"Homes and businesses have been wrecked by firebombs, churches are blackened shells, and only Muslims are safe." Image courtesy of author. “The attack on our town began at midnight,” explained the district leader, a tall, slender man wearing a Manchester United shirt. “We called the security services immediately, and we kept phoning them, but they never arrived. So, the terrorists took their time, working their way through the streets systematically, house by house, killing the inhabitants and setting fire to their homes.” He nodded toward the burnt-out shell of a building, grass growing where once a family had eaten their meals. Now, chickens poked through the charred remains of their furniture.
“The attackers were here for four hours. They killed 484 people, and then they went away.” He spoke the precise Nigerian English of a man who once studied for Oxford and Cambridge exam board O Levels — the same year I did, it emerged, although three thousand miles separated us.
“What happened to the security services?” I asked him. “How far away is the barracks?”
“Two miles.” He shrugged. “They finally showed up as the sun rose. They stood around, looking at the bodies littering the fields, the clothes strewn everywhere. Blood and severed limbs. Then they brought us a mechanical digger and went away again. We used the machine to dig a mass grave, and we collected the body parts and put them in the pit. Then we filled the hole and later they came back for their digger.”
As we walked to the mass grave we passed dozens of ruined buildings. The inhabitants were all dead, my guide explained; otherwise the survivors would have rebuilt on their patch of land. Standing at the edge of the mass grave, surrounded by fields of maize, it was clear just how vulnerable the town remains to any local terrorists wishing to ethnically cleanse the district of non-Muslims. The identity of the speaker and the town must remain secret because publicity would only make it a target again.
I visited the so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria in November 2016. It is hundreds of miles from the stronghold of Boko Haram (meaning ‘western’ education is forbidden) in Borno state, where the Nigerian security forces claim to have “technically defeated” the Islamist insurgency. Yet, the people I met told me similar attacks are happening across a much larger area, although they rarely receive much attention, even within Nigeria.
2.6 million Nigerians have fled their homes, moving to areas they hope will be safer
Consequently, 2.6 million Nigerians have fled their homes, moving to areas they hope will be safer. A Muslim woman who leads a female empowerment charity explained that when possible, people avoid the notoriously grim camps, preferring to stay with their extended families, even if that means sleeping on the ground in a cramped courtyard.
“Nigerians have to be resilient,” she remarked with a sad smile. “I had 38 people living in my home at one point. But they all went out and found work, even if it was just selling toothpicks in the street. And within a few months they were renting their own homes. That’s how we cope here.”
The Muslim leader went on. “People know they have to avoid those internally displaced people’s camps. After surviving an attack by Boko Haram, it’s the last thing they need.”
In October 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that government officials, soldiers, policemen and camp leaders were raping and sexually exploiting women and girls in the camps in Borno state, as well as preventing them from leaving freely.
“Will those 38 people be returning to Borno state when they believe Boko Haram is technically defeated, as the authorities claim?” I asked the Muslim leader.
“Why would they do that?” she responded, clearly puzzled by my question.
Image courtesy of the author.Most people beyond Africa know Nigeria for its internet scams and the Chibok girls — the 273 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, provoking a hashtag storm. Yet, mentioning the Chibok girls elicited a sigh from the Nigerians I met.
“I wish there was equal attention paid to the thousands of other young people who have been kidnapped, raped, killed or enslaved by the jihadists,” commented an Anglican canon. “We don’t hear international outrage about the thousands killed by Boko Haram suicide bombs, and the attacks by Fulani cattle raiders, who’ve leaned their tricks from Boko Haram.”
With some honourable exceptions, there is little concern from otherwise vocal and politicised Christians in the West; fundamentalists for whom all life is ostensibly sacred (but perhaps less so when the victims are African).
A community leader drove me through a dusty urban district called “Congo Russia,” named for the veterans of distant wars who used to live there; all ethnicities mingling peacefully, sharing a soda in the shade on a hot day, kicking a soccer ball around in the cool of the evening.
Massive unemployment is partly thanks to the neoliberal Western financiers who insisted Nigeria drop its protectionist tariffs
Now, homes and businesses have been wrecked by firebombs, churches are blackened shells, and only Muslims are safe wandering its streets. Both faiths have polarised accordingly, my guide explained, leaving too few in the middle ground, searching for ways to encourage tolerance and peace-building. Manipulative leaders have seized opportunities to emphasise religious differences, obscuring the economic problems and marginalisation that all communities share.
Western voters may be angry about globalisation, but in Nigeria one encounters its deadly by-product. Massive unemployment and underemployment is partly thanks to the neoliberal Western financiers who insisted Nigeria drop its protectionist tariffs and subsidies, thereby allowing the Chinese to dump their products at a loss on the market, forcing local manufacturers in the north east to close. Add to that eye-watering corruption at state level, theft of government funds, power cuts and an economy dependent on oil.
The UN is warning of a massive impending famine in Borno state. Alas, it will probably be treated like a natural disaster, ignoring the political and economic solutions necessary to tackle the political and economic problems at the root of Boko Haram’s ascendancy. By all means, food aid is needed to prevent further starvation and stunting among the millions of vulnerable children in the region. But, the West would also do well to provide training for the security services in how they handle their home-grown insurgency — so far their tactics have been criticised as driving moderate Muslims into the arms of extremists.
Well-meaning local de-radicalisation efforts are futile if Wahhabist hatred continues to be taught and preached
More controversial is stopping the donations to jihadist recruiters in Nigeria’s madrassas and mosques, widely known to come from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Community leaders told me that well-meaning local de-radicalisation efforts are futile if Wahhabist hatred continues to be taught and preached to idle, impressionable young men with understandable grievances. Yet on this crucial matter, the West, busy supplying arms to Gulf nations, fears to tread. The poisonous impact of decades of extremist propaganda is being felt across a swathe of Africa and Asia, and, increasingly often, in the public spaces of the West. Its reticence is short-sighted, to put it mildly.
As the West is convulsed by the prospect of refugees fleeing conflict, Nigerian families and friends with vastly fewer resources are quietly absorbing a far greater number of displaced people. And through it all, Nigerians are among the most optimistic people in the world, year after year, when public opinion is surveyed. In this remarkable, vibrant society wonders truly never cease.
Rebecca Tinsley tells us: "Network for Africa, the charity I founded, trains local people to become lay counsellors, teaching survivors of conflict to manage their post-traumatic stress. If it can finding the necessary funding, it will create a counselling network in the community affected by Boko Haram's campaign of ethnic cleansing. You can support our work or get involved here."
Get our weekly email