Nigerian refugees are chased from homes as president stakes re-election bid on claims that Islamist group has been beaten
When Boko Haram stormed into Baga in a hail of gunfire on Boxing Day, Zara Abubakar was lying in bed, waiting for her two-week-old triplets, Maryam, Muhafat and Mohammed, to go to sleep so she could have a bath. Heart pounding, she shouted for her four other children playing in the yard to come in, covering the babies with her body. For hours they all lay inside, waiting for the battle to let up.
Then there was silence, followed by shouts of Allahu Akbar, and Baga mosque’s loudspeakers crackled into life. “Boko Haram made an announcement that they were not here for us but for the infidels [the military] and that they were now in charge,” Abubakar recounted, jogging one of the triplets in the crook of her elbow and another on her knee.
It was a faction of Boko Haram called Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap), which is allied with Isis. “They advised everyone in the town to be calm, adding that whoever wanted to stay could do so and anyone not willing to remain would be free to leave,” she said.
It was not the first time that Abubakar had encountered Boko Haram. She had fled the Islamist group’s previous bloody assaults on Baga and was suspicious of the militants’ reassurances, convinced they would end up killing innocent civilians. So she fled, along with about 30,000 others. With Maryam on her back, Muhafat in her arms and Mohammed given to a friend to carry, she walked through the thorny Sahelian scrub for two days and nights to reach safety.
Late last month, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, told a crowd of supporters he had been assured that Boko Haram, which has waged a 10-year insurgency in the country’s north-east, had been “fully decimated”. With a general election on 16 February, Buhari is making the supposed defeat of Boko Haram an important piece of his political strategy on the campaign trail.
Zara Abubakar, with her triplets, Maryam, Muhafat and Mohammed, at the refugee camp in Maiduguri. Photograph: Ismail Alfa
When he came to power in 2015, Buhari’s decisive victory rested mainly on twin promises – to fight the rampant corruption of the previous administration, and to restore security. A general, and former military dictator, he appeared to have the experience and severity to deal decisively with the militants responsible for kidnapping hundreds of schoolchildren, strapping bombs to little girls and killing tens of thousands of innocent Nigerians.
Over the past four years, however, Nigeria’s security problems have multiplied. Thousands have died in clashes between herdsmen and farmers that have destabilised six states and which some are calling the “greatest threat to Nigeria’s peace and security”. There is a resurgent militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta, a strengthened separatist Biafra movement in the east, while hundreds are being killed in unexplained raids in Zamfara in the north-west. And, contrary to the triumphant rhetoric of Buhari and his officials, the attacks in the north-east remain constant, particularly in the worst-affected state of Borno. In fact, they have surged in the past six weeks.
The assault on Baga was part of a six-month pattern of escalating attacks, according to military sources, who contradict Buhari’s claims of “decimation”. Soon after that attack, Boko Haram – whether Iswap or another faction is unclear – hit Rann, a garrison town to the south-east. More than 9,000 people fled over the border to Cameroon, where they were forced back; then, last week, after the military pulled out of Rann, 30,000 fled again.Letting civilians leave unharmed may not seem Boko Haram’s style but until recently it has been a feature of Iswap, which split from the group led by Abubakar Shekauin 2016 and had its pledge of allegiance accepted by Isis.
In the first attacks we lost everything. Now it’s happened again… we are not going back, that’s the end
Ostensibly led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s late founder Mohammed Yusuf, the real power in Iswap is thought to have rested with Mamman Nur, a former Yusuf crony.
But last year Nur was reportedly executed by his own men in a dispute over the mass kidnap of a second batch of schoolgirls, and since then the group appears to have resumed killing Muslim civilians – notoriously murdering two Red Cross midwives late last year.
Meanwhile, the military has stuck to a strategy of creating and defending garrison towns across Borno. These are militarised islands in a sea of insecurity, containing thousands of civilians who have been lured or pushed back “home” with promises of a return to normal life, but then find themselves living in dire conditions in camps, relying on aid because, surrounded by trenches, checkpoints and militant threat, they cannot leave to fish and farm.
Iswap regularly launches attacks on these towns and the military bases near them, and the army struggles to repel them. Suffering high casualties, with low morale and inadequate equipment – it is unclear how the $1bn Buhari took from the country’s Excess Crude Account in late 2017 to fight Boko Haram was spent – the army is also pulled in several directions. The north-east is not the only front it is fighting on. Checkpoints dot the roads of Nigeria’s middle-belt states, ostensibly to prevent raids by Fulani herdsmen on mostly Christian farmers’ villages and vice versa. However, people on all sides say the military backs whichever community pays it, and accuse local politicians of arming their favoured side.
The highly politicised herder-farmer conflict is geographically Nigeria’s most widespread crisis – it has spread far south of the middle-belt states, and is escalating fast. Many Nigerians, particularly in the south, think Buhari, their ethnically Fulani president, has turned a blind eye to his marauding kinsmen, and feel vindicated by a 2015 Global Terrorism Index report controversially labelling them a “terrorist” group. According to the Fulani, the mostly Christian-owned media reports far more “nefarious acts” perpetrated than suffered by them.
It remains unclear how the Nigerian government plans to hold safe elections in this atmosphere, or in the north-western state of Zamfara, and in the north-east, where around 800,000 people are in “inaccessible areas” – the countryside around the garrison towns, where Boko Haram roams and humanitarian organisations cannot reach.
Several weeks after the Baga attack, Abubakar remains in a camp for internally displaced people. She is recovering from the trauma of her journey – she reached Monguno and then Maiduguri, where she, her children and her friend slept in the open with no food or water until they were taken to the camp. She is struggling to afford enough milk to feed the triplets.
It is unlikely the government will ever be able to persuade them it is safe to return to Baga.
“We lost everything in those first and second attacks on Baga and had to start again, and now it has happened again when we were trying to pick up the pieces of our lives,” said Abubakar. “We are not going back to Baga again, that’s the end of everything to do with that town.”
The Nigerian election will see incumbent Muhammadu Buhari face 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and businessman who has long had the presidency in his sights.
Preparations for massive vote-rigging are rumoured to be afoot, and last month Buhari, 76, summarily and unconstitutionally suspended the country’s chief justice Walter Onnoghen, something that has prompted outcry from Nigerians and from the UK and US, as the head of the judiciary is key in settling election disputes. The 2015 election in which Buhari came to power was widely considered free and fair, but Nigeria has a long history of electoral violence and vote-rigging.
Battling rumours that he is not the real Buhari but a body double from Sudan, the president has promised to keep on with his agenda of tackling corruption and insecurity while trying to boost a struggling economy. Atiku, as his opponent is popularly known, is promising to create jobs and slash poverty.