Displacement and a people’s future
Recently, I joined a team of development workers to travel to some parts of Adamawa State and managed to get a sense of a story that does not get told in local or international newspapers. More than anything, we got to see how communities have responded to the Boko Haram violence. Understanding that help will either be laughably inadequate or entirely missing, these people decided to look amongst themselves for help.
The sprawling settlement in Malkohi, outside Yola in Adamawa State, currently houses about 4,000 households; and, it exists because the people of Malkohi made it possible. This hints at the scale of the problem. According to the International Organization on Migration (IOM)’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, 8 per cent of those internally displaced by the fighting are from Adamawa State, while 6 per cent are from Yobe and another 79 per cent are from Borno. There is an estimated 1,899,830 displaced individuals as of January 25, 2017, up 7.3 per cent from December 2016; approximately 56.46 per cent of whom, do not have enough to eat. Those in this Malkohi settlement, then, represent those who managed to find a way out of Borno at the height of the fighting. The majority of people in these kinds of settlements are women and children. Here, a local church provides used clothes and shoes. The local leaders in Malkohi community provided the land on which these displaced people live, as well as a community farm, on which they can grow some of their food.
These communities that help displaced people are not unusual. From a previous trip to Yola in late 2015, I noticed that people either rented out what they could, very cheaply or entirely free, to those fleeing violence, or opened their doors to fleeing relatives and their neighbours. Mosques and churches, some even from outside the northeast region, provide food and used clothing. People in this camp who have fled their homes to Cameroonian border towns, recount how villages they passed through gave them and their children food and water, how they were given a place to pass the night, how a local vigilante would escort them to the border with Cameroon and help them speak French to the border guard.
None of these heart-warming stories of people lending support to their most vulnerable, discounts the negative experiences of people who are too often at the mercy of others. The Nigerian Human Rights Commission released a 2015 report on sexual and other kinds of abuse of displaced people. There are many other reports on similar abuse from Human Right Watch and Amnesty International, not to mention the mass thievery of relief funds from NEMA. For good or ill, Nigerians are at the mercy of their government and each other, and just as with the EFCC’s bungling of what should be open-and-shut cases, the country as currently constituted makes a dog’s dinner of doing the right thing, even with all the capacity to do it.
Note that no amount of help these local communities can give, can uplift in the way structured government action can. You see this clearly with how far the Army has gone in helping put in place security, however fragile. Boko Haram is not nearly defeated, technically or otherwise, but it is hard to drive through the northeast and come away with the notion that the Nigerian army has done nothing. Passing through quiet small towns that were once Boko Haram territory, there are empty buildings and broken glass facades where banks and offices used to be. There are giant scrawls in Arabic where Boko Haram has made its mark. Some market stalls are still burned and without their roofs.
According to International Organization on Migration’s emergency tracking tool for March 27 – April 4, 2017, people are still returning to their communities, but many are returning to camps, not their homes. In many cases, it is still too unsafe for them to farm and trade. Many people have managed to live outside the camps and start their lives afresh, but still many do not have the resources.
There has indeed been some undeniable progress, but the big questions loom: What does an estimated two million displaced people mean for the future of the region, and the country as a whole? What does it mean that the Adamawa State Government is not helping displaced people in settlements, like the one in Malkohi, because the majority of these displaced are from Borno State? In a place where good education is not a given even in peaceful times, how do we ensure the future of all these children who have been displaced, many of whom are not in school? The improved security in the northeast brings about an opportunity to address these questions, and it will take far more than what Federal and State governments are currently putting in.