This piece flows from an insightful documentary on the activities of Boko Haram by the Hausa Service of the Voice Of America, VOA as narrated by David Oyelowo. Pembi David-Stephen captured the narratives for LEADERSHIP Sunday .
Someday, tranquillity will return to Borno State; the ordinary rhythms of life would return, as would the everyday bustle of the city. But, for now, a restless tension lurks beneath the surface. Not a moment goes by without the threat of violence, without the fear that militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, might unleash another attack.
It is a grim reminder of a conflict still to be resolved, a country’s struggle with extremism and unfinished journey from evil. Yet, there are Nigerians who have stood up to the terror, with determination to go forward and the resilience to forge a new future for their nation.
Each morning, in the town of Chibok, Rebecca Solomon, goes about her chores. But what may have been a simple life for her became a nightmare on April 14, 2014. That evening, Rebecca’s daughter, Deborah, was staying over in a government school dormitory, preparing to take the exam the next day. The exams never took place.
“We spent the night in the farm and, the next morning, when we returned, we were told that the female students were not there. We went there to find out, but there was no one there.”
Deborah is one of the kidnapped Chibok girls believed to be held in a remote forest hide-out.
“She does everything for me; the cooking, washing, everything,” continued her mother. “Now, she has been taken away from me and I can hardly wash my clothes. I am so sad,” Rebecca said.
It’s been 1, 000 days since Rebecca has seen her daughter.
Deborah’s abduction, along with over 200 other girls exposed to the raw ruthlessness of the Boko Haram, as well as the dysfunction of Nigeria’s government and military. It has caused many Nigerians to take action on their own.
Bukki Shonibare, had planned a career as a human resources consultant in Abuja.
“But then, April 14, 2014 happened and that opened me up to another life entirely,” She said.
Bukky, became a front-line campaigner for the return of the girls.
Aided by the social media, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign began a world-wide condemnation of Boko Haram.
“Like millions of people around the globe, my husband and I were absolutely outraged and heart-broken over the kidnap of over 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night,” said former First Lady of the USA, Mitchelle Obama.
Leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, took advantage of the group’s notoriety and threatened to convert the girls to Islam, marry them off to his commanders or sell them off to slavery.
For Bukky, it was personal.
“I was once that girl. Even though I‘ve not been kidnapped before, I have been sexually molested and I know what it means to want to do something, to have to stay alive.
With the international community watching, the Nigerian government issued promises to save the girls, but the lack of swift action angered parents.
“If the government cannot take action we are asking for the United Nations to come in and help us. If the UN rejects us, we don’t just know what to do,” said one of the fathers of the abducted girls.
Within two weeks of the kidnapping, Sonibare had made up her mind to stay on the frontlines and keep protesting, until the girls came home.
“We were once worried that some parents had not seen their children for 15 whole days. Then, we had to commemorate 30 days. We could not live with that reality,” said Bukky.
In truth, the reality was worse, Sonibare had not imagined that the 30 days would stretch into more than three years.
Nigeria, rich in oil and natural gas, a nation seeking to present itself as the image of modern Africa, but far from united.
According to head of station, African Programme, Chatham House, Elizabeth Donnelly, Nigeria is not an easy country to govern, with her 450-plus ethnic groups and utter diversity.
Cutting the North off from the oil-rich South are religious and cultural fault lines which date back to the country’s colonial past. In the predominantly rural and Muslim North-east, these lines are fragile.
Although, Nigeria collects billions of dollars from her oil proceeds annually, more than 60 per cent of Nigerians live in poverty, many on less than $2 dollars a day. In the North-east, the poverty rate is even higher.
“Speaking about North-eastern Nigeria, that is really one of the most marginalised and impoverished regions of the country. This is the region with one of the lowest literacy and highest infant mortality rates in the country. The nature of governance was generally poor to begin with and people were beginning to get frustrated with the growing levels of inequality in these communities,” said Oge Onubogu.
Poverty and inequality, along with neglect by those with political power helped sire a rebellious brand of Islam in the region. Its leaders took as their model, one of the world’s most brutal and dogmatic Islamist movements: the Taliban.
According to Jacon Zenn, fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs, the Jamestown Foundation & Professor at Georgetown University, it was at this time, in 2003, that some members of this sect moved to the borderlands of Nigeria and Niger, in order to create a pure breed of Muslims, according to the model of the Taliban of Pakistan.”
Originally, the group was peaceful and its message inclusive. Their approach, according to Fatima Akilu, was based on accepting people who were left out by the system of governance. “They came across as more inclusive, doing Allah’s will, an alternative society interested in being just and good. That appealed to thousands of people especially for people who felt left out.”
But, eventually, this alternative society split. The leader of its dominant faction wanted a clean, pure form of Islam and an outright insurrection against the government. His name was Mohammed Yusuf.
Yusuf, was intelligent and charismatic, but bent on confrontation with the government. People began calling his movement ‘Boko Haram’ which is literally, ‘Western education is forbidden’.
Although, the group disavowed the name and still does, it captures the group’s essential belief. He preached that Western values were undermining Islam and he called for a ‘holy’ war.
“It is difficult for the West to understand ‘jihad’, in part, because our modern society is, by its own nature, essentially, secular. We have come to terms that religion is not the most reasonable pathway to organise modern society, whereas those who are pushing for ‘jihad’ are saying that religion is the correct way to shape a righteous Muslim society, a land of faithful Muslims, invariably. So, those two positions are going to be extremely difficult to reconcile,” said Dr Olufemi Vaughan, Alfred Sargent Lee & Mary Ames Lee, Professor of African Studies, Amherst College.
Yusuf’s base in Maiduguri, Borno State, gathered more faithful and, as his sermons encouraged violence, tensions with local authorities grew.
Suddenly, in 2009, Boko Haram exploded into Nigeria’s wider consciousness.
That June, police clashed with some of Yusuf’s followers on their way to a funeral, wounding more than a dozen. Yusuf denounced the government’s actions and, a few weeks later, his followers struck back.
With guns and grenades, they attacked several police stations in parts of the country, with the heaviest assault in Maiduguri.
After four days of fighting, the police’s response was merciless. They rounded up Boko Haram suspects, killing them in the streets. They destroyed Yusuf’s mosque, then they captured him for interrogation. Hours later, his body was in the street. He had been shot multiple times.
“He became the main source of Boko Haram and, till today, all factions of Boko Haram consider him their inspiration,” pointed out Zenn.
More than 1000 died in four days of fighting. Afterward, Boko Haram disappeared. When they returned a year later, it was with more weapons and a new leader, a bombastic and more violent deputy of Yusuf: Abubakar Shkau.
He proclaimed all-out war.
“Their argument was very simple; ‘you have come at us, killed many of us, you feel you’ve decimated our community. We will fight back and we’ll bring Jihad to you,” said Vaughan of the group’s new mentality.
For the next four years, the Boko Haram put the Nigerian military and civilian security on their heels.
“Within that period, the militancy and the insurgency of the group grew stronger,” Vaughan continued. “It was in this context that Boko Haram was able to acquire land, territory, with limited Nigerian response.”
Boko Haram expanded its domain, but Maiduguri remained ‘Ground Zero’.
The city of more than half a million had a teaching hospital and a university.
“Before the insurgency, Maiduguri was a very quiet, peaceful town,” said Fati Abubakar, who lived in the town at the time the group began its assault in 2010.
“We were a diverse community before Boko Haram.”
Within months, she became a witness to the wholesome destruction of her home town.
“I watched everything happen; from the tensions, bomb blasts, piling corpses.”
People soon fled, Fati and her family left late in 2012.
“At the time, they were killing boys and kidnaping girls. My parents were not comfortable with that. We moved to Abuja and I lived there for six months, before I went to London to study.
Fati, completed her studies in London, writing a dissertation on the effects of war on the psychological health of refugees. She found an outlet in the loss she felt as a refugee herself.
“I took up photography around that time, as I was struggling to cope with all that was happening around Maiduguri. I was interested in doing visual story-telling and still have a huge impact on the community.”
Fati returned to Maiduguri in 2015.
“When I returned, people had become desensitised. It was like a transformation. They didn’t feel anything; they just kept going. That was what got my attention.”
Fati, imagined another side of the place she called home; a humane side she wanted to show the world, an opposite of the images of war flooding the news and from the deluded propaganda of Boko Haram.
In its videos, the leader of the group, Shekau, glorified the violence in the name of Islam, but, inside his secret caliphate, the story was starkly different.
Boko Haram brutalised fellow Muslims, beating and killing them at will to maintain control and religious piety.
Graphic evidence of the group’s conduct surfaced in 2016 when a Voice of America journalist obtained an authenticated 18-hour video shot by Boko Haram’s own photographers.
The footage is an unflinching record exposing how one of the world’s deadliest extremist movements operates behind the scenes; daily dose of terror. A public tribunal designed to force intimidation and fear, villagers were herded together and disciplined.
For small sins, offenders were flogged, sometimes, by their peers.
But for offences like selling drugs, the sentence was ultimate. No pleading for the accused. Just a bullet in the heart or in the head.
“When Boko Haram first became violent, the attacks were on the Nigerian state; prisons, hospitals, police stations etc. As time went on, the group became more aggrieved. Its targets widened and widened, until now, when it seems to be anybody,” said Donnelly.
In their encampment, Boko Haram soldiers, many mere boys, trained for warfare, played like children.
“The media characterises Boko Haram as mad men, psychopaths, crazy people, but what we can see in the footage is clear that, in many respects, they go round their daily business just like kids in other parts of the world.
“We also see them receiving pep talks before battle. This shows that ideology plays a very important role in motivating them to engage in acts of killing and, after a period, these lads become Boko Haram fighters ready to sacrifice their lives,” said Zenn.
It is impossible to know how many Nigerian boys have been conscripted into Boko Haram. Likely, several thousands. The penalty for refusal is severe.
Danladi, was abducted when he was 12, but found a way out.
Shown the footage, he recognised commanders and recalled how boys were forced to fight.
“If you refuse to carry a gun, the Boko Haram will tell you to lie down. They will cut off your head and put it on your chest or on your back.
“In some cases, they would cut the chest open and get the heart out. That was how they forced us to carry guns.”
Shekau, made it clear that the Boko Haram would cleanse Nigeria and would do away with anyone who did not support its brand of Islam, men or women, young or old, Christian or Muslim.
The idea that a Muslim would get killed or caught up in a Boko Haram attack is really not something which the Shekau faction worries about.
However, 2015 marked a shift in the war. The Nigerian army, aided by military from neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger, began reclaiming towns and territories once under Boko Haram’s control.
The momentum quickened under a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected that year.
But the government’s success also brought about disturbing allegations of human rights abuses, excesses by the army and vigilantes in their zeal to defeat Boko Haram.
Amnesty International cited thousands of summary executions, arbitrary arrests and instances of torture by the Nigerian forces; war crime, the group said, went unpunished.
In the words of Ambassador Hassan M. Hassan, deputy chief of Mission, Nigerian Embassy, Washington D.C. : “The Nigerian government, somehow, has some doubt about what Amnesty International is doing, it has set up a task force to look into the allegations. But you have to take into account the composition of the members of the panel. They are not people that can be manipulated and they are judges of repute. We wait and see the results.”
As the government ramped up its pursuit of Boko Haram, Shekau changed his strategy too, by officially aligning with the Islamic State (ISIS) the jihadi group waging war in Iraq and Syria.
Boko Haram could claim affiliation to the largest Jihadi group in the world and it began using Islamic State templates in its social media postings, but it was an insurgency on the run.
t least three times, the Nigerian military claimed Shekau had been killed, each time, he survived, reappearing like a ghost in new videos. He was holed up in a remote hide-out, somewhere deep in the Northeast bush, the Sambisa Forest, a jungle of scattered trees spread across five states. A portion was set aside as a game reserve but its once abandoned wildlife has been depleted by war.
Now, Sambisa is Boko Haram territory, a no-go-area for anyone.
In a village nearby, Aisha Bakare Gombe, a huntress, lives with her family.
In her part-time job as a seamstress, she works with hands and feet, at peace, away from the violence in the country side. But the rhythm of the sewing machine is only one facet of her world.
Aisha knows the Sambisa well. It was there that, as a young girl, she was initiated into the long family tradition. “My parents and their parents before them were hunters. I never wanted our traditional practice to be lost.”
Boko Haram raided her village thrice before the people were allowed to fight back. Now, instead of hunting baboons and birds, Aisha goes after a different prey. She is a part of a group of hunters who go out in search of insurgents, ready to fight if the situation arises.
“Honestly, Boko Haram fighters are cruel and inhuman. Only a Boko Haram could catch someone alive and behead him. Only a Boko Haram could catch a pregnant woman and remove the baby prematurely and throw it away. Only a Boko Haram could break the neck of a new-born or hold children by their necks and throw them into the river.”
At the start of their patrol, the hunters take part in a spiritual exercise. They believe it would protect them against enemy bullets and other dangers in the forest.
“We drink some, rub others and smoke some. It is a ritual we engage in before we go out. We are used to being in the bush, so nothing scares us there.”
Aisha and her cohorts are not only in search of Boko Haram but captives fleeing from Boko Haram camps. Their stories can be heat-breaking.
“We left a woman in Lassa town, she was abducted along with six children. After they were held for months, God helped them and they eventually escaped. She carried one on her back while the other one on her shoulder.” Asha’s effort in fighting Boko Haram earned her the respect of fellow villages. They call her the Queen Hunter.
“I want the world to know that our work is about rescuing people and saving lives. We want to ensure peace and stability in our country. Peace is what I pray for Nigeria.”
They appear in seemingly endless trends, fleeing terror, bring with them only what they can carry, day and night. They have lost their homes, their farms, their livestock and in worst cases, their children. And for now, they have no hope of returning.
The world knows Boko Haram mostly through reports of bombings, kidnappings and suicide attacks, but the insurgency has also made millions of Nigerians homeless. There are devastations in village after village.
Hamman Hayatu Mbombo, has survived two Boko Haram attacks. The first time, they took his crops, they second time they burnt his farm to the ground.
“When we were chased out in 2013 that led to everything wasting away. In the 2015 season, the crops I planted grew fine, but still could not harvest anything. Since then, I haven’t cultivated this land. Being unable to grow crops not only affects me, but all the farmers around here. It has jeopardised our livelihood.”
Farmers are not the only ones suffering from Boko Hiram’s plundering, herders narrowly escape the Boko Haram surprise attacks and they are aware that next time, they may not be so lucky.
“Even if you have 200 cattle, they will take everything away in one day. If you try to resist them, the gun comes out,” explained some herders.
“We are armless and harmless, we cannot get back the stolen cattle and they attacks us at will. We are lucky to escape unhurt but next time, we may not be so lucky.”
According to Nigel Timmins, humanitarian director, Oxfam International: “The farmers have seeds and still have some of the tools, what they don’t have is the confidence to get back to their lands. The key issue is security.”
Although the Nigerian military has recaptured and garrison some larger towns, the north east’s bread basket reminds a free fire zone. Much of the food production infrastructure-granaries, markets, farms, are in ruin. Rebuilding it will take months, if not years.
Northeast Nigeria borders Lake Chad, a vast inland sea, supplying water to about 70 million people in four countries. Fishing forms an integral part of the household economies in the region. But since the insurgence, Bako Haram has controlled fishing by demanding a tax from people plying their trade. As a result, many fisherman had fled, choking off the once thriving industry. Most are reluctant to talk openly about the insurgents, fearing reprisals.
“Definitely, Boko Haram has brought our trade to its knees completely. If you look at the Lake, all the business activities are second to fishing. When fishing activities are at their highest, which is during the hot season, we load between 50-70 trucks with fish every day, but now we can’t load a single truck,” lamented one of the fishermen.
Deprived of their livelihoods, farmers, herders and fishermen along with their families, wind up in the camps for the displaced that have sprang up across the northeast. Official estimate put the numbers of those who were forced to live their homes at two million or more. For years, the lack of security kept many humanitarian agencies from entering the region. Now that more military are present, they are returning, the crisis is much worse than they predicted.
According to Oge Onubogu, senior programme officer for Africa Programmes, United States Institute of Peace, “a lot of humanitarian aid workers did not realise the situation was that bad. Some have described it as famine-like condition. Unfortunately, if it had been addressed sooner, it wouldn’t have gotten to the extent that it is now.”
According to the United Nations, more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid was needed to help 8.5 million people in the northeast and the Lake Chad region in 2017. Most of it, for food.
Speaking on the effect on children, Challiss McDonough, senior communications officer of Global Issues, World Food Programme, said, “Children are particularly vulnerable. Because their bodies are growing, their minds are growing and developing and if they don’t have the nutrient that they need in the first two years of life, that has lifelong consequences.”
Without continued aid or rebound in agriculture, Nigerians may be on the edge of farmine for years to come. The emotional and physiological damage of the war has great consequence and may pose the most difficult challenge of Nigeria’s recovery. After eight years of war, the stories of the inhabitants of the region have become all too common.
Dr Fatima Akilu, executive director of NEEM Foundation, said, “When coming out of insurgency, it is one thing to rebuild homes and to rebuild hospitals and to rebuild schools. The most important thing is to rebuild people.”
Rebuilding the lives of Boko Haram victims is only part of the process. Another challenge is finding alternatives for those who perpetrated the violence. Dr Akilu, who started an early de-radicalisation in the country, explained that there is a need to look at “their ideology since it was what they used to recruit and also look at their mental state.”
Under de-radicalisation, the Boko Haram militants are classified as repentant fighters.
According to Idayat Hassan, director, Centre for Democracy and Development, West Africa, “the positive for de-radicalisation is there, are more and more of the ex-combatants actually disengaging. Disengagement is key.”
After eight years of conflict, some twenty thousand dead and millions of lives disrupted, how does the nation move forward?
Dr Akilu said, “We should have justice, we should have inclusion. People must be part of the state, there must be many platforms and spaces for youth to self actualise.”
In a country so rich in diversity-tribal, cultural, language, religion, a core humanity survives.