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Special Report

The city fit for no-one: Inside the ruined ‘capital’ of the Islamic State group (2)



Danger lies around corners and in the shadows. It comes from distant snipers, hidden bombs, and the deep tunnels that riddle the city. Even in areas that have been secured, IS can sneak back under the cover of darkness. The SDF has its own sniper unit. Four foreigners, from Germany, Spain, the US and the UK. A month ago, they were holed up in the old city, near the top of a building. It was getting dark, they were looking for any movement. They would wait for hours, then a shot would ring out – hopefully a kill.

“We’re always on the offensive,” says Jac Holmes, from Bournemouth. “Daesh are always defending so they’ve always got the advantage. This has been their city for however many years now so they know it better than we do. It’s been very hard.”

That night was particularly hard, the foreigners smelt smoke in the building.

“Daesh have worked out how to start fires very quickly, they creep inside the building and try to smoke us out,” Jac says.

They could hear the IS fighters moving, as the smoke grew thicker, they began firing downstairs. It was their only way of escape, but IS was waiting. They were trapped. But Jac and his unit had earlier found two IS suicide vests. They were rigged with detonation cords, like grenades. They pulled the cords and threw both vests downstairs into the smoke and the darkness. The explosion shook the building, Jac, says. “We don’t know how many we injured, they were all gone when we went down. The explosion was so big it put out the fire.”

I first met Jac two years ago near the Turkish border.

He was in hospital then, with a bandaged arm. It was an IS gunshot wound. He giggled about it at the time, appearing ill-equipped to be taking on IS. Before Syria, he had worked in IT. I wondered at the time how long it would be before he was killed. Jac has changed. The giggles are gone, his hair is longer, and he has a thick beard. He’s grown in stature. He won’t discuss how many IS fighters he has killed. “Why does everyone ask that?” he asks.

But what is it like to kill a man?

“You feel nothing,” he says, then pauses, “you feel excitement.”

His weapon is an M16 with a large scope. It isn’t ideal, but Jac says: “We are never that far away from them, maybe 400m [1,300ft], it’s very close on the front line.”

His wage is $100 (£75) a month.

He’s ambivalent towards the socialist ideology of the Kurds. Anything he needs, from food to clothing, is given for free. The $100 keeps him in energy drinks and cigarettes. His one credo, though, is his hatred of IS.

“The(sic) are a barbaric fascist terrorist organisation who essentially want to take over the world. If you don’t comply by their rules, they will kill you. It’s as simple as that.”

There are fewer direct attacks and car bombs in Raqqa than there were in Iraq’s Mosul. Here, it’s the snipers and the roadside bombs that do the work. Mostly, IS doesn’t move, but lies in wait.

As the men and women of the SDF’s Kobane brigade prepared for an operation near the city’s grain silos, they knew all of this, but still there will be surprises. Some look as young as boys. Barely hair on their top lips, they sit and load their magazines with ammunition. When I ask their age, they shake their head and smile. They know not to answer. Many of them are teenagers.

The commander is Shevgar Himo. He has just celebrated his 24th birthday inside Raqqa.

He’s half Arab, half Kurd, and is rarely without a tablet computer or new Samsung smartphone. Supplied by the Americans, they plot the IS retreat. His men are assembled, ahead lies a residential street, every house bombed, and IS still heading in the ruins. The target is the city’s grain silos, long held by IS and key ground because it gives the militants a high position over this part of the city. Shevgar Himo says: “The bulldozer is opening up the roads and the armoured vehicle is following behind. We are going to clean that area, then we will reach the other group of SDF that is attacking from the other side.”

IS will be squeezed between the SDF forces. Immediately, the SDF take incoming fire. But they keep in formation and ensure their fighters don’t bunch together. That would only invite a rocket attack from IS. One by one they cross open streets, under fire. IS bullets zip past, missing the heads of the fighters by only inches. At first things go to plan. Then comes the first surprise.

IS snipers are good. The armoured bulldozer is covered in bullet holes, including right in the centre of the windows of the operator. But IS knows where to hit. I hear a couple of shots ring out. They’ve taken out the bulldozer’s radiator, it’s leaking fluid and needs to leave to be repaired. The second bulldozer goes in, there’s another shot, and a “whoosh” of escaping air.

The IS sniper, hidden and invisible to the fighters, has shot off the valve on the tire. The fighters stand around and marvel at the accuracy of the shot. Bulldozer number two is now also out of action. So the fighters try a different approach. In minutes, at the end of a street, they plan a movement, half a dozen of them, including one armed with a rocket propelled grenade, to take out a sniper near a mosque. There Kurdish and Arab fighters work well together, but there are moments of confusion.

One Kurdish commander doesn’t speak Arabic, his Arab counterpart speaks no Kurdish. It takes a third person to translate. When I ask some of the fighters where they are from, they reply with a vague “Rojava”, the Kurdish controlled area of northern Syria. But it seems they are not local. The suspicion is that some of the best fighters here are PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Loathed by the Turkish government, it is also designated a terrorist organisation by the West. But here in Raqqa, they are some of the most effective ground troops in the battle. The fighters at the end of the street launch their attack on the sniper position, the noise is deafening, and the firing barely ceases for a second. Under the cover of fire, the fighter with the RPG, runs into the middle of street and fires at the IS position.

Some more gunfire, then silence.

But as I turn the corner to leave to get into the armoured vehicle, the sniper opens up again. About half a dozen shots, I hear them whistle past me, two smack into the wall. No-one is hurt. A boom of an air strike rattles the street and the sniper is finally killed. All of this for barely half a mile of street, but the fighters are closer to the silos now. The next day, they take them and a large swathe of Raqqa is back under SDF control. IS had promised to grow a new empire from these streets. Instead, the bodies of its fighters clog the gutters. Every few hundred metres, there is another one. Some cut in half, some still with their weapons.

Two men were hiding in a building doorway, but they were spotted.

They lie dead where they stood, one, his legs sliced from his body.

The fins of the missile that killed them stick out of the concrete pavement. There are scorch marks at the building’s entrance. An Arab fighter, with a skull and crossbones patch on his uniform, steps over the bodies, he has to check the building for booby traps. As he passes the dead fighters, he greets them, wryly: “Allah, bel kheir [May God make your evening full of good].” The fighters around laugh. The SDF forces document each corpse on their phones and tablet computers. They think it is mostly foreign fighters left inside Raqqa now. When I ask how many, most seem to agree: 400, no more.

A tiny number making a last stand, but holding the might of the SDF and coalition at bay, and ensuring that what’s left of Raqqa continues to be destroyed.

“We won’t leave until the city turns into another Kobane. You’ll only leave Raqqa when the last of us dies.”

Abu Muath Al Tunisi, IS fighter, Raqqa.


For four months Raqqa has been the battleground in the war of annihilation against the Islamic State. It is also a victim, broken and barely alive. The map on the SDF commander’s smartphone has a red square, it slopes at the bottom, passes Raqqa’s stadium and hospital and extends a few kilometres north.

It’s all that’s left of IS territory. It’s in this area – little more than five sq km (1.9 sq miles) – where the battle for Raqqa will end. The Kurds are confident of victory. Already they are sending fighters to another front with IS, to the city of Deir al-Zour, further south. Air strikes inside the red box have lessened in recent days. It’s where most civilians remain. Jac Holmes, the British SDF sniper, is in no doubt the air power was necessary.

“It’s made a huge difference. I mean, without them we would never have got this far. Let alone take Raqqa”.

The Islamic State’s remaining fighters are said to be mostly foreigners, from central Asia, they have no love for the city, nor its people.

They’ll gladly see it destroyed.

It serves their propaganda purposes too. Here, they will say, Western bombs destroyed an ancient Arab city.

In nearby Tabqa, I met Ismail Al Ali.

“Raqqa’s citizens have paid the price,” he says in broken English. “Their city is destroyed. Raqqa has paid the price for all the world”.

Nearby, a grandmother wipes her tears with her headscarf and says: “We left our beloved people, our children, everything behind, we know nothing about them. We only need to go back to Raqqa, we don’t need anything, we will stay in tents in the streets.” They haven’t yet seen what’s left of their city. When they do, they will likely ask, did so much of their beloved Raqqa have to be destroyed, so that it could be saved?

Special Report

Yelwan: A community where trees are classrooms



As the number of out of school children surge across the country, many communities with no presence of educational infrastructure, now turn to tree shades as learning centre. Satellite Times visit to communities in Nassarawa State reveal the harrowing experiences of children who travel several kilometers every day to get education.

Sa’adatu Umar is 15-years old. Her first school experience was July 2016, then; she was 14. Like other children in Yelwan community, education is an unnecessary luxury.  No child is enrolled into formal school in Yelwan, parents looked eager to put their wards into school but there are no schools in the community. The closest primary school is about 5 kilometers away on a bushy, lonely and dangerous path.

“We only need a normal classroom to be built for our children” says Mallam Adbulahi, the community head of Yelwan. Abdulahi points to an open space where community school can be sited.

There are more than 200 children who are not enrolled in school, the request to site a school in the community has not been heeded, the community have written to Keffi Local government, they have appealed to prominent politicians in neighbouring town who only visits during election, no one has responded to their call for educational shelter but determined to give hope to the children, the community heads tasked each household a sum of 1000 naira per month. This contribution enabled them purchase writing materials – black boards, mats and a 3,000 naira stipend to a volunteer teacher.

With no shelter yet, about 200 yearning children who had never been to school are excited to have a chance at education even if it is offered under the shades of trees. “About 90 children rushed to take a front spot at the ‘new’ Yelwan primary school on the first day of school’ remarks Adbulahi, an elderly community head.

Even Abdulahi, not sure of his own real age but wished he had a chance at education, he explained how his lack of education had cost him a decent life. “If I had attended school, I would have been a big man today” Abdulahi said through an interpreter. Every strand of his wrinkled face bares his pain “I now know the value of education and we are determined to get this children education” said Abdulahi.

The ‘new’ Yelwan School is sheltered under two large trees. The two large trees represent class A and class B.

When Satellite Times asked the Musa Muazu, the social welfare officer at the Keffi Local government, he admitted that the local government had received requests for shelter but there were no funding for the request. “We are aware of the situation here, when we got their request and visited, we decided to make recommendation to the State Universal Basic Education, SUBEC.” Said Muazu.

Musa Muazu, Social Welfare Officer, Keffi, Nassarawa State

Yelwan community is a reflection of the poor state of education in Keffi, many public schools visited were in dilapidated conditions with overcrowded classrooms, poor ventilation, open or leaking roof. There is deficiency of both physical and mental infrastructure. The teaching staff too are least qualified, delivering lecture in local Hausa dialect.

In Keffi, the sight of children wandering barefooted in torn clothing and clutching empty stained food bowl dots the town. For a state that has signed the Child Right Law, it is disturbing to observe an open disregard for that law.  It appears that families are only concerned about their own children and government about politics, not the people.

Knowing the power of traditional institutions, Muazu through the Social Welfare Department once engaged the Emir of Keffi, one of the most revered traditional ruler in the state “We are using our traditional rulers to ensure that children go to school, no matter the condition of the school, we will play our role and hope that the government will play their role of providing infrastructure” he said, narrating how the Emir of Keffi has become an advocate of child education.

As reported, a man had shipped 27 children into Keffi from Katsina under the guise of enrolling them into an Islamic school. However, his real intention was to make the children make money for him.  So he put them out on the street, handed them a bowl each and issued a daily target for food and money.

Luck ran out on him after he physically abused one of the children. The news got to the Social Welfare Officer who reported the incidence to the Emir of Keffi. The outraged members of the emirate council ordered a public punishment to serve as a deterrent. The man was whipped in the public and the children were withdrawn from the street and reunited with their parents in Katsina.

Abugye Community

Like Yelwan, Abugye community too has no school shelter. This community is in Keana local government, lafia, Nassarawa State.

The road to Abugye community is rough and dangerous. This community seats in the heart of a thick forest. There are no electricity, no clean water, no medical centre and no access to mobile telephone signal.

Abugye is home to more than 300 school age children, some of whom have been withdrawn from school because of the pain of travelling 3 kilometers to the nearest school.

“You can live here without money” says Yahaya Ibrahim, 37, the spokesperson of the community who claim he has not used money for exchange of any goods or services. “I have not used money for more than 2years, everything we need is here” he enthused.

The community may have everything they require for their nomadic lifestyle but it is lacking in the essentials for building their minds and their future. They lack schools for their children.

Adama Yahaya treks 3 kilometers everyday to school. She hurriedly makes her way through the rocky; narrow path that leads to the nearest primary school in Abugye, a fulani community in Keana Local government area of Nassarawa State.

Adama Yahaya


Adama is 7 but she does the chores of an adult. Her day begins as early as 5am. She accompanies her young mother to the stream to fetch water, she combs through the woods to fetch fire wood and by 7am, she begins a long journey to school.

Adama is one of the few girls in the community whose parents refused to withdraw from school. “She is very smart” says her 37 years old father of 8 children.  “I want to become a teacher, so that I can teach a lot of children in my community” Adama said with glittering smile.

Satellite Times learnt that many children of school age do not attend school in Abugye community because of the long distance and the fear of exposing the children to reptile attack.

The rate of child neglect and abandonment in Keana is high; it gives an idea of the real situation in Nigeria.

In 2003, the Child Right Act was signed into Law; it was also domesticated in about 24 States of the federation.

Still, more than 10 million children are out of school in Nigeria, the rate of abandonment, high incidences of child abuse, public and institutional disregard to the rights of vulnerable children and neglect remain constantly on rise.

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Special Report

Inside the N50 billion Sunti sugar project




Ariel view of the N50 billion Sunti sugar project
Ariel view of the N50 billion Sunti sugar project

The presence of the President, Mohammadu Buhari, at the commissioning ceremony last week in Niger State spoke volume of the importance of the Sunti sugar project to the Nigerian economy. An initiative of Flour Mills of Nigeria, the sugar production facility is visibly ‎one of the largest agro-allied investments in Nigeria.

Located in Mokwa, Niger state, the Sunti Golden Sugar Estate (SGSE) Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Flour Mills and features a sugar factory and cane production allotment. At full capacity the estate and mill will produce about 1,000,000 metric tonnes of cane and 100,000 metric tonnes of sugar annually.

Enclosed within a 35-kilometer dyke, the production facility area is 15,100 hectares, with a cane area that features a maximum output of 10,000 hectares. The dyke provides flood protection from the River Niger. The estate features the state-of-the-art irrigation system that will ensure efficient cultivation of sugar cane, with infrastructure that includes drain pumps, pump stations, and a power grid.

The sugar estate is the purest representation of the Federal Government’s Nigerian Sugar Master Plan which comes with an ambitious backward integration program that intends to set Nigeria on the path to self-sufficient sugar production. At capacity Sunti Golden Sugar Estates will replace about $100 million that Nigeria spends annually importing sugar.‎ Demand for labor created by this project has led to 3,000 currently employed people with a projection of 10,000-strong workforce as development proceeds.

The estate has brought infrastructure benefits to the surrounding community, with 28 communities in total taking advantage of a new 30-kilometer road in addition to expansive road networks that provide a variety of access routes to the homes of the indigenes. Drains, culverts, and flood-protection walls have also been constructed.

The 50-billion-naira investment in Nigeria’s sugar value chain provides a concrete example of the effort to reduce sugar importation, save billions in foreign exchange, boost local capacity, and reduce unemployment by putting thousands of Nigerians to work in the agricultural and industrial sectors, which is very much aligned to President Buhari’s policy thrust and agenda.

Speaking after a tour of the sugar farm, the President said “Projects like the Sunti Sugar Estate are in tandem with the vision and objectives that we set out to achieve when this administration instituted the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP). While, our focus is steadfast on delivering on our policy goals of tackling corruption, improving security and rebuilding the economy; more than ever, government will work in close partnership with businesses to strengthen investments in agriculture, power, manufacturing, solid minerals, and the service sectors”.

The Chairman of Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc. Mr. John G Coumantaros said his organisation’s mantra “Feeding the Nation, Every day,” is at the heart of the company’s strategic decisions on what they produce, how and where factories are set up, the level of care that is put into products, and how they interact with host communities and the wider environment.

The site of the sugar project was acquired and compensation paid to host communities by the then President Shehu Shagari in 1980. Though sugarcanes were produced, they were never processed within the facility. The Federal Government in a privatization exercise sold the investment to an organization who in turn sold it to Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc, the current owners.

The construction of the plant commenced in 2011. The existing plant undertakes pre milling, milling and processing of sugarcane while refining is carried out in Lagos. The site which lies along the banks of River Niger measures 17 hectares out of which 3 hectares have been cultivated with sugarcane to feed the plant. Besides the plant and the farm is the staff quarter which is located closely to the plant.

Speaking on the composition of the facility the plant engineer, Benjamin Chima Alisigwe, talked about the pre milling house, milling house and process house. A digital laboratory ensure quality control. In the pre milling house are the Weigh Bridge, hydraulic grab, silo (offload), chopper, leveler, fiberizer, equalizer and magnetic separator. The mill house consists of mill one to four. At mill four, the finest juice is extracted, by-product as bagasse is separated and sent to the power to power their boiler. Finally, the juice is filter through sand catcher before it is conveyed to the process house.

Dignitaries at the commissioning ceremony included the Niger State governor Abubakar Sani Bello; governor of Kebbi State, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu; CBN Governor, Godwin Emefile and Minister for Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enalamah. Others were Prof. Jerry Gana; Nigeria’s Ambassador to Greece; Etsu Nupe Yahaya Abubakar and representatives from Dangote group amongst others.

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Nigeria sinks N300 billion into Satellite projects



A satellite used to illustrate the story [Photo Credit: SpaceNews]

Nigeria recently announced its plan to dabble into another N200 Billion sketchy satellite venture, as its fifth launch since NigeriaSat-1 Was launched in 2003.

An average of N100 Billion had been spent on the launch of the first four, while the fifth one will cost the economically depressive country an average of N200 Billion.

Five satellite have been launched by the Nigerian government into outer space since 2003. At its last launch, the Federal Government through President Goodluck Jonathan had announced that the last satellite which cost the country an average of N40 Billion will save the country about $2 Billion (N720 Billion) Satellite engagement investment and generate a revenue of an estimated $20 billion (N7.2 Trillion) revenue annually.

Built by a United Kingdom-based satellite technology company, Surrey Space Technology Limited (SSTL ltd), Nigeriasat-1 a worldwide Disaster Monitoring Constellation System was the first Nigeria Satellite and was launched on 27 September 2003, under the Nigerian government sponsorship for $30 million.

Early plans to launch a national satellite in 1976 were not executed. Interestingly, none of the satellites have been launched in Nigeria, as all of them were launched from outside launch base.

NigeriaSat-x, Nigeria’s third and fourth satellites, The NigeriaSat-2/X spacecraft were built at a cost of over £35 million. The two satellites were launched into orbit by Ukrainian Dnepr rocket from a Yasny military base in Russia on 17 August 2011.

Past reports have however revealed that the two NigeriaSat-2/X had been de-orbited because they had stayed their normal courses in orbit, while users, including government agencies keep spending Billion to acquire the services from private suppliers.

In an interview with Daily Trust in November 2017, the Director, Centre for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD), Dr Spencer Onuh, said that the agencies of government and private companies that use satellite image and data in their work have all been procuring such images and data from foreign satellites.

“What do you want them to do when there is a failure? Let me tell you, NigComSat 1R is not enough for this country; it is not sufficient. There must be a backup. Many TV stations and even the national TV network will be very careful to transfer their services fully to NigComSat 1R because it is just one. The stations are set up for business, and they would not want anything to disrupt their services,” Dr Onu said.

“Even private companies that own satellites don’t have only one. Some of them have five to six satellites, but mostly communication satellites which spin money. The return on investment is very fast but what happens in most advanced satellite countries is that these things are given out to the private sector to manage; they are not under government management and you can see the results.”

But a NIGCOMSAT official, Abdulraheem Isah Adajah, disagreed. Adajah who is the NIGCOMSAT’s General Manager, Satellite Applications, told Daily Trust that it was not entirely true that Nigcomsat1-R was recording low patronage due to lack of backup.

According to him, inferiority complex and the mentality that ‘if it is Nigerian it can’t be good’ is the main reason.


However, after its inability to contribute the agreed 15% of the unknown production cost for the new satellite, Nigeria in a renegotiated deal has finally agreed a $550-million deal to acquire two new Chinese communications satellites, in “an equity participation” policy.

According to the Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu, Nigeria during his recent visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, the Satellites will be fully sponsored by the Chinese investors and Nigeria “has nothing to lose because we are not putting anything into it in terms of financial resources,” but quickly add that “they will agree on the percentage for profit sharing,” with the partners.

“It is a very big business opportunity and I am sure that the Chinese appreciate the potential market that is so versed and that is why they agreed in spite of our inability to provide 15 per cent, that they are prepared to bring the entire sum of $550 million for the procurement of the two satellites,” He said.

He also said that the China Exim Bank and the Satellite manufacturer, China Great Wall, have agreed to pay for the new satellites after Nigeria renegotiated an earlier deal that had required it to cover 15% of the cost.

However, China Exim Bank, a fully Import and Export commercial bank with profit target is coming into the project with a target of the “still shadowy” sharing formula that is still not disclosed to the public. Exim Bank is reported to be a major world business financier, lending more money to developing countries than the World Bank, through support for Chinese export and international trades.

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