(Written for The Africa Report, following a visit to a camp for Internally Displaced victims of Boko Haram’s insurgency in Yola, northeastern Nigeria, in August 2015)
August in Yola opened with a flood, but it was a different kind from the one that submerged swathes of the town three years ago. This time it was people, swarms of them, returning to Nigeria from makeshift camps in Cameroon, where they have spent the last several months seeking refuge from Boko Haram.
Yola, sixty kilometers from the Nigerian border with Cameroon, is the capital of Adamawa State, one of the worst hit by the Boko Haram insurgency which has rocked Nigeria since 2009, claiming close to 20,000 lives, and displacing an estimated 2 million people. The town sits on the banks of the River Benue, which sweeps into Nigeria from Cameroon in the east. The river is a thriving trading route, along it rubber slippers and sugar and food seasoning leave Nigeria for Cameroon, bagged rice and cow-skin in the other direction.
The refugees make their way from the camps in Cameroon into the Nigerian border village of Sauda, from where the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) distributes them to one of three camps scattered around Yola.
The oldest of the three camps is now more than a year old. It opened on August 24, 2014, to house persons displaced by Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa State, and in Borno, the neighbouring state to the north of Adamawa, where the insurgency started. The camp is a collection of low-lying buildings that until its conversion served as an “orientation camp” for Nigeria’s national youth service programme. Now, in place of ‘youth corpers’ its inhabitants are a far less hopeful lot.
The camp comprises a series of bungalows arranged in rows, serving as dormitories. The large sandy field is empty; in August the heat is searing. Children — mainly boys — mill around. They have been allotted an afternoon slot in the community school, where they are taught by volunteer teachers and camp staff. There’s a camp kitchen where the inmates run a collegial cooking system, deciding what to eat, and cooking it themselves. There’s also a camp clinic, where basic treatment is given. More serious cases are sent to designated hospitals under a referral system run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in partnership with the state government. The IRC is one of several humanitarian agencies involved in managing the displaced persons; others include the Red Cross, World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Modu Gana Bonu, 45, is the leader of the old IDPs. He’s from Gwoza in Borno State, which, according to him, became, in August 2014, “the first local government area to be sacked by Boko Haram.” Before then the attacks were sporadic, and limited to the villages surrounding the main Gwoza town. But on August 5, 2014, he recalls, Boko Haram took over the town, forcing thousands of residents to flee into neighbouring Borno State. Shortly after the town fell, Boko Haram leader Abu Shekau issued a video in which he proclaimed that Gwoza was now under Islamic rule.
At the time of the attack Boni was the Secretary of the Gwoza Market Association. His own trade was in cows, he bought them and sent them off for sale in cities in southern Nigreria, hundreds of kilometres away: Umuahia, Warri, Calabar, Lagos. He lost eight cows he was preparing to sell, when the town fell.
That loss pales beside another one; that of a 15-year-old daughter, abducted by Boko Haram in the town of Madagali, where Gwoza residents first fled to, in August 2014. She’s one of the “more than 15” Gwoza girls taken by Boko Haram. But he’s confident his daughter will return to him. “Insha Allah, I’m praying, I haven’t lost hope.”
In March 2015 the Nigerian army, backed by mercenaries hired from South Africa and the old Soviet Union, reclaimed Gwoza from the rebels. But it is still not safe enough for any but the most hardened or nostalgic to return. Bonu says the Army is occupying the main town, but that there might still be insurgents lurking in the surrounding villages. “Some people are going back on their own,” says Bonu. But he is optimistic that “any moment now”, they will be able to return.
Bonu is Muslim — as are the majority of people in Borno State — and once lived in Saudi Arabia, as a trader. But Gwoza, his town, is one of those with a sizable Christian community. “There are Christians, Muslims, pagans, everybody doing their own religion without tampering with others. If a Muslim becomes Local Government Chairman, a Christian will be the Deputy, if a Christian becomes Chairman, a Muslim will be the Deputy. We have no problem between religions.”
Life in the camp is regimented. They live in dormitories — men and boys, women and girls and boys younger than 10. Contact between men and women is permitted from six in the morning until about seven in the evening, and bedtime is enforced at around 11pm. After a year of living in the camp, Bonu says he’s “just waiting for what God can do.” NEMA feeds and clothes the inhabitants. Some of the farmers among them have been allocated small plots behind the camp.
The IDPs in the camps belong to two groups, the “old IDPs” — who have been there since inception, like Boni — and the “new” ones — the ones who have just been repatriated from Cameroon. This second group is led by Mustapha Galami, a 70 year old man with an easy manner.
Like Boni he was also a trader, buying coconuts from Badagry, a port town on the Atlantic Ocean, and bales of lace from Ibadan, near Lagos, and taking them home to Borno to sell. Decades of doing business in southwestern Nigeria, and living there for lengthy periods, have made him fluent in Yoruba, the language of the area.
Boko Haram put an end to the life he’s always known. The terrorists attacked Gamboru-Ngala, his town, on August 29, 2014. Unlike Boni’s group, who fled to Yola directly, Galami’s people made their way to Cameroon. First they fled across the border to Fotokol, a town in Cameroon’s Far North region, separated from Gamboru-Ngala by a bridge, and to where Nigerians have been fleeing for years. After staying in Fotokol for one month, with nothing to do, Galami says they trekked to Kousseri, where there’s a UNHCR transit camp for Nigerian refugees.
A year later, thousands of them are now returning to Nigeria. Galami explains why they’re returning to Nigeria “We suffered a lot. The [Cameroonian] police surround us, collect our money, lock us up for days, and then collect money from our relatives to free us. If they see our children selling [sachet water], they accuse them of being children of Boko Haram, and harass them.” His comments suggest that the return to Nigeria was voluntary. “We wanted to come to our fatherland,” he says. Saad Bello, NEMA Coordinator for Adamawa State, has a different perspective, describing the influx as a “forced repatriation” by Cameroonian authorities.
“Some Boko Haram members have been disguising as refugees, and penetrating the refugee camps, preparatory to launching attacks,” says Primus Fonkeng, a specialist in Nigeria-Cameroon relations at the Cameroon’s University of Buea. “The Cameroonians do not know who’s who, so they had to send a large portion of people back.”
The returnees to Nigeria are received by Nigerian Immigration officials at the border town of Mubi, 150 kilometers from Yola. They are screened by Nigerian secret police officials, and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante group made up of youths from communities affected by Boko Haram. (Until recently they formed the main — or in some cases, only — line of defence against the insurgents in many towns in Borno and Adamawa States).
By the middle of August, 6,000 persons had been received in camps in Yola, Bello says, with another 6,000 expected. As at May 2015, there were just under 30,000 persons in camps in Adamawa State, while another 110,000 were embedded within host communities. UNHCR estimates that just across the border in Cameroon there are as many as 12,000 “unregistered” Nigerian refugees, with the numbers swelling by the day in the face of continuing Boko Haram attacks. Many of the refugees prefer to linger around the border because “they hope to return to Nigeria as soon as possible,” said UNHCR spokesperson Leo Dobbs at a press briefing in Geneva in July. It is these border-region refugees who are now being sent back into Nigeria.
The future of the fight against Boko Haram will depend to a large extent on what plays out in that vast border region between Nigeria’s north-east and Cameroon’s Far North, infested by Boko Haram militants for whom the mountains serve as an excellent hideout. Cooperation between both countries — which share a 1,800km land border, one of the longest in Africa — is therefore crucial, experts say.
“The relationship between [former Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan and [Cameroonian President] Paul Biya was not too cordial,” says Fonkeng. He explains that Cameroon’s willingness to pay to free Boko Haram hostages exasperated the Nigerians, who argued that the ransome payments were serving as incentives to the terrorists, and providing them with resources to launch further attacks. In 2014, Nigeria’s military and counter-terrorism officials also often regularly lamented a lack of cooperation from their Cameroonian counterparts.
Now that appears to be changing. President Buhari visited Cameroon at the end of July, several weeks after visiting Chad and Niger, Nigeria’s other neighbours in the region hit by Boko Haram. Fonkeng says that a Cameroon trip should have topped Buhari’s diplomatic agenda, considering Cameroon’s strategic importance of Cameroon.
Since taking office in May, President Buhari has prioritised the regional security agenda, visiting all the four countries with whom Nigeria shares borders. The rapprochement appears to be paying off. Following a meeting of regional heads of state in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in July, Cameroon announced it was increasing its contribution to the Nigeria-led Multinational Joint Task Force — authorised by the African Union in January — from 750 troops to 2,450.