Nigerian city overwhelmed by victims of Boko Haram

Although people fleeing the extremist militants were welcomed when they started arriving in 2009, they are now being blamed for problems affecting the city.

A camp for displaced people in Bama, a town in Nigeria’s Borno state that was razed by Boko Haram militants. The camp houses a little over 10,000 townspeople who either escaped or survived the seven months under Boko Haram rule. Stefan Heunis / AFP / December 8, 2016
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MAIDUGURI // Ali Bukar did not know anyone when he arrived in Maiduguri with 43 people in tow and not a coin in his pocket.

Mr Bukar was fleeing the murders of civilians by the Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, taking his wives, his sons, their wives and grandchildren with them.

They slept in a car park “until a man took pity on us”, he said.

About a million people have flooded the capital of Borno state to escape the insurgency that Boko Haram has waged since 2009.

The camps set up for the displaced are not sufficient, so many residents of Maiduguri opened their doors to these victims of conflict.

But now, years later, the refugees still cannot return to their homes, and struggling city residents are starting to blame the influx for problems in the community.

Between 70 and 90 per cent of the displaced in Maiduguri have relied on the compassion of the local people to survive.

Mr Bukar and his family have never stayed at a camp. He said a merchant welcomed them into his home and fed them for a year, but then they had to leave because the financial burden became too much.

Today the family is living in a so-called “hosting community”, one of hundreds of such private places where refugees are sheltered around the city.

“I couldn’t just sit there and watch people die of hunger, I had to help them,” said Baba Kura Al Kahi, a local businessman who heads these hosting communities. He made his fortune in real estate and turned over some of his land to the displaced in 2013.

Today many refugees are squatters on construction sites, in schools, in public housing, while thousands of others are taken in by relatives or members of their ethnic group, often Kanuri or Hausa.

Neighbours have organised aid, growing food for the most needy, bringing them clothes and sheets and cooking utensils.

But “resources are overstretched, especially with regards to water and sanitation, with regards to hospital facilities, with regards to even food security issues,” said Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno.

Still Maiduguri, after years of being under siege, has a semblance of normal life compared with the Borno’s devastated hinterland.

The city’s curfew has been pushed back four hours to 10pm. Soldiers and checkpoints are less noticeable and traders and pedestrians have returned to the city centre’s streets. The schools, which were closed for two years, reopened last month.

Over the past year, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s government has said repeatedly that Boko Haram is close to being defeated. Mr Shettima considers the battle “over” and predicts that hundreds of thousands of displaced people will have returned to their homes by May.

But Borno is the cradle of Boko Haram and they have not disappeared. Just last weekend, a suicide bombing hit Maiduguri’s busy market, killing one person and injuring 18 others. The two bombers were girls thought to be only seven or eight years old, a hallmark of the extremist group which often uses women or girls in such operations, especially in Borno.

The insurgency has ravaged the economy of the region. Unemployment is at around 35 per cent or more, according to Borno’s governor. In the streets of Maiduguri the number of beggars in rags who bang on the windshields of the cars stopped at red lights has mushroomed.

The city’s ills are now being blamed on the refugees who have flooded Maiduguri and doubled its population since the Boko Haram revolt began. The insurgency has left more than 20,000 people dead and 2.6 million displaced in northern Nigeria.

The governor says the displaced camps “are the source of many problems”, including networks for prostitution and drug trafficking.

“The residents helped as much as they could but now they are more and more critical,” said a journalist in Maiduguri who requested anonymity.

“The people are afraid of the crime and epidemics that can arise.”

Yannick Pouchalan, director of Action against Hunger in Nigeria, says “it is clear that Maiduguri cannot offer a decent life to all these people”.

Yet compared to the villages, the refugees, especially the youth, find the city has more to offer.

“If you are 15, and you can take advantage of the security, the services of a big city and have access to the internet ... you’re surely not going to go back home to your village,” Mr Pouchalan says.

* Agence France-Presse