Nigerians who fled the violence of Boko Haram are being sent back to danger

Nigerians who fled the violence of Boko Haram are being sent back to danger

A woman carries her belongings at the Bakassi camp for internally displaced persons in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on 30 November 2021. Residents vacated the camp ahead of the closure deadline set by the Borno State government.

(AFP/Audu Marte)

When Khadija Usman learned last October that the camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) where she had lived for the last few years would be shut down by the end of the year and its residents sent back to their native towns, she started to prepare for her exit from Maiduguri.

Usman had arrived at the Teacher’s Village camp, situated in the capital of the north-eastern Borno State, in 2018 after Boko Haram militants attacked her compound in Baga, a town further in the north. After hearing of the government’s decision, the 27-year-old started saving the money she earned from selling groundnut cake outside the camp. She wanted to have enough financial resources to take care of herself when she returned home.

“Even though some of us thought it was the wrong decision [to close the camps] as we were hearing that Boko Haram was still attacking some [remote] communities, we had no choice but to prepare to leave,” Usman tells Equal Times. “We begged the government to let us stay longer until it was safe to return home, but no one listened to us.”

She was right. On her way back home in January, she and a dozen other camp residents – many of them women – were attacked by Boko Haram insurgents in a road ambush. Several people were shot but Usman managed to escape unhurt. Together with a few others who survived the attack, she decided to go to a camp for internally displaced persons in Madinatu, also near Maiduguri, where the government’s order for the closure of the camps had not yet been enforced.

“We don’t know for how long we’ll be allowed to stay here,” Usman says. “If we don’t plan to leave soon, one day they’ll throw us out.”

The Teacher’s Village camp was one of several established in the greater Maiduguri area to host the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who fled their homes to escape the violence of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. It housed a little over 18,000 people displaced by the conflict before it was shut down at the start of January.

In his New Year’s Day broadcast, Borno State governor Babagana Zulum said the camps needed to be closed as they “were becoming a slum where all kinds of vices were happening, including prostitution, drugs and thuggery in some cases.” Government officials insist security in the state has improved and want to shut all the camps by 2026, having already closed seven of the 13 camps in and around Maiduguri.

A premature decision

But recent attacks such as the one experienced by Usman prove that much of Borno is still unsafe. Even those refugees who do manage to reach their communities haven’t been safe, as militants have begun to make renewed incursions into villages once liberated by the Nigerian military.

In February, just weeks after Usman Aliyu, 40, arrived at Kornari village in eastern Borno from the Teacher’s Village camp, Boko Haram insurgents attacked the village, killing three people and leaving over a dozen others with gunshot wounds. Aliyu first fled to Maiduguri in 2017 after Boko Haram militants burned down his home. After the February attack, he decided to leave his village to seek refuge in Maiduguri for the second time in five years.

“Militants were attacking us every week throughout the time I was in Kornari between January and February,” he tells Equal Times. “I felt it was too dangerous to continue to live there so I returned to Maiduguri.” Going back to his native village was something Aliyu did not want to do in the first place. Like Usman, he felt it was not safe to return home and, like Usman, he didn’t have much of a choice.

Yusuf Chiroma, a member of the Borno Community Coalition, a local group of aid workers assisting IDPs, says the camps that have closed provided shelter to a high number of refugees. “Those seven camps hosted more than 100,000 people, many of whom may now be in harm’s way,” he says.

Initially, the Nigerian government resettled the refugees housed in the Maiduguri camps to other camps created to specifically to decongest the massively overcrowded camps in and around the Borno State capital. But at the end of last year, officials changed course and decided to close the Maiduguri camps altogether.

The first signs that the government’s decision to close the camps was premature were seen last year when refugees resettled to other villages from Maiduguri were targeted by Boko Haram militants. Many others lost their lives due to illnesses caused by poor sanitation in the villages they were resettled to. In August 2021, at least six returnees were killed and 14 injured when Boko Haram attacked the village of Agiri just one month after they were resettled by the government, according to an Amnesty International report. The NGO’s report also revealed that about 41 people died during a cholera outbreak in a resettled camp in Shuwari last October.

“To start with, Boko Haram militants are threatening people across the community,” says Babagana Usman (no relation to Khadija Usman), a refugee resettled from Maiduguri to Shuwari. “Then in the [resettled] camp, there are not enough toilets for the thousands of IDPs here, so people defecate everywhere and some don’t even wash their hands because getting water is a huge challenge,” he says.

Increase in labour exploitation and trafficking

Aid groups have criticised the decision to close the camps and said it could affect humanitarian assistance to victims, as aid workers are likely to be targeted by militants when working in those areas. They note that attacks by insurgents on civilians have risen in recent months in parts of Borno State, especially in those areas where many displaced persons in Maiduguri originally came from.

"If we cannot offer assistance to IDPs in Maiduguri, then it may be time to reconsider our operations in Borno State,” Caprecon Foundation director Dollin Holt tells Equal Times. The foundation provides psycho-social support to human trafficking victims. “Going beyond Maiduguri could be walking into the hands of insurgents.”

What is also worrying to humanitarian workers is the fact that the decision to close the camps in Maiduguri is making more displaced persons fall into the hands of human traffickers, who have long targeted people uprooted by the Boko Haram conflict. Since some of the camps were shut down, the number of refugees hired to work on farmlands that provide accommodation has increased dramatically. Many of these labourers, who are made to work over 10 hours for less than US$1 a day, are underaged.

“We are seeing modern-day slavery grow by the day,” says Chiroma from the Borno Community Coalition. “People are desperate for a place to stay and to earn money, no matter how [little], and they’ll accept anything just to feed themselves and put a roof over their heads.”

Cross-border trafficking has also increased. Since the camps closed, a number of displaced persons have been offered jobs in neighbouring Niger by strangers who sometimes demand a part of any future earnings. In 2020 already, the United Nations warned in a report that displaced persons who left Nigeria to work in Niger often became victims of labour exploitation and labour trafficking.

“Just as they were about to close the camp, one man came and spoke to me about going to Niger to work on a farmland, but I told him I wasn’t interested,” says Aliyu Jibrin, who is in his forties. He used to live in the closed Teacher’s Village camp. “I know about four children – all of them boys – who followed him to Niger.”

Risk of starvation

At the moment, the entire north-eastern region of Nigeria is headed towards famine as a result of extreme weather events and the Boko Haram insurgency, which has chased farmers away from their farmlands. The World Food Programme estimates that 4.4 million people are currently at risk of starvation.

The conflict in Ukraine has also made food prices soar across Nigeria and exposed the country’s chronic dependence on food imports. In Borno, the current price of millet, one of the most consumed cereals in northern Nigeria, isover 70 per cent higher than its average price in the last five years.

The government believes the time to drastically raise food production in the state is now.

"We’re currently in the season for planting of very important crops like millet and groundnut and we need these IDPs to return home and get to the farms,” says Usman Mohammed, an official at Borno State’s agriculture ministry. “If we don’t get people to the farms, hundreds of thousands of people will die of starvation.”

Despite mounting opposition to its decision to shut down the camps, the state government has held steadfast and it is only a matter of time before the remaining six camps located just outside Maiduguri close.

For the residents of these camps, the decision has added a new layer of uncertainty to an already difficult situation. “For many years at the Teacher’s Village camp, I went to bed at night very sure that I’ll wake up in the morning and still find myself in a shelter,” says Khadija Usman. “Right now, I can’t say that I’m sure I’ll have somewhere to sleep tomorrow.”