue. Hikers were also so far and wide apart that I could barely keep eyes on the group in front of me.
Soon, we would catch up and then be told to turn back. According to the Director of General Protocol who bore the burden of relaying this information, a river ahead of us had overflown and we would need a different route. Nothing could have been more provocative. Patriots from other units erupted at the perceived stress. In no time, however, we were on the move again, a band, mainly comprising UItes, singing loudly as they jogged back the way we had come. Pride flared through me, activating tired limbs, and I joined the group, prepared to keep the pace for however long.
The rain had returned now and we bathed afresh in a relentless downpour. That and the subsequent knowledge that the river necessitating the turnaround was a fictitious tale designed to extend the duration of the march cemented the exhaustion further. Our mysterious destination was Akufo High School, a place we had walked past as we entered the community.
Once in, I was immediately treated to news that I was both underinformed and underprepared. My UI contacts had come with extra clothes and I, soggy and cold as I was, could only reflect on the advance thinking that camping had instilled in the patriots over time.
With dusk came a number of departures by participants, the NDA applicant I had met earlier included. We were treated to what I thought was an unfitting meal of fufu and egusi. I could not decipher how such a rigid meal could have been thought suitable for the torment I’d undergone.
All this while, a few officers were on the school field preparing tinder for a gyration night. Indeed, sometime after 1 am, we were roused from our distinctly uncomfortable perches on the small, hard classroom benches.
And for close to an hour after, I was treated to a Man o’ War fest that felt upbeat and sorrowful at the same time. The cadets sang, danced, dried clothing and footwear next to a roaring fire and, at the climax, transferred power to mostly new hands for the next administration.
We would then proceed to marginally more respectable accommodations. In essence, these were new classroom blocks, complete with shutters and reliable doors. There, we slept heads to toes on mats provided by the Muslim Students Society, a Man o’ War partner organization.
Day two of the trek was less intense distance-wise. A few more patriots had given in and decided to return home in cabs. Another handful sought a shortcut to the university. In all, the eighteen-kilometre march spanning four hours traversed a comparatively shorter route that took us through Ajibode.
This time, I fairly outdid a bunch of Man o’ War peers, either remaining in short visual range from the leading group or neck and neck with it. Upon arrival within the school premises, there was nothing to suggest that our party of wayfarers was the same that exited a day earlier.
Across board, signs of wear were painfully obvious on the participants. Boots with torn soles here, a boy with a wrapper in place of pants, stragglers, and the nagging, private consciousness that two of my toenails were dangling by a thread of skin.
Days one and two of the survival trek.
There was little else to be done. We reached the War Room in Independence Hall without fanfare. Finding nothing to observe, I ducked into a cab headed for the university’s gate. And from there, I spotted what was perhaps the most obvious sign of exhaustion I had ever seen within their class — a UI commanding officer halting midstep and doubling over with hands on knees on his return to Kuti Hall.
This story is the concluding part of a series. You can read the first one here.