The Nigerian government is encouraging people in the northeast who have fled Boko Haram attacks to return to their homes, despite concerns over the safety of some of the more remote rural areas.
The army has proclaimed the jihadist insurgency “technically defeated”. Late last month it announced the re-opening of major roads in Borno State – closed for three years – linking the capital, Maiduguri, with Damboa to the southwest, Bama and Mafa in the southeast, and the eastern town of Gamboru Ngala.
“The roads are safe and those who left can return,” army chief-of-staff, General Buratai Tukur, was quoted as saying.
At least 1.9 million Nigerians have been displaced by the six years of violence. As the military tide turns in the government’s favour, people are already returning to their communities, especially in more secure Adamawa State, to the south of Borno.
But three quarters of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in Maiduguri, having fled an insurgency that at one stage held most of the districts, known as LGAs (Local Government Areas), in the state.
More than 90 percent of the IDPs live with relatives and friends, a real strain on already poor households. The rest are in “camps”. These range from open-air sites of ad hoc tents, to repurposed public buildings like schools, or short-term “transitional centres”. The conditions, however, are uniformly grim.
“People will go back to their villages if the government can provide some security guarantees,” said Suleiman Aliyu, the headmaster of a private school that takes in children from families on both sides of the conflict – Boko Haram and the security forces. “The number of Boko Haram has been reduced. They are few, but they are still in the bush.”
Sarah Ndikumana, country director of the International Rescue Committee, is worried the government’s eagerness to get the displaced back to their homes will override sensible security precautions.
“From a protection standpoint, I’m really concerned about possible coerced relocation out of Maiduguri into the rest of Borno,” she told IRIN.
Ndikumana said services in the camps, poor at the best of times, are getting worse. “I saw people trying to salvage spoilt rations of rice and beans – I couldn’t even recognise what it was – drying it out in the sun to make it marginally more edible, as the only food source they have.”
Noting that a deterioration would do the government’s attempts at persuasion no harm, Aliyu added: “Things are so difficult for [the displaced]. Compared with a few months back, the quality and quantity of food [rations] is falling.”
Camps being closed
Ndikumana said some of the school-based camps are already being closed, with people being moved to larger camps in Maiduguri like Dolori – perhaps a first step in the planned return exercise.
But not even camps like Dolori are secure. Last month an attempted suicide bomber – a seven-year-old boy – was caught before he could detonate his device.
“To me, it’s still not clear when and which LGAs will be pronounced safe enough to send people back,” said Ndikumana. “It feels like any moment it could start.”
She pointed out that the military has been telling people in the countryside to go to their LGA capitals so “mopping up” operations can begin. It has warned that “anyone still in those rural areas after a certain date will be considered Boko Haram or Boko Haram sympathisers.”
Part of the government’s urgency in getting people to their villages is that the planting season starts around May, in a region where food production and the livestock trade has been hit hard by the conflict.
Virtually the whole of Borno is classified by the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network as in “crisis”, and therefore in need of food aid.
“They’re pushing hard to get people into the LGAs before the planting season, but they are also telling the farmers to go into displacement in the LGA capitals,” said Ndikumana.
And, because of the security concerns, the returnees will be on their own.
“They’ll be heading back to their homes that have been destroyed, but the humanitarian community will not be able to go with them and provide assistance because we can’t consider it safe enough,” Ndikumana said.