- The government insists it is resettling the displaced people for their good, but so far it hasn’t seemed that way. For many of the returnees, almost everything that could go wrong has.
When Gambo Muhammad, 72, left his hometown of Sidiya Kari in Kala Balge, Northeast Nigeria, he felt he had no other choice. Rampaging terrorists were hunting them ‘like rabbits,’ he recalls, especially men like him. Six years later, after finally settling in a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the state capital, Maiduguri, he would again have to leave. He would again feel he had no choice. This time, it would not exactly be the terrorists’ fault.
Borno State, the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency, notably hosts about half of the approximately 3.2 million displaced people across Nigeria. Over 305,000 of the IDPs are crammed in the Maiduguri metropolis, which has recently been the safest part of the war-torn state. The crisis has attracted interest from all over the world and humanitarian workers swarm the town. But there’s something about this arrangement that political leaders find uncomfortable.
The urge to shut down displacement camps in Borno is not new. Former state governor Kashim Shettima had said in 2016 that, by the following year, all the camps would be closed. But this plan was later put on hold due to lingering insecurity.
Less than a year after he took over as governor, Babagana Zulum keyed into the same gospel, encouraging the prioritisation of resettlement houses over IDP camps. At first, the deadline for the closure of camps within Maiduguri was set as May 2021, then it was moved to December. Some of the government-run camps have indeed been closed, with many of the occupants resettled. A few others remain open, but it is uncertain how long this will remain so.
There have been concerns from international aid and advocacy organisations such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch. But the authorities persist, citing various reasons for their devotion to resettlement: the prevalence of early child marriage, prostitution, drug abuse, and thuggery at the camps; loss of dignity; growing aid dependency and ‘entitlement complex’ among IDPs; the need to build resilience; and the return of ‘relative peace’ to various communities.
At a time of endless hostilities, resettlement is seen as the closest thing to life before the insurgency. The government has often promised the resettlers and returnees safety, support, and sources of income. But the programme’s implementation is far from perfect.
According to Gambo, Zulum visited Farm Centre (Gidan Taki) IDP camp one Friday in 2021 and announced after the Jum’at prayer that the government no longer wanted people staying at the place. He says they were given ₦30,000 to convey their properties to the Shuwari resettlement site in neighbouring Jere Local Government Area (LGA). Buildings had been constructed but they were not enough. Others had to set up tents using recycled tarpaulin and wood, giving the environment the semblance of a typical displacement camp.
Hunger, hunger everywhere
“At Gidan Taki [camp], we got food, even if it was small, from time to time. But, since we came here, who has given us food? He [the governor] promised he would give us food but we still have not seen anything. We haven’t seen the man himself, much less food,” says Gambo. “Hunger remains our biggest problem. We sleep without food. Sometimes, we spend up to two days without eating.”
Often grappling with the loss of livelihoods and lack of adequate humanitarian assistance, many IDPs in Northeast Nigeria have gotten used to not having enough to eat. But those in some resettled communities are having it much worse.
This is because many IDPs in the state capital still receive support from aid organisations and members of the host community. They are hired to work on farms and paid daily wages. They engage in other manual labour. Those who run businesses such as tailoring and cap-knitting have access to a broader clientele rich enough to patronise them. In the resettled communities, however, these opportunities are absent.
The government imagines that returnees would roll their sleeves, get to work on allotted farms, and become financially independent. But this is not practical in many places due to the risk of getting killed or abducted. There’s also the fact that farmlands are just not available — especially since those resettled are merely taken to other garrison towns in their LGAs, not their original rural communities which are still unsafe. Much like in Maiduguri, they are still strangers. “We can’t get farmlands because this isn’t our home,” explains Gidew Kamsulum, 37. “We are not indigenes.”
Sixty-something-year-old Gujja Ibrahim manages to be cheerful despite her troubles and even laughs as she talks about her experience with increasing hunger. It’s perhaps her way of staying strong mentally for the ambitious task of staying alive. Gujja was one of the IDPs moved to the Shuwari site last August.
At Gidan Taki, she had a small okra farm. After the crop’s season, she offered her services to other farm owners who either paid cash or rewarded her with grains. She was not making much but at least she was independent. And even though she was not registered at the camp, officials of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) still gave her some rice and maize during distribution exercises. All that has changed since the resettlement.
The afternoon in late January when HumAngle met her, Gujja had just returned from the forest where she had gone to get firewood. It’s a daily ritual, she says; “If I am sick, people will take care of me, but now I have to go and work. This is the situation we’re in now.” She understands she has to be careful not to rely too much on other returnees since they themselves are having it rough.
Because of her old age, she is unable to travel far distances like the others to fetch firewood. So she only returns with little, which she sells for between ₦150 and ₦300. This is what sustains her and her six-year-old granddaughter. “I buy some maize flour and, if the money is sufficient, I will buy a little dry fish and some Maggi cubes,” she says, revealing her secret. She eats only once a day, in contrast with twice at Gidan Taki. Another trick she has learnt is to reserve a portion of the meal in case her granddaughter complains of hunger before the next meal 24 hours later. Others with some money buy groundnuts worth about ₦20 for their children to keep them occupied before nighttime. Sometimes, the kids get extra food from begging.
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