For Boko Haram victims, charity begins at home

Obi Anyadike

Editor-at-Large and Africa Editor

Mohammed Abubaker is angry. Ten months ago, he was a businessman with a comfortable life in Nigeria’s northeastern border town of Gwoza. Now he’s homeless, his life turned upside down by the Boko Haram insurgency, and he doesn’t even own the clothes he wears.

Abubaker, 35, fled Gwoza for Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, 135 kms northwest. In the fear and confusion of Boko Haram’s sudden arrival in his hometown, shooting at everyone they met, he had just enough time to gather his family and run. He doesn't know if his parents and in-laws are still alive.

“I didn’t take anything out of the house; we fled with just the clothes on our backs. We left everything,” said Abubaker. To add insult to injury, he thinks Boko Haram probably torched his shop – he saw other stores burning as he ran.

Now he and his family of five live in one room in a compound owned by a wealthy Gwoza businessman, a distant relative, who is also helping some 50 other people made homeless by the conflict. “He assists anybody, so long as you are not a thief or Boko Haram,” said Abubaker.

But his personal change of fortunes weighs on his mind. “Every day I wake up thinking how I can find food for the children, or get them back into school,” he said. He has friends in town who allow him to take a couple of fares on their motorized tricycle taxis, known as “keke”, now and then; sometimes he finds the odd laboring job. 

“But even the mats we walk on in the room, the clothes we’re putting on - they are all contributions from relatives and friends,” said Abubaker. “I find it very difficult to eat. I just eat for the sake of eating. I’m so disturbed by what has happened.” 

More than 90 percent of the official figure of nearly one million displaced in the northeast live in communities rather than the official centres administered by the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA). It’s a reflection of traditions of hospitality and self-reliance that endure in Nigerian society, but which will come under increasing strain the longer the crisis lasts.

The official centres are usually set up in schools and other government buildings, but are overcrowded and lack toilets and washing facilities. Abubaker said he had registered at one of the 10 centres in Maiduguri, but the poor sanitation put him off. “I’m afraid of an epidemic,” he said.

NEMA’s sternest test

NEMA has never had to cope with an emergency as big and complex as the crisis in the northeast. Aid workers IRIN spoke to said NEMA is taking responsibility, but is willing to engage with partners and is keen to learn - and to try to address deficiencies.

It has quickly responded to allegations made of rape and trafficking in some of the centres by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), based in southern Nigeria, announcing an investigation panel that will involve ICIR representatives.

Even the mats we walk on in the room, the clothes we're putting on - they are all contributions from relatives and friends.

More broadly, how to handle the displaced living outside the centres presents a unique set of challenges, which the humanitarian community in general has been slow to address. Management of the centres is relatively straight forward, but interventions to support the needs of those taken in by extended families - who themselves might be vulnerable - is far more complex.

“You need to provide assistance to the hosts as well. You might need to try and expand the existing structure where the displaced are staying, for example by adding a room to the house,” said Stephanie Daviot, displacement matrix tracking project officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“These types of programmes require a lot of analysis and presence on the ground. They need to be adapted to the context of Nigeria,” she added.

Internally displaced people (IDPs) living in centres have traditionally been perceived by humanitarians to be poorer and therefore in greater need than those settled with relatives in the community. But growing research challenges the notion that IDPs living outside the centres are economically better off, and points to the urgent need to help host families as well. 

Families in need

Grema Mustapha, 65, fled Kemla, 15 kms from Maiduguri, three months ago. Although Boko Haram was active in the area, the tipping point was when a Nigerian air force jet dropped a bomb on his village. A few days later, Boko Haram arrived and gathered the villagers, ostensibly to preach. 

But it was a “trick”, said Mustapha. Instead of taking political advantage of the military’s mistake, Boko Haram militants opened fire on the crowd. “They killed 50 people,” he said. 

Mustapha now lives with his daughter, Fatima*, in Maiduguri. But it is clear the household is struggling to cope. Fatima’s husband - who sells vegetables in the market - has also taken in IDPs related to his second wife. All told, he is responsible for 22 people – including 14 children. “We are just managing, but at least we know he’s safe,” Fatima said.

NEMA is re-thinking its approach. It is developing a “best practice” strategy, in conjunction with IOM, “on how to access this group of [community-based] IDPs and also integrate the hosts in the assistance plan”, said Daniel Gambo, NEMA’s director of training. “We aim to identify and reach out to them through the ward heads in the communities,” who are aware of the arrival of each new displaced family.

Some assistance is reaching the IDPs in the communities, “but not as much as is required”, acknowledged Gambo. 

Abubaker doesn’t know who to blame for his predicament. He is frustrated by what he feels is insufficient support from the authorities for what he has become: an indefinite squatter in another man’s property. He is exasperated Boko Haram was able to march into Gwoza despite the tip-offs he says the military had received. 

Abubaker hopes that the regional military intervention involving Chad, Cameroon and Niger - launched last month - will perform better than the Nigerian security forces have managed thus far. However, he won’t risk his family’s safety by returning to Gwoza just now.

“We will go back when the time is right,” he said.

*Not her real name

 oa/ha