Our reporter, SAMUEL MALIK, was embedded in military convoy that recently toured towns and villages recovered from Boko Haram insurgents in the North east. Below is his report on efforts to make residents return to the liberated communities.
Less than two years ago, major towns such as Bama, Banki, Pulka, Gwoza, Bita, Askira-Uba, Damboa, Chibok, and Bulabulin in Borno State and Michika, Madagali, Gulak, and Mubi in Adamawa State were all occupied by Boko Haram insurgents, one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
Having invaded the communities, killing innocent people and burning properties, lucky residents fled to other states to seek refuge. Over 20,000 people, including children and women were reportedly killed by the group in the last seven years while more than two million are displaced.
Initially believed to be on a mission to Islamise the north when it targeted churches and Christians, Boko Haram soon showed it cared less for Islam and the welfare of Muslims as it became less discriminatory in its attacks killing followers of both religions and attacking churches and mosques.
Banks, schools, hospitals, worship centres, and other infrastructures were not spared.
But months of intense military onslaught has weakened and decimated the group, and forced its members to flee territories they hitherto occupied. Having secured the communities from the terrorist group, government has said the process of reconstruction had taken off. With the towns now rid of insurgents by the military, the government is encouraging civilians to return to their communities and get back to their lives.
A recent visit to the liberated towns by our reporter showed that the civilians are heeding the call to return home. With the exception of Bama, Banki and Bita, many people are returning to their homes, particularly in towns in Adamawa State, where life and business activities have fully resumed.
Traders are opening their shops, closed for more than a year, and life is beginning to look normal for many. Hawkers, a common sight in these communities before Boko Haram invasion, have returned to the streets and calling attention to their wares. Men, women and children could be seen in their farms or going about their daily chores.
Bama: A symbol of Boko Haram’s carnage in the North east
In Bama, one gets an insight into the astonishing level of destruction Boko Haram visited on the North east.
Less than 70 kilometres from Maiduguri, Bama is the second largest town in Borno State after the capital. According to the 2006 census, the town has a population of 269,986 people.
The first large scale attack on Borno by Boko Haram was visited on Bama on May 7, 2013, when about 200 heavily armed insurgents in 18-seater buses and six Hilux vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns invaded the town. The target was the 202 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, Police station and barracks and other government buildings.
Armed with rocket propelled grenades, general purpose machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, improvised explosive devices; the insurgents razed the police station and barracks, the local government secretariat, Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, office, magistrate court, a primary school, and other structure.
At the end of the attack, 53 people were left dead and 105 prisoners freed from the Bama Prison.
Although the army barracks survived the attack, the marker was laid for future incursions.
On September 1, 2014, the group launched its deadliest attack and this time around it took over the town, with security agents joining civilians to flee. People were rounded up and shot, including elderly people who were too weak to escape. Many were simply slaughtered.
“The rain helped to wash the town clean. What you saw there was nothing. If you went there last year before rain started, the whole place reeked of decomposing bodies. There was blood everywhere,” a soldier said.
According to Mohammed Ibrahim, an indigene of Bama and also a health worker, the town has been attacked 12 times by Boko Haram.
“In October last year, we were on our way to Bama when we decided to stop at the bridge that leads into the town. It was said that was a place where people were slaughtered. We decided to check around if we could find any corpses for burial. Just as we descended down the bridge, to my surprise, I saw the skeleton of my colleague at the office with his ID card. At the end, we retrieved 56 such skeletons without even going further into the surrounding bush,” Ibrahim said.
What is left of the town, after its recapture by the military on March 17, 2015, are the relics of the multiple attacks – dilapidated buildings, charred vehicles and empty streets, save for soldiers. The once economically thriving town, Bama is now a ghost town, where 26,000 displaced persons are sheltered in horrible conditions on a hospital compound.
The only sign of life in the once bubbling town are soldiers keeping watch. The movement of people in the IDP is still limited to their camp.
In the other towns, especially in Adamawa State, the scale of destruction is not the same with Bama, as the insurgents mainly targeted banks, power installations, places of worship, and government properties. Many houses are still intact. but empty, perhaps, signifying some reluctance by residents to return home.
Civilians appreciate the military
In all communities visited where civilians had returned, they trooped out at the sight of the long military convoy led and trailed by the impressive looking Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected REVA III left behind by South African mercenaries contracted by former president, Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, cheering, waving ecstatically and rushing to call their neighbours.
“God bless you, victory is yours, we are grateful,” excited residents shouted in Hausa and whatever English they could manage, as they waved at the soldiers, some of who responded.
“They are appreciative of what the military has done,” Mustapha Anka, a Colonel and spokesperson for 7 Division in Borno State, said.
Even children seemed to understand and recognise the significance of the military’s intervention in their communities. Some of them, as young as three, shouted greetings to catch the attention of troops. They waved, shouted and threw out the soldiers’ salute as a mark of respect for the troops.
“Peace has returned, as people are going about their normal activities without fear. Businesses have returned while famers are back to their farms. Also, you can see children playing in the open. All this is made possible by the sacrifice of soldiers with support from other security agencies,” the Emir of Mubi, Abubakar Ahmadu, said when the General Officer Commanding, GOC, 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, Victor Ezugwu, paid him a courtesy visit.
In Borno towns of Damboa, Askira-Uba, Chibok and surrounding villages, like in Adamawa State, life has fully returned. Elderly people were seen sitting outside in the night due to the heat while youths take a stroll. Children were seen playing under the moonlight. Business centres were lit by generators, with phones and batteries brought for charging. Young girls and women sold gruel while some sold bean cake for breaking of Ramadan fast.
The opening of the Maiduguri-Damboa-Biu Road by the military has also proved vital in getting people to return to their communities. This important road had been closed for three years because it was one of the most dangerous roads in the northeast, as it separates Sambisa and Alagarno, the hitherto spiritual and military base of Boko Haram.
To keep the military at bay, Boko Haram planted numerous improvised explosive devices both in the middle and by the side of the road. The military anti-bomb team had to clear the mines and patch up the damaged road, which took quite some time.
“All these patches you see on the road were done by our men. They were holes made by IEDs and we had to fix them because we were using the road,” Anka, who was also the former media co-ordinator for the counterinsurgency operation, said.
Opened four months ago by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, a Lieutenant General, the army is not taking chances despite absence of attacks. Escorts are provided daily for motorists from Maiduguri to Damboa and back.
All vehicles plying that road from Maiduguri gather together in a convoy and are escorted by soldiers, while the road is patrolled by men of the Motorcycle Battalion. Those leaving Damboa to Maiduguri wait at the motor park to be escorted by the same team after the arrival of those from the state capital.
“Between 230 and 250 vehicles ply this road daily to Maiduguri while as many as 300 come from there. There has been no attack since the road was reopened three months ago because the army provides security for us,” Bukar Kolo, deputy chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, NURTW, noted, adding that peace has returned to the town.
Also working with the military in Damboa is the youth vigilante group, Civilian JTF, with offices is located within the motor park, and its men constantly walk around the park as a way of surveillance. The leader of the group in Damboa, Alarama Mohammed, said the synergy between the C-JTF and the military has been key to ensuring safety of civilians in the town.
The significance of this is not lost on the military and Ezugwu told the www.icirnigeria.org why it is important for civilians to return to their communities.
“Borno state was facing a food crisis. There was a time that we were losing IDPs due to shortage of food. (But I have seen) peace and security being restored in local governments and villages, I saw markets and places of worship and business activities springing up, I saw farming activities.
“Now that I have seen farming has picked up, it is a guarantee that next harvesting season, there will be enough food for people to eat and this is closely linked to the security provided by soldiers. So, it gives me a lot of joy. I feel satisfied and fulfilled that peace is actually beginning to return to hitherto troubled places,” Ezugwu explained.
Not yet Uhuru
Apart from Bama, Banki and Bita, there are still communities in Pulka, Gwoza and Damboa completely deserted due to pockets of attacks by insurgents once in a while. This is even evident in places where there is no military presence or buildings and infrastructure have completely been destroyed, leaving civilians with nowhere to stay if they decide to return.
In Banki, a key border town recaptured from the insurgents 10 months ago, there were no civilians in sight, and most of those rescued were taken to Bama IDPs camp. The insurgents are not giving up this important town without a fight and thus, it is unsafe for the return of civilians.
Capturing this town and Banki Junction along Bama-Gwoza road has seriously affected the activities of Boko Haram, which used the junction as a major access point to Sambisa Forest and Gwoza.
It is the same thing in Bita, which was recaptured by men of 114 Task Force Battalion on May 15, 2015, after troops of 81 Battalion were dislodged two weeks earlier. Since the recapture, there have been about 30 unsuccessful attacks by Boko Haram to reclaim it. This has also made the town a no-go area yet for civilians.
“Civilians have not started returning because here is not safe now for them to return,” Monday Daniel, a Corporal and member of the taskforce, said.
Despite the significant success against Boko Haram, the military admits there are areas civilians are yet to return. One of the reasons, according to Ezugwu, has to do more with the destruction of infrastructure rather than the presence of insurgents.
“Much as I am satisfied that peace is returning to some areas, there are still some areas that we do not have our citizens in those places, where their houses that have been destroyed are yet to be reconstructed,” the army chief stated.
What manner of reconstruction?
In September 2015, Borno State created the Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement to take charge of rebuilding destroyed communities and resettling displaced persons. But nine months after, our reporter observed that there are no signs of communities being reconstructed yet in the places visited.
In the towns visited, the only visible structure reconstructed was a school in Adamawa State by the Presidential Initiative on Northeast, PINE.
In Borno State, aside moulded blocks, there were no signs that reconstruction work had started in Bama, Pulka, Gwoza, Chibok, Askira-Uba, Damboa, etc.
There is a massive rebuilding work, however, taking place in communities and settlements along Damaturu-Maiduguri road, which is understandable. It is the gateway to Borno state and would give travellers the impression that work may be going on elsewhere.
There have been serious allegations that the southern and central zones of the state are being neglected by the state government.
“You have been to these places and seen for yourself. So, you are in a better position to say whether or not work is going on,” a displaced person from Gwoza told our reporter.
The government did not respond to our inquiry, as Isa Gusau, spokesperson to Governor Kashim Shettima, did not reply an email requesting information about areas under reconstruction.