The government of Borno State recently began resetting displaced persons in their ancestral homes, most of which were abandoned after terrorist attacks.
Since 2009, insurgency by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (Boko Haram) and Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) as well as military efforts to dislodge them has led to over 30,000 deaths and displacement of more than 2.3 million people in Nigeria’s Northeast region.
Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states have borne the brunt of the violence which has created abandoned and inaccessible communities after civilians populations fled their homes to escape attacks or were relocated by the military.
The Governor of Borno State, Prof. Babagana Zulum, and the State Task Force on the Return of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons are accelerating the return and resettling of “willing” persons back to their communities.
The aim is to decongest Internally Displaced Persons camps and allow returnees to engage in economic activities such as farming, fishing and trading of agro-products.
The resettlement effort is expected to have a counter-insurgency benefit of encouraging military and law enforcement presence in communities, deny insurgents freedom of harnessing natural resources and bring governance closer to the grassroots.
However, the resettlement also poses significant risks to civilians and the already stretched military.
In most cases, roads leading to the communities are death traps.as the insurgents mount checkpoints to interdict civilians and humanitarian workers and ambush military convoys.
Almeen Yaqub, a security expert tracking the Lake Chad conflict, said Army units in Northern Borno were extremely thinly spread.
He explained that resupplying the population and garrisons protecting them would be exceedingly difficult due to how vulnerable and dangerous major supply lines had become, including the Maiduguri-Baga road.
“Even well-protected military convoys are vulnerable to ambushes as ISWAP has already shown to send that message,” Yaqub said.
In July, a total of 14 checkpoint incidents occurred, mainly in Borno State, up from five incidents in June, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The agency added that in August, the trend increased even with 16 incidents recorded.
On August 2, over 1,200 people returned to their places of origin in kukawa, Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State but the area is currently without humanitarian actors due to the risks involved.
On August 18, the town was attacked with no fewer than 10 dead and hundreds of returnees abducted. In September, the government resettled displaced persons back to the fishing town of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad.
The resettlement was conducted after the reconstruction and rehabilitation of public buildings, residential houses, schools, healthcare facilities, markets and water facilities.
The resettlement effort is taking a toll on the security services, who have been ambushed on a number of occasions.
At least 18 members of the security team escorting some government officials to Baga were killed in an ambush on September 25. A day later, on Sunday, the governor’s motorcade returning to Maiduguri from Baga was involved in an attack scare.
“Baga is of strategic importance to ISWAP, losing it or having an entrenched government presence there would seriously affect their much needed fish trade revenue so of course, they would do anything possible to thwart the resettlement plans unfortunately,” Yaqub said.
He also said the town faced threats such as incessant mortar attacks, convoy ambush, restricted access to farmlands, attack on fishermen and extortion.
On Wednesday, about 10 soldiers were killed when a Nigerian military convoy was ambushed along Marte-Dikwa road.
The state government plans to also return more displaced persons in the coming weeks to Marte and Abadam.
Marte on the western coast of Lake Chad used to be a major agriculture community and Nigeria’s main wheat producing area.
The state governor recently visited the area and held a meeting to facilitate the supply of electricity to Marte and environs in a bid to reactivate the irrigation system and farming in the area.
Marte is part of the areas covered by the South Chad irrigation project, built to channel water from Lake Chad to irrigate farmlands.
Muhammad Ibrahim, a development advocate and resident of Maiduguri, described the resettlement plan as premature and could cause more harm than good.
Meanwhile, humanitarian partners are advocating that returns be made in line with the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in the continent and for the conditions to allow for safe, voluntary and dignified returns.
Yaqub told HumAngle that greater assistance from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was required for resettlement plans to succeed.
A “Chadian contingent in Northern Borno would go a long way in tying up ISWAP resources and combat forces, giving the NNigerian Army a greater degree of operational freedom,” he said.
In January, 1,200 Chadian troops withdrew from Nigeria after the end of their months-long mission fighting Boko Haram alongside the Nigerian military in northern Borno.
Soldiers from Niger, Cameroon and Chad under the MNJTF have frequently undertaken joint deployment and operations with Nigerian troops in Borno concurrently with national and MNJTF campaigns in the respective countries.
The renewed efforts by Borno State Government could also alter the ever changing conflict and strategies.
In July 2019, the Nigerian Army announced a new Super Camp strategy in response to attacks on smaller ‘forward operating bases’ (FOBs) along the fringes of Lake Chad and northern Borno and on mobile units.
The camps concentrate soldiers in military strongholds located in fortified garrison towns such as Damboa and Monguno, from where troops are deployed for patrol and raids.
In October 2019, Lagos-based think tank, SBM Intelligence, reported that the strategy had affected the military’s ability to dominate the area of operation and keep troops in remote areas in order to deny the insurgents free movement.
Resettling displaced persons will require the deployment of troops and government support services in these areas, which can have an impact on the garrison approach introduced in 2015 and super camp strategy, experts noted.
According to a senior government source, Boko Haram can only be reduced if displaced persons are returned back to their respective towns and villages and given adequate protection because they are agrarian.
The source stated that Zulum was inspired by his experience while he was the Commissioner for Reconstruction Rehabilitation and Resettlement during which the reconstruction of towns such as Bama, Gwoza, Askira, Damboa, Mobbar was done by his predecessor.
According to the source, Bama is now relatively peaceful and accessible, from Maiduguri to Bama without military escort.
This may be the reason the governor is pushing efforts to resettle people in their homes, the source said.
“Look at Ngala, Dikwa and Mafa. Because of the resettlement plan, the road has become very busy and life has started picking up,” the source added.
Regarding the safety of the governor, the source noted that for every trip the governor embarked on, extra security measures were taken by formally notifying the security agencies.
The security team in the governor’s entourage include soldiers, policemen as well as personnel of Department of State Service and Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, the source said.
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