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Halted Inheritances, Marriages … Lives On Hold Due To Nigeria’s Disappearances

Humanitarian organisations and government agencies are increasingly working together to reverse the trend.

With the disappearance of her sister, Mairam Modu says she lost more than a sibling. She also lost a mother figure.

“She was my inspiration and was always there with kind words of encouragement when I wrote my first university admission examination. She is someone who will sell her possessions to support me,” she explains.  

She had lost contact with her sister while she was visiting relatives in the Bama area of Northeast Nigeria when terrorists launched a surprise attack on the town.

According to the latest tally from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), over 25,000 people have been reported missing in Nigeria, about 40 per cent of the total figure across Africa. “During displacement, children face risks such as exploitation, violence, mental distress and disappearance. Many also end up alone, with no news of their families’ whereabouts,” notes the humanitarian organisation.

Many of the cases involve people, sometimes breadwinners, whose whereabouts are unknown for several years. Their families and loved ones often face untold hardship and trauma as a result.

Every Aug. 30, the world marks the International Day of the Disappeared, set aside by the United Nations (UN) to show care to and support people silently going through emotional distress, especially in cases of enforced disappearance.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished during conflicts or periods of repression in at least 85 countries around the world,” the UN stated.

“The families and friends of the victims, experience slow mental anguish, not knowing whether the victim is still alive and, if so, where he or she is being held, under what conditions, and in what state of health. They alternate between hope and despair, wondering and waiting, sometimes for years, for news that may never come.”

When a person dies, the family is at least certain about their fate and, often, no further evidence will be requested apart from a death certificate. But when a person is missing, it creates a vacuum in the minds of family members, and the only thing capable of filling that vacuum are answers that are elusive for several years.

Amodu Dogo’s father was missing for almost six years, and whenever he wants to perform some family-related tasks like transferring land titles to himself as the eldest son, he gets blocked by one question: “Is your father dead or what happened to him?” 

He cannot answer because he does not know.

Bukar Kalumbu too needed access to his father’s resources. One time, he wanted to pay his junior sister’s school fees but when he approached the bank where his father’s account is, they asked for a death certificate and evidence that he was appointed next of kin. Even if such documents could be obtained, Bukar does not want to get them, fearing that it would mean sealing the old man’s fate and wishing him bad. What if he is later found to be alive?

Yagana Maina is searching for answers regarding her husband’s whereabouts too. Some family members had brought suitors who would marry her as a widow, but Islamic law stipulates that the wife of a missing person has to wait for at least four years and four months before he can be presumed dead and she can remarry. Currently, she struggles to feed her three children as a single mother.

In the case of Fatima Kamsulum, her suitor’s family insisted they needed to know her father’s whereabouts before they could endorse the marriage. “Marrying a daughter from a house controlled by a woman is not possible in our ways,” some of them said.

Apart from people missing as a result of the Boko Haram crisis, other factors have included natural disasters like flooding and irregular migration across the trans-saharan route.

In the midst of these challenges, humanitarian organisations are tackling the problem head on in trying to reunite separated families and confirm the whereabouts of those reported as missing.

The ICRC, for example, has registered tens of thousands of cases and continues to update its records. It also actively searches for missing people in collaboration with the  the Nigerian Red Cross Society under what is known as the Restoring Family Links or Protection of Family Links programme.

With its Accompaniment Programme, the organisation is training, equipping, and supporting families. It gets family members of missing persons to help other affected families in their communities cope with the psychosocial toll.

The programme was first started in Yola, Adamawa State, and has now been introduced in Borno. 

“Alongside our search efforts, we run an accompaniment programme in Yola which allows trained volunteers from affected communities accompany and provide psychosocial, economic, protection, legal and administrative support to hundreds of families of missing persons to help them cope with their suffering,” the ICRC explained last year. 

“Based on the concept of mutual support, the accompaniers are drawn from a select number of families of the missing from each community. The programme is currently carried out across four communities of the north-east, each with a significant population of internally displaced persons. It creates networks that provide coping mechanisms and a voice for the families within their communities.”

The initiative, which runs in cycles of roughly three months, features support group sessions done jointly with accompaniers to address the families’ various needs. Economic support is also given to the most impoverished families in the form of access to livelihood or facilitating new businesses.

“However, assistance from us is only a small part of the bigger picture, and alone, is not enough,” the organisation noted.

Asides the ICRC, other organisations are contributing to unravelling and resolving the problem as well. The Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) has supported several groups, including a government agency, to better document the trend.

Last year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) launched a national missing persons register, to begin with a pilot phase in Borno State. And though there have been challenges in implementing, the agency says it has successfully found and reunited some families.

“The issue of missing persons [has] become increasingly prominent in Nigeria, not only because of the consequence of the conflicts in the various parts of the country, but as a result of acts of criminality nationwide, senseless and ruthless killings, and armed hostilities,” NHRC executive secretary Anthony Ojukwu said in August.

“We have established the database of missing persons in Nigeria, which would address the gap which exists in documentation of cases, and also gives families the platform to engage with in addressing the cases of their missing loved ones.”

On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared observed in Abuja last month, officials of the federal humanitarian affairs ministry also pledged their commitment to helping families of missing persons reunite with their loved ones.

As work continues, thousands of families in northeastern Nigeria continue to nurse the vacuum left by their people’s disappearance.

“Most times, I used to go and stay in the place my father usually sits to do his ablution,” Abubakar Mayami told HumAngle. He had neither seen nor heard from his father since they escaped a terror attack on Baga in 2014.

“I don’t know why but for the last seven years that I lost contact with him, I have felt this emptiness whenever I remember him even though I am an adult.”

The names of the people in this report have been changed to protect their identity.

This report was produced in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) under the Missing Persons Register’s Population and Amplification Project.

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