MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: A woman stands between structures of Yawuri informal camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. The makeshift camp hosts nearly 2,000 people internally displaced by a decade-long jihadist insurgency in northeast Nigeria. – AFP

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: “Boko Haram was in my house!” three-year-old Aisha said with a frown, sat next to her mother Hadiza in a run-down camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri. The little girl froze with fear on seeing the jihadists last month before her mother grabbed her and ran. It wasn’t even the first time 25-year-old Hadiza fled her hometown of Dikwa to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. She had already escaped years ago after a Boko Haram attack, joining the more than two million people forced to flee their homes, often more than once, by Nigeria’s grinding conflict.

“I never want to go back,” said Amina, a 22-year-old woman also from Dikwa. She and Hadiza had only recently returned to the town, where they farm beans and other vegetables, after being told it was safe. But on March 2, heavily armed fighters of the jihadist group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) overran Dikwa’s fortifications.

For little Aisha, who wears a bright pink veil, rivals ISWAP and Boko Haram are the same. Both groups kill, kidnap and rape, forcing people to live in tents far away from their homes. Many of the displaced lack access to the most basic necessities. At Yawuri, a makeshift camp outside Maiduguri home to nearly 2,000 people, “there is no food. Sometimes no food for 24 hours,” said a 50-year-old woman, Balu Modu, explaining their daily diet consists of ground millet and green leaves. Outside of Maiduguri, many more live in congested camps in areas that aid workers struggle to reach as they themselves are targeted by the insurgents.

In an effort to help people leave camps and rebuild their lives, Borno state governor Babagana Umara Zulum in 2018 initiated a policy of “voluntary return, resettlement and reintegration” of IDPs to their “homelands”. The government has already returned thousands of people and hopes to resettle “at least 50 percent of IDPs by 2022 and no IDP camps by 2026,” according to an official document seen by AFP. But many doubt whether it is safe for people to return home.

‘Pushing them to die’
Speaking on condition of anonymity, three senior aid workers with international organizations in the country said that they did not believe appropriate conditions for returns were currently in place. Despite security measures, insurgents have launched repeated assaults on a dozen fortified towns where people had returned. “They’re forcing people to towns they have shown they cannot protect,” said one aid worker. “It’s insane. They are literally pushing them to die.” Late last year, “4,000 people were returned to Baga in big convoys. But the insurgents are there so people are coming back,” a second aid worker said.

The aid staff add that the inability to farm is just as serious a problem as the threat of attacks. Many locations chosen for returns are areas where insurgents harass civilians, stealing crops and other belongings and kidnapping women working in the fields.

And if people can’t farm, they will have to rely on handouts, which are limited in areas that NGOs cannot safely reach. “They say it’s voluntary (the returns) but is it? How dignified is it?” asked a third aid worker. “They are pushing people to areas we don’t have access to,” she said.

Borno state official Mairo Mandara insisted that government policy was to provide returnees food for three months and cash. “We can give you rent for one year, about 80,000-120,000 naira (177 – 266 euros) and you look for a house in Maiduguri, but you have to work to earn a living.”

Displaced people also had the option of remaining in camps, Mandara said-although these were going to be “consolidated”. The government denies claims that people are being forced to areas that are unsafe. IDPs return to the safest towns closest to their homes only “where it is secure” said Mandara. “We never return anyone until we get military clearance.”

Worsening security
The government’s initial plan was to close camps in Maiduguri by May, but the timeline is being reviewed as security worsens across the region. “People continue to arrive to Maiduguri, and not in small numbers-we’re talking groups of up to 3,000 people,” said the second aid worker.

Governor Zulum urged newly appointed military chiefs “to devise new and offensive strategies” as “a matter of tactical necessity”. “Unless the insurgency is totally and absolutely subdued,” he said, “all efforts at improving the socio-economic status of our people may be futile.” Even in Maiduguri, residents are starting to feel more and more unsafe. At Yawuri camp, a community leader says he is “seriously afraid”.

“At night, we can see Boko Haram in the bushes with their torchlights,” said the 50-year-old father of 11 children. At a makeshift shop nearby, Laminu Mustafa sells beans and millet. He’s been in the camp for four-and-a-half years. “I want to go back but there’s no security,” says the 27-year-old, who knows all too well that in rural areas, jihadists steal from civilians at best and kill them at worst. “If we go back to our village, Boko Haram will come.” – AFP