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Inside story of Borno IDPs’ trek back to Bama

In their flight as survivors of a devastating attack on their communities by the Boko Haram insurgents who crushed Bama, the second commercial centre of Borno State, on September 1, 2014, the IDPs trooped to Maiduguri in throngs for safety. This compelled the authorities to open the largest IDP camp in the country, the Dalori IDPs Camp, on the outskirts of the metropolis to provide them safe settlement and care on the scale of global standards.

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Exactly three years and 23 days after, they, in sharp contrast to their 2014 flight, launched their ‘flight back home.’

They rushed out of home three years ago; they want to rush back home now, even though the billion-naira reconstruction of Bama undertaken by the Borno State government with the aid of the T.Y. Danjuma-led Presidential Committee North-East Initiative (PCNI), is incomplete.

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Their protest, characterized by their decision to embark on the 70kilometre trek back home from Maiduguri was precipitated by a groundswell of grievances. These have over the past one year given rise to their agitations to be returned home to participate in the rebuilding of their community and facilitate the successful reconstruction of their economic lives, especially their trans-border trading with the Central African countries of Chad and Cameroon.

Their long home-bound yearnings climaxed on Saturday, 23rd September, 2017 when their representatives after an emergency meeting, resolved that all IDPs in the metropolis, who hail from Bama, should troop back and occupy the houses reconstructed so far by the state government through its ministry of reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement.

They were not unmindful of the impending danger lurking in the bushes of the 70 kilometre road they intended to traverse, especially between Konduga and Bama. The path still seems heavily infested with insurgents, and plying the route would require heavy military, police and vigilante joint task force for sufficient security.

“We have observed that the fear of insecurity will tie us down here for another unknown number of years, languishing with the expectation that our situation will improve soon. But how soon will that improvement come? We are deeply aggrieved by the pathetic deterioration of camp life on the scale of either the global standards set to cater for us as IDPs or as people who had been living a more comfortable and honorable life before, and can always reorganize ourselves to do so in spite of whatever insecurity is lurking anywhere,” a Bama IDP at the Dalori camp, said.

Arguing that the IDPs of Damasak, the Nigeria-Niger Republic border town and the northernmost commercial centre of Borno State, had since been returned home and rapidly rebuilding their socio-economic lives. The IDP appealed to those who wanted to remain behind in Maiduguri to pray for them on their historic trek back home.

The IDPs damned all need for permission and comfort as they once again thronged out of the camps and host communities in hundreds, all set for their homeward trek. They held placards with inscriptions as: “we are returning to our home” and “three years of displacement is not a day.”

Unknown to them, they were not destined to succeed. Just as they were about to start the trek, a team of policemen led by the state Commissioner of Police Damian Chukwu descended on their point of convergence.

Addressing them, CP Chukwu did not categorically bar them from their mission. He however urged them to collaborate with the relevant authorities for proper arrangement for their safe return home.

He was particularly ‘concerned’ about their security on the way, drawing their attention to the fact that while they could be lucky to get to Konduga from Maiduguri without the fear of possible attack by the insurgents, it would be foolhardy for them to do so between Konduga and Bama without heavy security escort.

“Allowing you to return to Bama is like allowing you to commit suicide,” he said.

However, by the evening of that fateful day (Sunday) the police fished out and arrested twelve IDPs in connection with the trek-back-home protest. They included Alhaji Mohammed Hassan and Kachalla Grema Kyari, Chairman and Secretary of the protest respectively, as well as the President of the Bama Youth Development Association, Comrade Abdurrahman Zanna.

“Some people were arrested for being riotous and for inciting others to be riotous,” DSP Victor Isuku, the Borno State Police Public Relations Officer, said in response to the arrest.

Daily Trust learnt that the arrested twelve were charged to court and remanded in custody on Monday although some of them were bailed by a Maiduguri-based businessman.

Some IDPs, who spoke strictly on the condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested, explained their grievances.

“The quality and quantity of food rations have fast become leaner and meaner than manageable by whatever standards, let alone the global standards of catering for IDPs, which have since been cast to the winds,” the 45-year old IDP complained.

He said, “as I am talking to you now (Wednesday afternoon) two local measures of guinea-corn, one local measure of beans and one litre of cooking oil is being served to each IDP for a whole month; did I hear you say what about rice? That is once upon a time. We hear that the trucks of rice are diverted and sold in Kano.

“Don’t even ask of other relief items. So what majority of us are being provided with is virtually only the highly unhygienic shelter. Everyone is virtually left on his or her own here with regards to proper feeding and healthy living here. It seems to us that the government is running out of the wherewithal to cater for us, and it cannot say that categorically to us, because the international law says you cannot evict an IDP from the camp against his or her wish to vacate, unless he or she wants to do that of his or her own accord. This is why we are saying okay, thank you, we want to go now of our own accord.”

He added that, “The situation is becoming unbearable for us, especially when we consider the fact that because we were a thriving commercial community, majority of us were so much more comfortable, compared to our current unfortunate situation where we have been turned to beggars and our children, urchins. This is why we weighed the current level of insecurity and our deplorable situation and still resolved to go back home to rebuild our comfortable lives. We have never been indolent, and we will not allow ourselves to be condemned to indolence,” he concluded.

Another 50-year-old looking IDP, bragged about possessing a capital of over ten million Naira, but was now severely pained by his inability to undertake any commercial venture worth even ten thousand Naira.

“A Bama indigene is a commercially-oriented person. He doesn’t know anything called indolence. Majority of us have been reminiscing over our commercial prosperity. We are nostalgic about it. If other commercial communities like Damasak can return in the midst of whatever insecurity, we also want to return to see what we can do to restore our commercial glory. The rice and other items of necessity I hitherto never regarded as any comfort have now become gold to me,” he lamented.

He queried: “Damasak returned even before the reconstruction of the town was completed. Why are we still tied down here under the pretext of the reconstruction of Bama not completed?”

There are growing allegations that the state government is trading Bama, because of its high economic status as a thriving trans-border commercial focal point, for huge funds from different sources under the pretext of reconstructing it ‘so well’ for rehabilitation and resettlement.

The state government, never ruffled by any such allegations, is continuing to do what it can to expedite the reconstruction of Bama, but it says it will not falter on its determination to do it “so well.”

Perhaps pricked by the trek-back-home protest, a reliable government source said a combined meeting of the state executive council and security agencies on Wednesday (September 27) resolved to expedite action for the return of the Bama IDPs back home as soon as possible.

Consequently, the state Commissioner for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, Professor Babagana Umara, was directed to visit Bama on Thursday (September 28) to assess the reconstruction there to expedite the action.

The outgoing Executive Chairman of the State’s Emergency Management Agency, Engr. Ahmed Satomi, would not comment on the issue, saying that he was no more in the capacity to do so. A new SEMA helmsman has not been appointed. 

But Daily Trust contacted Isa Gusau, Governor Kashim Shettima’s spokesman. “Whoever wants Governor Kashim Shettima to allow Bama IDPs to returned without proper planning, that person should show example by immediately moving himself, and his family to Bama for one month. Some politicians are using a group within the Bama IDPs for 2019 politics. There are IDPs from over 10 local government areas that are yet to return to their local government areas, why should protest about return only come from a group of people from Bama? Why not any other local government area? Yes, it is understandable for displaced persons to get frustrated with living outside their environment for three years, but if you monitor all the issues since last Sunday when the so-called protest was staged, you will notice that key supporters of former governor Ali Modu Sheriff are the front promoters of the protest in the social media and granting interviews.”

Gusau also said: “If you see anyone that is not in Sheriff’s camp on this matter, you will notice that the person has open ambition to contest something in 2019. Where were they when the people of Bama were displaced and what efforts have they made so far in rebuilding of Bama? That protest was purely political. The whole aim was to mischievously paint the government in bad light. I say this with all sense of responsibility.”

Gusau also said that at some point, the governor was being accused of over-pampering Bama because of the massive reconstruction he approved there and his constant visits including his once-relocation there to supervise take off of reconstruction, reinforcement of civil authority and environmental Sanitation of that town. “But then, it is his responsibility to do what he is doing and his action is based on the post-insurgency recovery and peace building assessment jointly carried out by the world Bank, the office of the Vice President, the EU and affected States and that report showed Bama as the worst destroyed by Boko Haram in the entire northeast. The Governor took a bold decito start what ordinarily required hundreds of billions of naira to start. He didn’t want the IDPs from Bama and the entire State to remain in camps. He wanted all camps closed since May 29, 2016. He publicly announced his plan to close camps and the international community and humanitarian actors saw his announcement has hasty.   He had to withdraw the closure because of the realities on the ground. Every day, the Nigerian Army releases statement about troops neutralizing Boko Haram in some axis within Borno State including around Bama. What this means is that the military is still operating around Bama and other axis in the State. Should the Governor allow citizens to walk to Bama under that circumstance?” 

Gusau also told Daily Trust that the state government is currently rebuilding 15 local government areas. “Kaga, Dikwa, Mafa have so far been completed. Some mischievous people even said the governor was opposed to Bama IDPs return in order to have an easy voting in IDP camps in 2019 but they forgot to acknowledge that it was the same governor who rebuilt communities and mobilized the return of IDPs to Konduga, Kaga, Dikwa, Askira Uba, Gwoza and a host of other areas. He has rebuilt the palace of the Shehu of Bama and over 20,000 homes in Bama but the work is massive, there is so much more to be done. The governor has been holding meetings with the Vice President on how to remodel Bama and deploy a specially trained anti terrorism group that will include those to secure farmers in their farmlands. There is a lot to be done. Like the governor has always said, his greatest wish is for his successor not to inherit Boko Haram and IDP camps,” the spokesman said. 

DSP Victor Isuku confirmed the arrest of the twelve and their charge to court on phone. 

“The fact that they are IDPs doesn’t mean that they are above the law. They are, first and foremost, Nigerians before they are IDPs. It is unfortunate that they have found themselves in that status, but they are Nigerians whatever their status, and no Nigerian is above the law,” Isuku stated.

“The police will not take it lightly with anyone breaking the law of the land, whether IDP or whoever,” he stressed.

He however said, “they should be patient. I understand today (Wednesday) there was a marathon meeting at the Government House to explore the possibility of expediting action on the return of these IDPs to their ancestral homes.”

Bama Initiative for Human Development, in a petition to Amnesty International, dated 27th September, 2017 and addressed to the Country Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Maitama, Abuja, signed by Mohammed Shuwa and Abba Bukar Abba Masta on behalf of the arrested leaders complained of the arrest of their members and prayed the global organization to intervene in the matter to ensure justice and fairness to them.

The petition also narrated the cramped and unhygienic state of the camps which they have bore in the light of the cushioning it gave them from the insurgents and their unsuccessful attempts to get the arrested IDPs released.  

Civil society organizations have been responding on the issue.

The Borno State Chairman of the Civil Society Organizations, Ambassador Ahmed Shehu, had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the Police to release the arrested persons even before they were charged to court and remanded in custody, saying that two wrongs cannot make a right.

“You can’t arrest people that are already traumatized and suffered hardships over the year simply for protesting. I just got an information that the arrested protesters will be taken to prison; are we that lawless?” he queried.

Ambassador Shehu called on the relevant stakeholders to view the situation of the IDPs from the humanitarian perspectives, saying, “let the government focus on arresting those who violated human rights, not those willing to go back home.

He was, however, also angry with the trek-back-home IDPs.

“Actually, I condemn their decision to return home without security, I even asked them where they will get water and other basic needs,” he said.

Several responses hinge on the allegation that the poorly catered for IDPs are used by politicians as human shields or ATM machines for their enrichment as well as an easy way to guarantee their block votes in 2019.

Some people allege that keeping the IDPs for this long with no constant communication, visits, progress reports on their situation or response to their appeals creates the impression that they are kept in Maiduguri for political reasons.

Although the Bama IDPs may not have succeeded in what the authorizes view as their risky and foolhardy adventure, they have succeeded in  making history as the first set of IDPs to spite ‘the goodies’ of camp life and resolve to trek back to their ‘still insecure’ home community in such a large number.

 

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