Over the last seven years, millions of weary travellers have arrived in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, fleeing war in Nigeria’s ravaged northeast. Bulama Gubio, the chairman of a task force set up to provide food to the internally displaced and a member of the Borno Elder’s Forum, told me point blank, “If you are not able to make it to Maiduguri, you are a dead person.” His warning is no exaggeration. Boko Haram’s campaign of terror has uprooted entire communities and claimed more than 50,000 lives. 

Until an attack by Boko Haram in early January, Maiduguri had seemed to be the only safe harbor in the entire region. And now, it too is showing cracks. Every spare building in the city has been reconstituted as a settlement for the displaced, yet space is hard to come by in the official camps, which are lined with canvas tents and teeming with people—the majority of whom are women and children. Food is scarcer by the day, with no relief in sight. Given the number of crises that have hit the region of late, the international community has been less than eager to provide support. If the city breaks under attacks by Boko Haram, though, more suffering and an even bigger disaster could be in store.

Many estimates suggest that the number of internally displaced has doubled the city in size from roughly two million before the crisis to four million now. Gubio believes that there could be as many as six million people, though, “since everyone in Borno state has come here now.” Those who lived in regions that had been under Boko Haram’s control but that the Nigerian military has won back are taken to formal camps for the displaced. These are managed by a confusing consortium of groups: the Nigerian military, the police, civilian vigilantes, government humanitarian agencies, and a handful of international NGOs.

Dalori, the largest of the dozens of camps in the city, is thought to house 20,000 people. According to government reports, families there are given food, access to education, some job training for petty trade, and psychological support. In practice, though, the camp is miserable. The residents are visibly underfed, the camp school is under-resourced, and the medical ward is primitive and crowded.

During my visit, I heard a common refrain, “We eat two meals a day but it is usually just rice.” Residents also speak of abuse by the camp guards. Aisha, who looks younger than her 20 years, told me, “The soldiers and police prevent us from leaving to find work or visit family. I tried to leave once to visit my mother in Cameroon and they beat me.” There are also growing reports of sexual misconduct. There have been countless reports of sexual misconduct, according to Gloria, a UNHCR employee who travels frequently to Maiduguri. But she asserted that these numbers could be low because of “a fear of reprisal and stigma” if the victims formally report the crime.

An explosion of one of two vehicles laden with explosives in Ajilari-Gomari near the city's airport, in Maiduguri, March 2, 2014.

The squalor and the power imbalance between camp guards and camp dwellers has led to another unhealthy development. Aisha told me, “Sometimes the soldiers here will just pay for the girls to stay with them for a few days or weeks at a time.” In the camps, Guibo explained, “men go out looking to take advantage of vulnerabilities…these hooligans…lure our young girls by enticing them with food.” A UNICEF employee noted that although these abuses are well known, it is difficult to prosecute individuals since the women are afraid to provide names amid fear of retaliation. The government’s solution was that all camp residents abide by a 7 PM curfew. However, this only further punishes the victims and subjects them to the abusive behavior of the camps’ many guards by reducing their mobility and giving the guards even more authority over the residents.

Those lucky enough to avoid the camps—who either fled with savings or have found employment in the city—can rent small, crowded apartments. But the increase in demand has sent rents skyrocketing, which puts a strain on long-time Maiduguri residents. Others live with extended family, in abandoned buildings, or in hastily built thatched huts on land borrowed from local residents, businesses, and community organizations. These slum-like settlements have swollen to tremendous size. The one near the Madina Mosque holds an estimated 2,000 people. Those living there said that their numbers are still growing, daily.

Even if there are advantages to living outside of formal, government-run camps, there are some drawbacks, namely a lack of access to social services. The camp residents might be hungry, but those living outside of them are malnourished. Hawa (her name has been changed at her request), a woman from Baga, the scene of a horrific attack by Boko Haram last winter, now lives at Medina Mosque with five of her former neighbors. She said, “The lack of food here is the biggest problem, then the lack of medicine.” Her neighbor Fatima added that the National Emergency Management Agency once made weekly doctor visits to treat them for diseases like malaria and cholera, in addition to malnutrition. But their advice, said Fatima, was “no use because we cannot afford the medicine.” That is because they haven’t been able to find work since they arrived more than a year ago.

Even in the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that any city would be able to double the number of jobs it has overnight; those settling in Maiduguri often lack the sorts of skills necessary to find urban employment, and unemployment there is high and on the rise. Most of those fleeing rural areas were once subsistence farmers, cattle herders, or fishermen. They have been reduced to begging. Hassana, a 25-year-old woman who fled from Baga a year and a half ago with her 50-year-old husband and his two other wives told me, “All of our children go to beg; that is how we buy food here.” Her husband has been unable to find work.

The government is aware that its aid to the displaced has been inadequate. Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima explained that they have reached out to international organizations for help. He said that there is “a frenzy of trying to get money to fix this” from donors such as the World Bank, USAID, and even Nigerian billionaires such as cement mogul Aliko Dangote. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but we spend at least half of the state’s budget on [internally displaced persons] right now,” he confided with a sigh. I wasn’t able to confirm whether it was actually 50 percent, since the governor did not have the budget breakdown on hand, but he said the state spends more than 27 million naira ($95,000) a month on firewood for the displaced so that they can cook whatever little food they receive. The total state budget is 155 billion naira ($545 million). One aid worker, requesting anonymity, remarked, “Sometimes you see what these people eat and you think even a dog could not eat what [they] are eating.” Their meals are often negligible portions of rice. Some lack even a stove, or some oil or salt to cook their meals.

The reason why the government has not been able to properly feed the displaced is partly because the state’s agricultural production has cratered, making food all the more expensive. Boko Haram has not only forced farmers to leave their land, but the militants also loot and pillage whatever land is still under cultivation. Gubio noted that across the state, much of the land hasn’t been tilled in four years, leaving 4.6 million people in the region “severely food insecure.” Hamsatu Allamin, the northeast regional coordinator for the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, said that the remaining Boko Haram settlements along the road make transporting food a high-risk endeavor. But the government’s own soldiers are making it worse. Allamin has heard reports from community members and those that conduct business throughout Borno that some members of the military who monitor transport roads have demanded payment from travelers for protection from the militants.  

People walk past bags of animal food at the cattle market in Maiduguri, Nigeria, March 9, 2016.
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

Even after food is bought and transported to displaced communities, there is an issue of theft by government workers. One UNICEF employee, who asked for anonymity, recalled that a few months ago “an ambulance was taken to a camp, filled with goods for [the displaced], and then driven away.” Hamsatu recalled a police officer posted at Dalori who had witnessed his colleagues stealing goods. But she felt powerless to stop them. Her colleague justified the thefts by saying that “taking from these people is like stealing from a corpse.” They saw the displaced as already condemned to die.     

Although Shettima is an optimist and predicts that “in the next two years, we will bounce back,” the signs don’t point that way. At present, a mere eight percent of the United Nation’s protection programs for the Lake Chad Basin area, which includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, have been funded. Caesar, a UNHCR employee who works with Gloria, notes that “Nigeria is the least funded humanitarian operation by far.” Much of this has to do with the fact that the international community, and the Nigerian government itself, view the country as a wealthy regional model for stability. The relative peace in the rest of the country has overshadowed the war with Boko Haram; the violence is confined to the northeast and the humanitarian crisis is concentrated only in Maiduguri. 

Gubio agrees that the international community seems to lack an understanding of the situation, preventing it from effectively intervening. He told me, ardently, that he had explained to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and others at the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey that “This is not the sort of crisis that the international community knows how to deal with. This is a devil you don’t know.” In the absence of international support and media coverage, “we lose entire communities in the blink of an eye.”

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  • HILARY MATFESS is a member of the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a research analyst working on issues of governance and security in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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