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‘Boko Haram have branded us as infidels’: Nigeria’s struggle to rebuild communities torn apart by terrorism

By Rosie Collyer
Posted on Tuesday, 20 February 2018 16:22

With little more than a year before he steps down – and he has promised not to run for a national office in 2019 – Borno State governor Kashim Shettima wants to leave improved education and agriculture as his legacies in the state on the front line of the Nigerian government’s fightback against the Boko Haram Islamist rebels. Shettima, a member of the governing All Progressives Congress, says that Borno State will “rise again” thanks to the millions of dollars going into agriculture, construction and education.

Boko Haram is weakened but is still a threat, and launched a deadly suicide attack near the state capital, Maiduguri, in late December. More than a million people still live in camps for the internally displaced in Borno, and Shettima has set a new deadline of 29 May 2018 for the camps to close and for people to be resettled. The continued presence of Boko Haram in the Mandara Mountains, Lake Chad, and the Sambisa Forest, means that many civilians will be resettled in towns rather than their home villages. Shettima and others hope that the extra $1bn that the federal government is giving to the military for the counterinsurgency will have a significant impact on the ground in Borno in the months to come.

TAR: What is your government doing to deradicalise both Boko Haram fighters and their victims?

Kashim Shettima: The Boko Haram crisis has created 54,911 widows and 52,311 orphans. I have always said that it is in our interest to take care of these widows and orphans. If we fail to take care of them, they will become like Frankenstein monsters and wipe us off the face of the earth. Our efforts are largely geared towards education, education and education, especially towards girls’ education and gender empowerment because women and children bore the brunt of this madness. A good example of this is the partnership we have with the Dangote Foundation in which we have built over 200 houses. And we are going to give those houses to widows. All we are waiting for is the completion of the school project because we want it tied to the education of the orphans. In an African setting, the concept of an orphanage is not really acceptable. We have to make provisions for the orphans to be absorbed into the extended family system. […] And from January we are going to feed children one meal per day for every primary school pupil.

School feeding programmes have not gone well in other parts of northern Nigeria. How will you avoid the mistakes of your counterparts?

In certain instances, some governors are putting the cart before the horse […]. In cases where primary school teachers are not being paid, in situations where infrastructure is derelict, it is an exercise in futility to embark on such grandiose public projects […]. In some schools there are no toilets, in others children are sitting on the floor. So, this is why I delayed the issue of school feeding until there was adequate infrastructure.

Why is your government building more than 20 mosques in Maiduguri?

As much as religion is a thing of the private realm, we also need to drive the narrative away from negativity, the demonisation of others, and intolerance. Boko Haram have branded us as infidels and people like me as non-Muslim. So, we really want to drive the process and see to it that a much more tolerant and inclusive version of Islam, the Islam we inherited from our forefathers, is imparted to the upcoming generation. And in that spirit of inclusivity, we are not only building mosques but also churches and other places of worship that were destroyed by Boko Haram.

How important is it for you to use local talent in the rebuilding of Borno?

The beauty of local talent, which we have in abundance, is that [it]will bring […] local content and aspiration. And they drive us forward as an inspiration for us to do good. There is a group of young men who were educated in some of the best universities in the Western world who are pregnant with ideas, but they were never given the platform to actualise their dreams. So, I gave them carte blanche to do whatever they think is good, and believe me they are adding value. Go to any of the schools that those young men are supervising the construction of and you will be amazed. I want to provide first-world infrastructure in a third-world setting […].

You say that you want to launch an agricultural revolution. Who will lead it?

Abatcha Ali. I call him my in-house genius. He is dangerously brilliant […]. We are setting up the biggest greenhouse in sub-­Saharan Africa. We are investing in the whole agricultural value chain. With all sense of modesty, there is no state in Nigeria that has invested even half of what we have in agriculture. In all of Nigeria, there are fewer than 100 combine harvesters. We have 50 of them in Borno.

What is your government doing to help resettle internally displaced people (IDP)?

I am determined, regardless of the cost, to close down all the IDP camps by 29 May 2018. I set an earlier milestone that I could not reach, but I will continue setting milestones because you have to work with a target in mind. Our IDP camps are pregnant with problems such as child marriages, prostitution, drug abuse and other challenges. And this issue of entitlement complex is creeping in, with some people believing they need to be fed, clothed and taken care of without working for it. We need to restore their human dignity by taking them back to their communities, especially communities where relative peace has been re-established. It is not for the United Nations (UN) or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or anybody else to dictate to us how we should run the show. We are an independent nation, and nobody loves our people more than us.

Some international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have criticised your government’s response to the humanitarian crisis.

Our relationship with them is mainly good. The UN is doing a wonderful job […]. Among the INGOs, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] is the best, as far as I am concerned. They are not only assisting us in meeting our short-term needs, they have gone beyond that and are investing in long-term projects such as the Alambiri water project. But, there are quite a number of INGOs that are smiling their way to the bank on the back of our people. But a few bad apples should not stop us appreciating the commitment and the sacrifice of the genuine ones.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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