Nigerians who fled Boko Haram return 'home' as presidential race heats up

Pulka (Nigeria) (AFP) –


For Fadi Ali, these last three years have been a terrifying game of cat and mouse with Boko Haram jihadists in northeast Nigeria.

"They slaughtered my husband, my grandmother and two of my children," says the 35-year-old mother from Ngoshe.

Ali finally came across an army convoy and was taken to Pulka, a camp in the country's remote northeast region.

Beside her, Baba Ali, also a native of Ngoshe, says that many people are still trapped in the Mandara Mountains where they survive on roots and leaves, living in fear of the jihadists who have established bases in the caves outside of the military's reach.

As the presidential race heats up ahead of February polls, the Nigerian government and officials of Borno state, the epicentre of the Islamist insurgency, are encouraging and facilitating the "return" of tens of thousands of people.

As he campaigns for a second term in office, President Muhammadu Buhari is working to show that he has delivered on his pledge to defeat the Islamists, saying recently that the ravaged northeast region is now in a "post-conflict stabilisation phase."

But the reality is that people are being sent back to camps across Borno state while Boko Haram is still launching devastating attacks against military and civilian targets.

Pulka is a garrison town built on a model becoming increasingly common across Nigeria's remote northeast region: a devastated town turned into a military base so soldiers can protect satellite camps and humanitarian agencies can distribute aid.

Farmers and ranchers can only go beyond the deep trenches protecting the camp within a five-kilometre (three-mile) radius, and people are confined to their homes or tents from 5:00 pm, when a curfew begins.

- Camp to camp -

Since Boko Haram destroyed his home years ago, Abba Zakara has been shuffled from camp to camp in northeast Nigeria, but recently the farmer was told he could resume a more normal life.

Instead, he ended up in Pulka, yet another camp. "We were told the security situation was better here," Zakara said, his face worn by the nine-year-insurgency far beyond his 41 years.

"Most of the IDPs (internally displaced people) are gathered into small towns that are highly protected by the army but they have limited access to livelihood opportunities", said Fouad Diab, emergency coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"People still have difficulties accessing their farms and move out to work."

On the outskirts of one of Pulka's five camps at the foot of the Mandara Mountains, more than 50 families have just arrived from Banki, a town about 75 kilometres away.

They wait to be assigned to another "temporary" shelter on mats in a large shed.

Like many in Pulka, they are still far away from their homes, tiny hamlets too small to be protected by the military that are at risk of being raided by Boko Haram militants.

The Nigerian army has weakened the insurgents since they controlled swathes of territory at the height of the insurgency in 2014, but the Islamist group has adapted their tactics and they continue to unleash violence in the form of suicide bombings, road ambushes and kidnappings.

- Fresh paint -

Even in Bama, the model town for "post-conflict" Borno state, aid workers have raised concerns about the government's return policy.

The government said it rebuilt 11,000 houses in the city, but many "returnees" are still living in the camps, according to witness testimony gathered by AFP.

Most of the new houses are just repainted walls, a cosmetic upgrade to hide the rubble, and basic services are still missing.

In fact, if anything, conditions are getting worse, not better.

On Friday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was beginning "emergency" services in the overcrowded camp after 33 children had died -- many of malnutrition -- in the first two weeks of August.

Other towns earmarked for "returnees" aren't ready either. There are no doctors, teachers, or local administrators.

"Our main concern is to accelerate the return of civil servants and public services to localities where the security situation allows," Diab said.

On the outskirts of Borno, Pulka and its five IDP camps may be short of government officials, but there's no mistaking that elections are around the corner.

The blue, white and green flag of the All Progressives Congress, Buhari's ruling party, flutter on every street corner, while the smiling faces of its candidates are posted on billboards.