Boko Haram displaced feel forgotten amid Nigeria election fever

Idriss Abdullahi was once a successful businessman and a husband to four wives, until the day he fled his home when Boko Haram insurgents advanced across northeastern Nigeria.

Five years on he lives beside dull farmland in a tented camp in Malkohi village, near the Adamawa state capital Yola, and tries to make a living selling firewood.

But the earnings are so meagre he has had to divorce one of his wives.

“Even an animal lives better than me,” he told AFP in the camp he shares with 2 800 of his neighbours from the Borno state town of Gwoza, which the insurgents sacked in 2014.

More than 27 000 people have been killed since the Boko Haram conflict began in 2009 and some 1.8-million others are still displaced.

READ MORE: Winning back trust in Nigeria’s rescheduled elections

President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015 on a pledge to end the insurgency, which at its peak saw the Islamists control an area the size of Belgium.

In Abdullahi’s hometown, the wild-eyed leader of the jihadists, Abubakar Shekau, declared an Islamic caliphate.

An offensive involving Nigerian troops and foreign mercenaries pushed them back. But in recent months there have been signs of a resurgence.

Despite that, residents of Malkohi say they’re ready to support Buhari at Saturday’s rescheduled vote — even if they can’t return to Gwoza to do so.

“It’s not that we actually love him,” Abdullahi said of the president. “It’s that he saved our lives from Boko Haram.”

‘Technically defeated’

Shortly after taking office, Buhari declared Boko Haram “technically defeated”, apparently fulfilling the promise that was seen as a key to his victory.

But in February last year, the group seized 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi, in an echo of the 2014 abduction of more than 200 from Chibok that brought world attention to the conflict.

Malkohi itself hasn’t been spared; the group in 2015 bombed a government-organised camp across the road from the informal settlement where the former Gwoza residents stay.

An Islamic State-allied faction has in recent months overrun military bases, seizing equipment and weapons, and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.

Nigeria’s election commission has been forced to set up special measures for them to vote: in Borno, some 400 000 displaced people will vote at 10 centres.

READ MORE: What Goodluck Jonathan taught me about postponing elections in Nigeria

Several others have been created in Adamawa.

The main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, has seized on the insecurity and claimed Buhari has failed in his core duty of keeping Nigerians safe.

But from their homes in Adamawa — Abubakar’s home state — Malkohi residents say they feel more forgotten than under attack.

“Up to now, hospitals have not been provided. Before, [aid groups] gave us drugs, but now we don’t receive any,” said Fanta Ali, a housewife at the camp.

Searching for family 

The Malkohi camp today is made up of rows of shacks separated by dirt paths, on which barefoot children and turkeys strut.

The makeshift homes are constructed from tarpaulin donated by aid agencies who also built a water tower for the settlement.

Many Malkohi residents were prosperous in Gwoza but without money to start businesses they now rely on manual labour to get by.

“Seriously, I’m suffering,” said Abdulrahman Hassen, once a merchant and chair of a professional association who now farms for a living.

Returning to Gwoza, where Boko Haram remains strong, is still a distant prospect. Helping people go home will be on the next president’s to-do list.

The displaced say they’re made to feel like outsiders in Adamawa, and local residents call them thieves for farming the land around the camp.

Gwoza was badly damaged when it was retaken in 2015, and cellphone reception is so weak residents climb trees to get a signal, said Yunussa Takda, a youth leader in Malkohi.

Meanwhile, the town’s outlying villages are still unsafe.

“Under Buhari, we’ve seen that a lot of our villages that have been taken by Boko Haram haven’t been recovered,” he said. “Maybe if he’s given a second chance, we can go home.”

READ MORE: As Nigeria votes, Buhari moves from messiah to maligned

Umaru Ibrahim Bakare lost track of his pregnant wife and then three-year-old daughter in the chaos of Boko Haram’s initial attack on the town, and has been looking for them ever since.

He made an unsuccessful trip to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, aiming to find his family.

He remains hopeful after the Red Cross connected a friend with three children he’d lost when fleeing Boko Haram.

“We must vote Muhammadu Buhari to finish what he’s started and defeat the insurgency,” he said.

Chris Stein
Chris Stein
@AFP journalist covering Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and the African Union.
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