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In northeast Nigeria, those who fled conflict are being returned to conflict

D 12 juin 2024     H 05:00     A Zubaida Baba-Ibrahim     C 0 messages

This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian.

By Zubaida Baba-Ibrahim

The recent closure of all eight official displacement camps in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in conflict-torn northeast Nigeria, has led to a fresh wave of violence and displacement. More than 150,000 people who were relocated from their camps may now be forced to flee again due to the insecurity and lack of protection in their resettlement sites.

In mid-March, the situation intensified when insurgents abducted an unspecified number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had left their camps to gather firewood. Estimates suggest at least 200 IDPs were taken and only nine have returned.

Borno has witnessed a surge in violence between January and March, with 176 reported attacks on civilians, particularly targeting IDPs and returnees, and 195 incidents of abduction, kidnapping, and forced disappearance. This marks a significant increase compared to the same timeframe in 2023, which saw 71 incidents of civilians attacked by insurgents and three abduction events.

Among those recently attacked was Azza Babagana, whose family had been forced to flee to the Galmeri IDP camp eight years ago when she was just 4 years old, after Boko Haram militants raided their village of Mujigine, 62 kilometres east of Maiduguri.

“Life in Galmeri [camp] wasn’t perfect, but my family and I were at least able to settle in. I even attended the school in the camp,” Babagana recounted. “One day, we were suddenly told that we had to leave the camp because it was being shut down. Even though some members of the community argued against it, we eventually left.”

Babagana and her family were among the IDPs relocated to a resettlement site in Agiri, in the local government area of Mafa in 2021. It is similar to a displacement camp, with rows of tarpaulin tents serving as makeshift homes and shared toilet facilities providing little privacy.

One night, eight months after Babagana was resettled in Agiri, the site was attacked. Huddled together in their room, Babagana and her brother were hit by stray bullets.

“All around us, people were screaming and crying, and many lost their lives that night,” she told The New Humanitarian. The next morning, they returned to Maiduguri where she was treated for the gunshot wound in her thigh. Babagana and her brother spent a gruelling 75 days in hospital.

‘Second displacement’

The persistent violence in Borno has forced more than 1.5 million people to abandon their homes, leading to the depopulation of rural areas — a situation the government seeks to overturn through an IDP resettlement initiative across the state as part of its counter-insurgency goals.

The plan to move all IDPs from displacement camps back to their homes or to newly established settlements in Borno’s countryside started four years ago, but it has been widely criticised by human rights groups. They say it is putting IDPs back in harm’s way, violating international and national guidelines that specify that displaced people and refugees may only be voluntarily returned to their homes when it is safe to do so, and that returns must be carried out with dignity and respect for their human rights.

“We would have refused to return if we had been given the choice because of what we experienced during our previous time there.”

According to the Global Protection Cluster (GPC), a network of NGOs, international organisations, and UN agencies, the move targets the closure of 220 official and unofficial camps housing nearly 900,000 people, or about half of Borno’s IDP population (the rest are accommodated within host community settings). It is unclear how many across the state have so far been relocated, with the state government offering conflicting figures, but by November 2023 at least 13 camps had reportedly been closed.

In February 2022, only two months after the first group of IDPs were resettled in Shuwari site in Jere local government area, complaints began to surface about the lack of basic services and the devastating humanitarian consequences of the resettlement programme.

Many of those who have been resettled across the state described it as a “second displacement”, as they felt they had not been provided with the security and resources they had been promised.

“We would have refused to return if we had been given the choice because of what we experienced during our previous time there," said Alhaji Abaca, an IDP originally from Marte.

Displaced people typically yearn to return to their homes, but this desire is tempered by a fear of returning to areas where the military has been unable to establish sufficient security measures to protect them from further attacks and violence. Abaca, who was relocated from Muna Muforo camp back to Marte, told The New Humanitarian : “I was not very happy to move back to Marte because of the things [terror] we experienced before.”

It is not the first time Borno has attempted to close the camps.

In 2018, the state government made similar attempts to return IDPs, but the resettlement sites were soon overrun by insurgents. In the aftermath of that effort, the state collaborated with the UN and humanitarian NGOs to develop a Borno State Return Strategy. However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out last year that many of the safeguards in the document have been ignored.

The state’s governor, Babagana Zulum, said his 2020 decision to relocate the IDPs was motivated by concerns about drug abuse, prostitution, child marriages in camps, and a growing dependency on donations and food handouts.

According to the ICG, “Zulum sees IDP relocation as essential to his broader stabilisation agenda, aimed at bringing Borno out of the security and humanitarian emergency it has endured for more than a decade during the insurgency”.

‘It was the suffering we went through’

The forceful relocations have also been faulted for the lack of consultation with development organisations and human rights groups, with critics arguing that the plan has so far been focused more on the dream of economic revitalisation rather than on protecting the rights and well-being of IDPs.

“There is a desperate attempt to create an image of normalcy,” Hussaini Abdu, CARE’s director in Nigeria, told The New Humanitarian.

“I understand the government’s desire to see things improve, but in a crisis situation, you can’t always control the outcome. Therefore, a more nuanced and systematic approach is needed, with collective decision-making rather than one-sided decisions,” Abdu said, referring to the speed of the process and the determinations on where it was safe to send people. Since many different groups are involved in managing the crisis, it’s important to consider all perspectives and engage in a collaborative process, he added.

While Zulum claims that the resettlement programme is intended to make IDPs self-reliant, critics say returnees haven’t been given the support they need to make a fresh start, especially in drought-prone areas where jobs and sustainable livelihoods are few and far between.

Only a few IDPs in 2022 and 2023 received resettlement packages, which included a one-time payment of ₦100,000 ($74), bags of grain and other supplies. These supplies were only enough to sustain a family of five for a little over three months.

The resettlement packages, supposedly intended to aid in their transition, were distributed uniformly without taking household sizes into account. As such, the aid was insufficient for larger households, with some families exhausting their provisions within three days. This itself has resulted in a new cycle of displacement, as IDPs who can’t survive in the resettlement sites flee back to the capital.

“I felt so desperate that I started to search for any crumbs of food I could find. I would crush ant hills in the hopes of finding crumbs of rice or maize, then wash them clean, cook, and give them to my children.”

Yalewa, a 40-year-old mother of eight who only gave her first name for security reasons, spent seven years in the Bakassi IDP camp in Maiduguri, relying on support from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and manual work in the community to survive.

Suddenly, in 2021, the Borno State government announced the camp would be closing and that IDPs would be relocated to newly constructed buildings in Marte, 104 kilometres away, before they would be able to go back to their homes six months to a year later. “My husband was given ₦100,000, a 50kg bag of rice, a 50kg bag of maize, and a carton of spaghetti,” Yalewa said, adding that she received ₦50,000 ($37).

Within four months of living in Marte, Yalewa and her family ran out of food and faced similar struggles as before. Yalewa’s husband tried to plant crops twice, but both attempts failed due to lack of rainfall. This left them hungry and desperate.

“I felt so desperate that I started to search for any crumbs of food I could find. I would crush ant hills in the hopes of finding crumbs of rice or maize, then wash them clean, cook, and give them to my children. Other times, I would forage for edible leaves and boil them with salt, just so we would have something to eat,” Yalewa said. “I felt like I was failing, unable to provide good food for my family. This is why we had to come back [to Maiduguri] – it was the suffering we went through.”

After spending two years in Marte, Yalewa and her family fled back to Maiduguri, in December 2023 – 40 days before The New Humanitarian met and spoke to her.

Fear of attacks

In addition to the struggle with hunger, Yalewa and other residents of Marte have had to endure multiple attacks. According to Ashe Babagana, who was resettled in Marte from Gubio camp, they constantly lived in fear in their resettlement site, which lies on the western coast of Lake Chad, an area still under the influence of the jihadist group, ISWAP.

“One night, while we were running from an attack, we fled to Dikwa [38 kilometres from Marte], only to be confronted by soldiers and security officials who took us back to Marte, despite knowing the danger we were running from,” she said.

Babagana and her husband left Marte two months before being interviewed by The New Humanitarian. They currently reside in Muna Kumbori, an unofficial displacement camp in Maiduguri.

The Borno resettlement model has also been criticised for using displaced persons as a means to achieve counter-insurgency goals – reclaiming and repopulating remote territories – while neglecting to provide adequate security or government services.

The delivery of services across Borno’s resettlement sites is still in the early stages, and there is no guarantee of equitable distribution across local government areas.

Abdu said the state should not use civilians to accomplish military goals : “We want to live our lives peacefully, but again we can’t use unarmed civilians to claim conflict-ridden territories.”

Lack of government support

According to Tijjani Babakura, a humanitarian and development programming specialist based in Nigeria, one of the key issues is the dysfunctional governance system, particularly in Borno State.

The ministries, departments, and agencies responsible for supporting IDPs are not fully functional, and lack the necessary manpower and resources. Temporary committees have been set up to handle resettlement efforts, but they often lack the support of permanent government staff with the knowledge and experience to make them work.

“There is no evidence anywhere in the world that shows continuous humanitarian intervention alone can change people’s vulnerability status.”

“This means that sustainability and effectiveness of what is being done will definitely be problematic because it is not the system that is doing it, it is just [groups of] individuals that lack experience and know-how that are being brought to work,” Babakura told The New Humanitarian. “[Because of] this, the programme was bound to have challenges and a lot of failures.”

In addition to the structural issues, Babakura noted that resettlement packages aren’t always designed to empower IDPs.

“The government offers cash, supplies, and free transportation, which may seem like a good deal to anyone who is struggling to survive,” he said. “But it does not necessarily mean that IDPs are ready to return to their communities when a better life is not guaranteed.”

Babakura suggested that before resettling IDPs, the government should consider whether they can continue their livelihoods in the new location. Farmers should be able to access and use farmlands freely, while traders should be able to access their suppliers and customers. If these conditions cannot be met, the resettlement should not go ahead.

“There is no evidence anywhere in the world that shows continuous humanitarian intervention alone can change people’s vulnerability status.” Babakura said. “The [resettlement plan] has potential, but there are issues.”

According to Abdu, there are more effective ways to help IDPs become self-reliant than forcing them to move back to rural areas. One such approach would be to integrate them into host communities where they already have social ties and feel a sense of safety. This, he said, can help to minimise the psychological stress of displacement and provide a smoother transition to permanent housing and livelihood opportunities.

But the state government is digging in.

In September last year, Zulum said any humanitarian organisation that was unwilling to work with the government to resettle IDPs should leave the state. While speaking to a UN delegation at the North-east Development Commission (NEDC) headquarters in Maiduguri, he said : “We will not tolerate any attempt to make resettled communities become dependent on support, while we are trying to support them to be on their peak again and improve their lives.” The New Humanitarian made several attempts to speak with Mairo Mandara, Zulum’s special adviser on humanitarian affairs, but received no response.

While the Borno State government’s ambition to close all displacement camps in the state by 2027 may be well-meaning, critics say the strategy is coming at a heavy cost for those it purports to help. They say the persistence of the government to push ahead with the closure of camps, despite growing evidence that resettlement is not yet a secure and sustainable option, is placing thousands of lives in danger.

“People who were forcefully displaced because of violence and found sanctuary for themselves in different locations, if we force them back and something happens to them like it already has to some, it will not be fair,” said Abdu. “We have a responsibility to protect these people.”

With additional reporting by Musa Sumayin Ngamdu. Edited by Patrick Gathara.


The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.