Maiduguri overwhelmed by victims of Boko Haram insurgency
Ali Bukar didn’t know anyone when he arrived in Maiduguri with 43 people in tow and not a coin in his pocket. Bukar was fleeing the brutal killings of civilians by the Boko Haram Islamists in northeast Nigeriaalong with his wives, his sons, their wives and grandchildren. They slept in a parking lot “until a man took pity on us,” he said. Around one million people have flooded the capital of Borno state seeking to escape the insurgency that Boko Haram has waged since 2009.
The camps set up for displaced people are not sufficient, so many residents of Maiduguri have opened their doors to these victims of conflict. But now years later the refugees still cannot return to their home villages, and struggling city residents are starting to blame the influx for problems in the community. Between 70 to 90 percent of the displaced in Maiduguri have relied on the compassion of the local people to survive. Bukar and his family have never stayed at a camp. A local merchant had welcomed them to his home and fed them for a year, the scar-faced old man said.
But then they had to leave because the financial burden became too much, Bukar said. Today the family is living in a so-called “hosting community”, one of hundreds of such private places where refugees are sheltered around the city. “I couldn’t just sit there and watch people die of hunger, I had to help them,” said Baba Kura Al-Kahi, the boss of these hosting communities, a local businessman who made his fortune in real estate and in 2013 turned over some land he owned to the displaced.
Boko Haram epicenter
Today many refugees are squatters on construction sites, in schools, in public housing, while thousands of others are taken in by relatives or members of their ethnic group, often Kanuri or Hausa. Neighbors have organized aid, growing food for the most needy, bringing them clothes and sheets and cooking utensils. But “resources are overstretched, especially with regards to water and sanitation, with regards to hospital facilities, with regards to even food security issues,” the Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima said.
Still Maiduguri, after years of being under siege, has a semblance of normal life compared with the devastated hinterland. The city’s ceasefire has been pushed back four hours to 10:00 pm. Soldiers and checkpoints are less noticeable and merchants and passers-by have returned to the centre city’s sidewalks. The schools, which were closed for two years, reopened last month.
Over the past year, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has made repeated announcements that Boko Haram is close to being defeated, and Shettima considers the battle “over” and predicts that hundreds of thousands of displaced people will have returned to their homes by May But this is the cradle of Boko Haram Islamists and they have not disappeared. Just last weekend, a new suicide bombing hit Maiduguri’s busy market, killing one person and injuring 18 others. The two bombers were girls thought to be only seven or eight years old, a hallmark of the jihadist group which often uses women or girls in such operations-especially in Borno state-the epicentre of their insurgency.
Begging and prostitution
And the economy of the region has been ravaged by war. Unemployment is sky high at around 35 percent or more, according to the Borno governor. In the streets of Maiduguri the number of beggars in rags who bang on the windshields of the cars stopped at red lights has mushroomed. The city’s ills are now being blamed on the refugees, these waves of people who have flooded Maiduguri and doubled its population since the Boko Haram revolt began. The insurgency has left more than 20,000 people dead and 2.6 million displaced in northern Nigeria. The governor says the displaced camps “are the source of many problems”, including networks for prostitution and drug trafficking.
“The residents helped as much as they could but now they are more and more critical.” a journalist in Maiduguri who requested anonymity said. “The people are afraid of the crime and epidemics that can arise,” Yannick Pouchalan, director of Action against Hunger in Nigeria, says “it is clear that Maiduguri cannot offer a decent life to all these people,” Yet compared to the villages, the refugees, especially the youth, find the city has more to offer. “If you are 15, and you can take advantage of the security, the services of a big city and have access to the internet... you’re surely not going to go back home to your village,” Pouchalan says.
Photo shows a general view of the abandoned streets in Bama in northeast Nigeria.