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Originally known for its motto ‘Home of Peace’, the agrarian state has become a grim opposite of its namesake. Terrorists seeking the establishment of Islamic rule and an end to western education have reigned terror on the state with weekly suicide bombings and abductions, plunging it into one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the century.
The terror group, Boko Haram, and its breakaway faction, Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, are responsible for most of the attacks, which left 2.3 million people – mostly women and children – displaced, while at least 35,000 people were killed in Borno and its neighbours. The United Nations says about 350,000 people may have died due to indirect consequences of the crisis.
In 2014, at the height of the insurgency, some 276 schoolgirls in the remote town of Chibok were snatched by Boko Haram, sparking worldwide outrage with the #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign that was also supported by then American First Lady Michelle Obama. To date, less than half of the girls have been set free, while many have been married off to terrorists.
Due to the inability of the Nigerian government to provide succor to the dehumanised people of Borno, over 170 local and foreign aid groups began offering humanitarian services to indigent residents of the state.
However, following an intense military offensive and a rehabilitation programme as well as an internal friction among terror groups in Borno State – which led to the murder of some top terrorist commanders – the activities of insurgents have dropped considerably in the last three years, while the conflict has now spread westwards. The Governor, Prof. Babagana Zulum, now believes the state is safe and it is time for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps to be shut completely and people to return home. Coming just months to the elections, some argue that the move is being done to score political points.
How safe is safe?
The governor seems optimistic that the state has returned to normalcy, but the evidence says otherwise. Figures obtained from the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations’ – an American think tank – shows that at least 43 attacks have been recorded in the last five and half months. About 171 civilians and soldiers have been killed within the same period, while about 400 insurgents have also been killed within the same period.
The military says about 20,000 terrorists and their relatives have surrendered in the last three years. It is expected that some of these fighters will be reintegrated into society alongside the IDPs who will be leaving the camps, but there are fears that the ex-insurgents could return to their old ways.
The Theatre Commander of Operation Hadin Kai, Major General Christopher Musa, disclosed that some ‘repentant’ sect members, who have surrendered to troops, have ulterior motives.
He said: “We have over 20,000 combatants and their families [who] have surrendered. This tells you there is something we are doing right. What we do with them after surrendering is our next focus. The expectation is that after all have surrendered, then, everything will fizzle out, but that is not the case.
“A lot of people have been thinking and also expressing mixed feelings; if at all the news is true. Of course, there are some insurgents who truly wish to surrender, but we cannot jettison the fact that some of them do have ulterior motives.”
Government bans donations
Apart from the security concerns, the process of resettlement has also been a problem. The state government claims it gave N100,000 ($242) to men and N50,000 ($121) to women to help them adjust to life outside the camps. According to the government, over N1bn ($2.4m) has been handed over to several IDPs in order to help them start life afresh.
However, some IDPs say they have yet to receive these funds despite exiting the camps. In the meantime, they are left to build mud houses and makeshift tents with the little they have. They also lack basic amenities like water, health care services and electricity, which the government says it will provide later.
Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the safety of thousands of IDPs in Borno state who are at risk of forced resettlement as the Borno state government moves to close all IDP camps within Maiduguri by 31 December 2021…
The plight of these displaced persons is also compounded by the fact that the Borno government has banned aid agencies from donating items to resettled IDPs. In a letter, which was addressed to aid agencies, Borno State thanked them for their support over the years, but said it was time for them to keep their “hands off” so people could be self-sufficient.
The letter said in part: “In furtherance of this, the Borno State government, after consultation with our communities, have decided that no partner organisation shall henceforth be allowed to distribute food and non-food items in any of our resettled communities. This applies to local, national, and international partners. Food distribution will only be allowed in IDP camps and IDPs in host communities for now”.
The governor also said development partners would need clearance from the government to ensure coordination and check duplication in all new areas they wish to distribute food and non-food items.
However, a top official of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs tells The Africa Report that the entire plan of the Borno State government is still confusing.
The official, who wished to remain anonymous, says the United Nations and its agencies reached out to the state government to understand why aid agencies were barred from donating food to IDPs who had resettled. “As guests, we cannot dictate to the government.”
He says: “We are trying to figure out and clarify what is happening before we issue any statement. At the end of the day, there are people involved and it is a very sensitive issue. We are seeking clarity and it [will] take some time, so we cannot really comment on this [now].”
‘Coerced to remain in resettled areas’
However, Amnesty International is not completely comfortable with the plan to shut IDP camps just yet.
In a statement, the global rights group said it spoke to 38 IDPs and they all expressed dissatisfaction over the development. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the safety of thousands of IDPs in Borno state who are at risk of forced resettlement as the Borno state government moves to close all IDP camps within Maiduguri by 31 December 2021 despite continued attacks by Boko Haram and ISWAP and human rights violations by the military.”
—Nigeria: Plans to close IDP camps in Maiduguri could endanger lives.
—More than 10,000 households at risk. https://t.co/rEPpRz53ad
— Amnesty International Nigeria (@AmnestyNigeria) December 16, 2021
Amnesty said the survivors expressed fear for their lives as they are being forced to leave the camps at short notice and many are coerced to remain in resettled areas despite escalating attacks.
Before leaving the IDP camps, Amnesty said the government promised to give each head of households N100,000 ($242) for foodstuffs once they are resettled. Each male and female head of household received N20,000 ($48) at the camps with the understanding that the balance would be given to them once they resettled, but this has not been done.
“We are suffering, especially the older people in our midst. You can literally see the pains and hunger in them, but there is nothing you can do. In Shuwari, the older people are really suffering. While the governor promised to give us the remaining N80,000 ($194) once we arrived in the resettled area, we have yet to receive anything from him,” an IDP reportedly told Amnesty.
A 55-year-old widow and mother of six in Agiri, Mafa LGA informed Amnesty International that the last support they got was four months ago and that they had recently been attacked by Boko Haram.
The governor has the luxury to tell aid agencies not to donate food to IDPs because he is not an IDP. He does not need aid, but the people who are dependent on [this aid] need it. A lot of the government’s donations are also diverted.
Speaking to The Africa Report, activist Aisha Yesufu, who is one of the leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls group, describes the closure of IDP camps as political and the suspension of donations as unfortunate.
Yesufu says: “The governor has the luxury to tell aid agencies not to donate food to IDPs because he is not an IDP. He does not need aid, but the people who are dependent on [this aid] need it. A lot of the government’s donations are also diverted.
“Some people were offering sex for food in the IDP camps in Borno. The governor is only doing all these things to make him look like he is in charge. Even now, the killings are still going on in Borno State. Just a week ago, some were abducted in Borno State.”
“Exploited the situation for too long”
However, an aide to the Borno State governor, who wished to remain anonymous, says the directive had nothing to do with politics, but was a painful decision taken to make the people of the state self-reliant.
He says the IDP camps have become a hotbed of criminals where drugs are sold and a lot of women do sex work.
The aide further alleges that a lot of the aid organisations are exploiting the insecurity in the state for financial gain, hence things have failed to improve. When asked if it is safe enough for IDPs to return home, he says the terrorists are no longer attacking innocent civilians, but only security agents.
He says: “We appreciate what some of the donor agencies have done over the years, but some of them have exploited the situation for too long, making money off the situation. That is why we are shutting the camps. Even the camps have become a den of criminals.
“Yes, we asked donors not to provide food items to resettled IDPs. We want those donor agencies to teach our people how to fish instead of giving them food, which is not a sustainable model for development.
“Besides, the attacks have reduced. It was Boko Haram that used to kill civilians. ISWAP fighters hardly kill civilians. They attack security agents, so we are sure our people will be safe.”
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