As north-east Nigeria battles Boko Haram’s insurgency, the city of Maiduguri is experiencing a construction boom

In the summer of 2009, insurgents from the Boko Haram terrorist group attacked the ancient Nigerian city of Maiduguri for the first time. The group, whose name loosely translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’, quickly advanced throughout the north-east region of Nigeria striking homes, schools, markets, places of worship and places of work, killing thousands of people and leaving nearly 2.4 million people displaced across Nigeria as well as Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Before the insurgency, Maiduguri was already one of the most expensive cities in Nigeria for property after the commercial capital of Lagos, the federal capital of Abuja and the oil hub of Port Harcourt. But as a result of the attacks on the state capital of Borno (one of the three worst-affected states in the region) thousands of people fled Maiduguri, leaving their livelihoods and property behind.

Usman Almad, however, stayed. A broker in rental properties at the time with years of experience as an estate agent, Almad tells Equal Times that he spotted an opportunity where others saw danger.

“I had more than 50 empty houses within a few months,” Almad remembers as homeowners sold him their properties at well-below market rate in a bid to escape to safety.

After a massive military operation in 2014, where the Nigerian army pushed militants from their strongholds in the city to fringe towns and villages along the border with northern Cameroon and Lake Chad, a fragile peace slowly returned to the city. And Almad was poised to reap the profits from this reverse migration: “This time, people fleeing the troubled nearby villages and towns came to the city to look for homes,” says Almad.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of June 2018, almost two million people were internally-displaced in north-eastern Nigeria, primarily in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Many of these people have settled in Maiduguri, and while most are confined to camps, some are living with family and friends in the local communities. Those with more money are renting, buying and building homes on the private market. It is these people that have helped property prices rocket in Maiduguri by as much as 500 per cent.

In addition to the demands of local residents and IDPs (internally-displaced persons), the price of property in Maiduguri has also been inflated by the presence of humanitarian agencies such as the International Red Cross and the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as federal government agencies. Not only is Maiduguri the largest city in north-east Nigeria, but these days it is also relatively calm and ideally positioned close to the Cameroonian and Chadian borders to make an attractive base for aid workers and business people.

Boom for some, bust for others

Usman Almad (who also goes by several other names, including Bala Geidam and Ali Garba Shehu) cashed in on the boom and founded Dolphin Global Enterprise Limited in 2010. Today, it is one of the most successful property development firms/estate agents in Maiduguri, a city of approximately 1.3 million people. Before the insurgency, Almad says he was worth less than 20 million naira (US$55,000). In 2017, he says his business made more than 300 million naira (US$825,000) in profit.

“I bought those houses at cheaper rates in the attack-prone areas but today I have sold them out at expensive prices. When the insurgency [calmed down]…people ended up coming back to me, paying a much higher amount to acquire the houses that they sold so cheaply out of panic,” he says in his dimly-lit office in Maiduguri.

The value of the homes and land has increased significantly; in an article published by AFP in 2017, he told reporters: “A house worth one million naira per year (approximately US$2744 by current exchange rates) can cost up to five million (approximately US$13,717) today.” More recently, Almad told Equal Times: “There are days I receive up to 20 requests for houses.”

It is a similar story in the hospitality industry, according to Yakubu Sule, a hotel supervisor who has lived in Maiduguri for over 30 years. “Before the insurgency, to lodge in any standard hotel in Maiduguri was about 2500 naira (US$6). But today, that amount has gone from 10,000 naira ($27) to 50,000 naira ($137) [in the last seven years].”

In their quest to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Sahel region, Boko Haram not only killed and injured tens of thousands of people, but the group also damaged and destroyed a significant amount of infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, police stations and markets.

“No fewer than 10,000 houses were destroyed, in addition to over 86 public buildings comprising schools and hospitals, among others,” Dr Babagana Umara Zulum, the former state commissioner for the Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) while he was still in the role.

The state government of Borno has joined forced with property developers and private investors to rebuild the city. In 2016 the state government of Borno budgeted 13 billion naira (roughly US$35.6 million) to rebuild eight communities across the state. A spokesperson from the ministry told Equal Times that it has successfully reconstructed the city’s main market, post office, general hospital, various schools and (as of 2017) 32,290 free housing units for refugees whose houses were destroyed during the heat of the insurgency.

On a recent visit to Maiduguri, Equal Times saw the city dotted with new shopping malls, hotels, upmarket restaurants and lounges. However, the development of the city has come at a price. While the cost of property and basic goods has soared, people’s incomes have not followed suit.

Abdulraheem Abdullahi, a resident of Maiduguri, says the general cost of living in the city is pretty expensive. Before the insurgency, Maiduguri was a commercial hub for business transactions across Chad, Niger and Cameroon – the three west African countries that are just across the border.

“We were once the food basket of the north-east. Everything was cheaper and Maiduguri was a nice area to live before. But with this insurgency, life has become extra difficult. Food items have increased by 200 per cent. Many businesses that thrive through exchange of goods across neighbouring countries have closed down.”

Despite the hard conditions, Abdullahi, who is currently unemployed, says the government has not done enough to help ordinary people living in the area, nor has it increased the salaries of civil servants to match the high cost of living in the city. “Also many retirees have not received their pensions for over five years. The government is hiding under the guise of fighting terrorism to worsen the conditions of people in the state.”

But for Abdullahi Adamu, an economist based in Damaturu, the capital of the neighbouring state of Yobe, thinks that overall, the aftermath of the insurgency has improved the lives of locals. “Menial job seekers are benefiting tremendously from contractors working on rebuilding the city. Also, the activities of international aid organisations has led to employment for many locals in the city.” Whether this newfound prosperity will last, however, or be extended beyond a specific demographic, remains to be seen.