BRIDGE ACROSS THE PLATEAU: STRAIGHT OUTA LOCKDOWN

DoGoodFilms first international project since Covid 19 engulfed the world was a feature documentary about the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. Commissioned by Search for Common Ground in February 2020, this project was jinxed from the start. First DoGoodFilms were way too busy filming across the globe and then one by one, countries started shutting down their borders, planes were grounded and world has sunk into a COVID-19-induced hibernation.

With little hope, late in the summer, I knocked on their door with a cheeky email and I was shocked to hear the film is still on but the window of opportunity was quickly shrinking as the project was coming to a conclusion and we only had two months to make a film. First I had to get to Nigeria. I glued myself to social media to hear when and whether Nigeria will open its borders. The opening date was a moving feast surrounded by rumours, false hopes and more rumours still. The embassy was shut and Nigeria’s Covid policy was in flux. I will skip the nerve-racking two weeks of visa queues, denied applications and Covid test results arriving three hours before scheduled departure. To make a long story short, I made it to Abuja by a bee’s dick but in one piece and with all my equipment.

I spent the last weeks before the project kicked off researching what the hell is the herder-farmer conflict about and why is it a big deal. Hand to heart, who has heard of the violence between pastoralis and farmers in the middle of Nigeria? And why in the world am I the right director to make a documentary about it? I quickly found some answers to the first question but it wasn’t until I landed in Nigeria and started talking to people before I started to realize that I may actually be the right person to make a film about a war between two ethnic and economic groups in the heart of Africa I had very little connection with but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Crisis Group has published a handy analysis of the situation couple of years ago and it was a heavy reading: Rising conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria is already six times deadlier in 2018 than the Boko Haram Insurgency. In the first six month of 2018 alone 1300 people have been killed in clashes between the farmers and predominantly ethnic Fulani herders. The total death toll goes well into the hundreds of thousands over the two decades it has been raging. I was going to parachute myself into the middle of it with a camera and an idiotic smile of a total stranger which may have worked in the rice paddies of the Mekong river and sometimes made kids laugh in the aftermath of natural disasters but I really wasn’t sure it was going to work with armed militias roaming Nigeria’s badlands.

Then there was Nigeria’s (fairly or unfairly earnt) reputation of a country where bribes are the currency that opens door and armed private security for media crews is as common as a spare tyre in one’s car. I started calling friends and colleagues with experience there and “Ouch. Good Luck then!” was the end of most conversations when I mentioned I will be moving around without a couple of guys in military fatigues brandishing AK47s.

I was beyond excited. After months in lockdown and unhealthy news diet watching facts lose time and time against fake news I was in the mood for some reality based storytelling. The brief was incredibly ambitious and if successful this could be the most important work Dogoodfilms has ever done. The aim was to explain the conflict in a wider context of climate change, population explosion and modernity in Nigeria, to separate the facts from fiction, to dispel the rumours and conspiracies swirling in the communities fighting each other and to try to find a common ground and mutual understanding between groups who for a long time only knew conflict. My imposter syndrome only grew stronger during lockdown and I kept thinking whether the films I make really make a difference to people’s lives or whether I am just kidding myself jet-setting across the globe. To make a film with a clear purpose to build bridges between communities at war by explaining the historic forces at play, by telling real stories and exposing lies was something that I simply wanted to take a few risks for.

Yes there were objective risks but my client on the ground was confident that the situation is calm enough to move around freely without risking getting caught in crossfire or being attacked by bandits. I tend to trust the people who engage us with security and not to be a diva. I understood too well that in a situation where everyone has a grudge against someone bringing guns in a community could paradoxically put us in more danger. Armed forces are far from innocent or impartial in this conflict and in a militarized situation more guns could only fan the flames. But I slept rather lightly the last few days.

I had a few ideas on how I would want to tell the story but truth is, I had no clue whether or how they would work. Then there is always plan B: Shoot the shit out of it and let the narrative emerge in the post production. With my homework done and armed with whatever courage I had left after sofa surfing for months, at 6 am on September 20th, I was standing outside Abuja Airport with bags of filming gear, heart beating a little faster and ready to give this a shot. My home for the weeks to come is called Jos.

Jos is a provincial city in the Plateau State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt and is a relatively safe 5 hour drive from Abuja. Our car got stopped every few kilometres by military at checkpoints. I was relieved to see such heavy military presence, I was in no mood for an ambush.

Jos’s temperate climate means it has been one of the first inhabited areas in Nigeria and perhaps this is where the story should start. Nigeria’s Middle Belt is a land of milk and honey with vast swathes of fertile soil, stable and plentiful crops and good – albeit simple – life for both farmers and nomadic herders. I am not going to go into the analysis of the socio-economic situation here. After all I made a documentary about it and if you want to know, the link is in this post. But suffice to say this is not a poor place where climate change is making people go hungry. Quite the opposite, it’s its wealth that fuels the conflicts and hinders its potential.

I was joined by Rachel, a photographer from Lagos, and Adams, a local film maker. They have both become my allies, sounding boards and invaluable companions in the days and weeks to come. A massive thanks goes to both for their craft, cool heads and patience with me, a literal alien scratching my head or frantically running around trying to get a shot.

Search for Common Ground has provided me two local fixers Manji and Tahiru. They knew their communities well but they were about to get tested when they agreed to chaperone me around while I ask my random questions and film. I got a comfortable apartment in Jos, unpacked and was ready to roll…

The film is meant to be about peace. With conflict between the farming and cattle rearing communities raging for the past two decades, peace is an elusive beast. If I wanted to be poetic or a self proclaimed artist, I would say I was drawing the green shoots of peace on the bloodied canvas of a conflict. But I am not so I will just say it was bloody hard.

The film is being shown in the communities in the region as well across Nigeria and it is not there to provoke violence, point fingers at the tribes, or police or at religion. It is there to tell a story of suffering and hope which is universal as it became clear there are no winners in this conflict. As a result, the film is as toothless as one can make. I don’t name supposed perpetrators, or particular groups or locations of attacks because the wounds are too fresh and can be reopened too easily. Last thing I wanted is to trigger another tit for tat clash that can spiral out of control. One can say the film suffers from it and if it was filmed for a broadcast platform it would be a different story. And trust me, I had my fair share of complaints on location for not asking questions that are more hard hitting. I wasn’t there to dig out new truths because there aren’t any truths that don’t hurt. Everyone is armed with their own facts and stats about how many of their group got killed or how many lost their land. Everyone can name the others who attacked them. I listened to their stories and then made a film about unnecessary suffering and an elusive way out of it. This was a film with a purpose and the purpose was to build bridges. They are few and far between and pretty weak if you ask me. But they are bridges one can walk on.

We filmed a lot. Dozens of hours of footage and interviews and terabytes of data. In the end it was almost impossible to get the two sides into one shot or scene. Instead, I was slowly becoming an expert in Nigerian ethnic, religious and political fault lines tearing apart this land. Everyone had a story, analysis, facts and a finger to point at someone else and no one was willing to admit that his or her side could be to blame. Such a polarized situation is hardly ripe for dialogue.

A pearl of wisdom came on the first day of filming. Imam Abubakar Abdulahi became an international hero when he sheltered hundreds of Christians in his house and mosque during one of the attacks. When the attackers stormed his village they demanded he gives the fugitives up. “You will enter my house or my house of worship but you have to kill me first!” was his response. Killing an old religious leader was too much for even the most bloodthirsty thugs longing for revenge that day. His act of bravery saved hundreds of lives that fateful day. When the camera stopped rolling I asked him who he blamed for the violence. “Who do you blame for Covid?” he answered with a question. “And is blaming Covid on any group going to help you get rid of it?”

The violence has its perpetrators, victims and triggers but ultimately it is a systemic problem that stems from population explosion in Nigeria, bad policies, modern agricultural methods and pressure on land. Religious and ethnic differences then exacerbate the underlying socio-economic forces and provide political and narrative tools to the conflict. Ethno-religious identities are just a new gunpowder in the already explosive identity mix in Plateau State.

The situation was complicated and I had to alternate my team to enter certain communities. It was simply too dangerous for some members to enter the Fulani settlements and for others to enter the famers villages. The only person who could enter anywhere and who was universally welcome and spoken to was me. I realized the reason I could do this film while others couldn’t was because I was such an alien that I didn’t fit into any of the adversarial categories that the communities have created for the hated “other”. No matter your background, as long as you were Nigerian you ended up in a box: ethnic, religious, or political that rendered you partial and biased somewhere. But there wasn’t a box for me so I was allowed to roam free and ask questions. Being an outsider was an asset as much – if not more than – my talent. But hey. Whatever. I still think I rock.

Things happened when we were filming. People got brutally killed in the communities we visited in the short time we spent there. Killing an innocent person for whatever reason is a tragedy, its criminal and evil. What was even more shocking was the fact that this was considered a normal state and safe enough for a film crew to venture there. I never felt unsafe or threatened but came nightfall, the people went back to their homes and back to living in fear.

The conflict isn’t everywhere and we found some peace building initiatives or communities who managed to survive without falling out with their neighbours. We managed to find a football club that had players from all sorts of backgrounds happily cheering each other, we found villages where diverse groups live side by side and markets where they sell and buy from each other. There was at least a historic memory of times when people got along and lied in peace. But we also found burnt homes, schools abandoned, people too scared to cross a road to someone else’s turf. We found rumours and fake news and entrenched mentality. Everywhere we went we found people who are tired of the misery this conflict brings.

During the last two days of my stay I did a workshop for film makers and journalists about video production and conflict storytelling. I ended up feeling unwell on the first day of the training and went down with a horrendous fever at night. Did I catch Covid? The doctor laughed it off, Covid is much less of a worry here than the many tropical diseases endemic in these lands. I ended up contracting malaria and Typhoid fever so my last few days in Nigeria were slightly delirious. One for CV I suppose, because who can say they can train 20 people with not just one but two tropical diseases in their blood. And yeah … by the way… I did have a typhoid vaccination but it ran out three years ago. Time to get a new one soon 😊

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