1. Home
  2. West Africa
  3. Nigeria

Living trapped between Boko Haram and Nigeria’s military

‘The military wanted to make us leave our villages. They’ve attacked us four times, burning houses and crops.’

A group of people stand in line, two apparent military men are around them. In the distance we see a village burning. Nigeria Defence Headquarters
The Nigerian military has been accused of destroying villages in its counter-insurgency campaign in the northeast, and forcing people into government-held towns.

In Nigeria’s long-running jihadist conflict in the northeast, villagers and farmers in the sprawling savannah-like countryside say their lives have been upended by both the insurgents and soldiers.


Since the war began in earnest in 2010, raids by Boko Haram have looted villages, killed and abducted young men and women, forced 2.5 million people from their homes, and collapsed the rural economy.


The Nigerian military, initially on the backfoot, has fought back. But the soldiers are seen by some villagers as yet another threat, their scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign failing to distinguish between jihadist gunmen and civilians.


During a year-long investigation, The New Humanitarian and VICE News gathered satellite imagery, photographs, and videos – as well as dozens of testimonies from local and international aid workers, military experts, witnesses, and soldiers – that all support allegations of international humanitarian law (IHL) violations by the military. Some alleged violations occurred as recently as May this year. 


In more than 30 interviews by The New Humanitarian and VICE News in the northeastern town of Bama in late 2022, men and women described the depopulation of the countryside by military “clearance” operations that they said had torched their villages, destroyed food supplies, and killed those unable to flee.


These actions are in direct violation of IHL.


Maina*, from Amchaka, a village of 110 households roughly 10 kilometres southwest of Bama, worked his white prayer beads as he talked. “If the military had come in a polite manner, to really rescue us, and not burn and shoot at us, then we were ready to leave,” he told The New Humanitarian and VICE News.


Soldiers interviewed in Bama, the headquarters of the 21 Armoured Brigade, said they viewed anyone living in the countryside as likely loyal to Boko Haram. But the villagers who had been driven from their homes described a more complex relationship, where co-existence with the jihadists did not denote support.


‘Commoners’ and fighters

Boko Haram imposes strict controls in the zones it occupies. Women are confined to their homes, unable to farm or interact socially. Travel and trade outside the territory is banned. Petty rule-breaking is harshly punished, typically with detentions and floggings. Perceived disloyalty – including escape attempts – warrants execution.


Boko Haram regard villagers as awam, or “commoners”. They refer to themselves as rijal – literally “men”, fighting for their Islamic faith. The hierarchy leaves awam as little more than serfs. Although all Muslim, the villagers are viewed as religiously ignorant, and by not joining the jihadists, generally not to be trusted – always suspected of trying to escape. 


Yet the awam are a productive, taxable base. Villagers described how each season the insurgents demanded a cut of the harvest, anything from 25% to 50%. They also took livestock – sometimes paying, more often simply seizing – and could grab whatever else they wanted.


Boko Haram fighters do not generally stay in the villages, preferring to separate themselves from people they regard as religiously tainted. They have their own rough-and-ready camps, hidden in the bush, less easily located by the military.


Rural communities say they have learnt to manage the risks of living next to these violent and volatile young men. It’s an accommodation that is a feature of nearly every other insurgent conflict zone, from Colombia to the Sahel.


“They don’t have any support in the village, but we fear them,” said Lawan from Yemati, a village southeast of Bama he said was destroyed by the military last year. “We’re just farmers – somebody with a gun, you have to obey them.”


“People support Boko Haram by force,” explained Barna from Botori, a village of about 150 households. “If you don’t obey, they kill you. Even if in your heart you don’t agree, you must convince them.”


The military describes its destruction of rural settlements as successful attacks on Boko Haram camps. It’s a depiction disputed by the men and women interviewed by The New Humanitarian and VICE News who had survived the raids.


They had come from 20 villages in the Bama area, and in only three – Dugje, Gremari, and Kashimri – did they say there had been armed Boko Haram present in their community. 



Read more: What villagers had to say

The New Humanitarian and VICE News conducted over 30 interviews with men and women in Bama who said they had fled their homes between 2020 and 2022 due to what they alleged were attacks by the army. The following are excerpts from those conversations.  * Names were changed for security reasons.



Bula Ali – number of households uncertain

Village burnt December 2021


“The military wanted to make us leave our villages. They’ve attacked us four times, burning houses and crops. The last time it was in the morning; they entered [the village] and just opened fire. We ran to the bush, but some elderly people and children couldn’t run. They killed eight.


[The real names] of those who were killed are: Bulama (about 56); Ali (20); Ba Modu (70s); Baba Aliy (10); Bintu (the mother); Aisha (15 – Bintu’s daughter); Maina (14); Ba Ali (26).


Six years back, the burning wasn’t so much – maybe once or twice a year. If they burn Bula Ali [that year], they might not burn others. But from last year up to now [October 2022], it’s been continuous burning. Just this year [2022] they burnt Bula Ali, Bula Musaye, Fulatari, Kalari, Shuwari, Bula Ganya, Bula Guddudori, Satr.


During the dry season they can come twice. If it’s not you, then the neighbouring villages. You just hear gunshots or see smoke. People say ‘It’s the military. They are burning houses’.”



Layseri – 70 households

Village burnt Ramadan 2022 (March/April)


“There were no Boko Haram in our village. They would pass through because we had a cement well and were on the way to Sambisa. They would stop and drink, but wouldn’t stay for long. In the dry season, there would be motorbikes passing maybe two or three times a week.


From our village, only two people joined Boko Haram – they had been almajiri [youth learning the Quran] in Maiduguri. But when they came back [after the first rumblings of the insurgency in 2009], they went to Sambisa. 


My advice to the military is that these villages you’re burning are just poor citizens. But where Boko Haram are, they won’t go. They just come and kill elderly people and burn. Maybe they fear going where Boko Haram really are.”



Bula Chinguwa – 200 households

Village burnt October 2022


“The soldiers came and we ran into the bush. They were burning houses and taking our animals, loading them onto their vehicles. It carried on until noon. The soldiers killed two women and a baby that day. The women ran and the military shot them because they were running. 


Twenty of us women were hiding in the bush. The military found us and brought us to the [IOM] camp. I’m not grateful at all. They brought us here, but nobody is taking care of us. We don’t get any food. I registered [with IOM] but somebody stole my tag [you can’t access food without it]. So I just beg in the camp. My husband came to Bama later and he goes out to collect firewood – that’s how we survive.”



Dauleri – 150 households

Village burnt Ramadan 2022 (March/April)


“The soldiers came in the morning. They killed five elderly people, nobody less than 60. They shot them. They took our animals and destroyed our food. They found our reserve – we had dug a store in one of the houses, but the disturbed earth was a sign, and the soldiers knew something was buried there.


We realised we couldn’t stay. The soldiers had burnt us out five times before – almost every year over the past six years – but this one was the worst.


I didn’t come to Bama sooner because I feared arrest. Only children and the elderly live in Dauleri now. The younger men have left to other villages, they fear to come. The people in the villages are more afraid of the military [than Boko Haram]. They can easily kill you and destroy your house and all that you have.” 



Ladanti – 88 households 

Village burnt April 2022


“We stayed in our fields for two days after the military came. They took all our food. We became destitute and couldn’t stay. We didn’t want to be a burden on the neighbouring villages, so we came to Bama.


The soldiers only came to us once. They went to other villages repeatedly. But Ladanti is far from Bama. So when all the other villages like Bula Ali had been emptied, that’s when they came to us.


Around 40% of the village was burnt that day. Most of us came to Bama, maybe only 30% are still there.”



Saksawa – number of households uncertain

Village burnt June 2022 


“Both Boko Haram and the military have burnt our village. Boko Haram did it three times and the military five times.


The last time it was the soldiers. When we heard them coming, we ran. We left only the elderly, as they couldn’t run. They killed 10 people, mostly older people. Two were burnt in their houses [one of them suffered mental problems and was always indoors].


The soldiers don’t differentiate. Everyone they see they think is Boko Haram. Before, the young men had feared coming to Bama, but we heard that the government said, ‘Nothing would happen, don’t be afraid’. So we told our children that we all have to go. We came with the young ones, but I haven’t seen my three eldest, [we got separated]. I don’t know if they are dead or in hiding.”



Abbaram – 200 households

Village burnt February 2022


“When we came to Bama, the soldiers accused us of seeing Boko Haram but not reporting to the military [about them]. We tried to explain that it is not by choice, it’s just survival [the punishment by Boko Haram would be extreme for alleged spying].


Only three people from our village joined Boko Haram, and they went to live in Sambisa. But for those of us who remained, to stay safe with them, you must agree that everything they do is perfect, that the Nigerian government is full of lies. You have to pretend you are with them, that you want to support them.


Also, don’t be rich. If you have too many animals or farm produce, they will always be coming to collect from you [as a tax]. If you are poor, they don’t consider you, they don’t care about you. If you are influential, or farm well, they will come to threaten and disturb you.”



Botori – 150 households

Village burnt in 2020


“People support Boko Haram by force. If you don’t appear to support them they will kill you. If you don’t obey, they kill you. Even if in your heart you don’t agree, you must convince them.


If we see anybody, including the military, we don’t tell Boko Haram. Instead, we hide, because the military don’t differentiate between awam and Boko Haram. The military up to now don’t know who is Boko Haram. They think all the people in the villages are mixed with Boko Haram. But Boko Haram don’t like to stay with us. They stay by themselves in their camps.”



Amchaka – 110 households

Village burnt January 2022


“Boko Haram was always in our area. We didn’t have a good relationship with them, they disturbed us too much. All that we have, they took – all our farm produce. They had roadblocks surrounding the village so we couldn’t escape. If they spotted you leaving, they could easily kill you. 


In our town, nobody followed them willingly. In other places, people might join to stay safe. But joining is not easy. You can’t trust them, and they don’t trust you. They know we want to run and join the government side.”


Ba Ali

Dugje – 45 households 

Village burnt February 2022


“There were two Boko Haram members that stayed with us from time to time. Others came and went. You had to follow their instructions – cutting short the length of your trouser leg for example. If you were disobedient, there was a camp near us, on the outskirts of Bula Musa village. That’s where you were taken for punishment.


[Those two Boko Haram] could do anything they wanted. People were cautious around them. Like in the mosque, you would just pray and go, you wouldn’t hang around. But if you didn’t come for prayers, they would have you flogged [at the camp near Bula Musa]; or if you entered a friend’s house when he’s not there [as you would be alone with his wife]. When the military came, those two hid like us. We heard they are in Sambisa now.”



Bula Daloye

Village burnt in 2021


“We did a bit of trading with Boko Haram. They bought our guinea corn or beans. If you refused to sell, they took it by force. And they also bought at an unfair price.


Two or three in the village joined them because they thought it would be safer that way. I didn’t see them in the village with guns, but sometimes they went on operations with Boko Haram as porters and carried the goods the fighters looted.


We had some small fears about coming here. But we saw that Boko Haram was being weakened by the military, so we had a chance that we didn’t have before to escape.”



Dramadra – 50 households

Village burnt June/July 2022


“Dramadra is on the main road and Boko Haram passes in transit, so the military might have thought Boko Haram was in the village. It has been burnt three times.


Five young men joined Boko Haram from the village. We left them there; they refused to come with us when we ran. They didn’t have guns. They just followed Boko Haram when they were looting. They carried people’s property and got a share. They ran even before we did when the military came.”

In the case of Dugje, several hours walk from Bama, two Boko Haram members – originally from the village but who had moved to the jihadists’ Sambisa forest base where they had new wives – would come to visit their original families. People were always cautious around them. 


They were the first rung of Boko Haram’s administration, keeping an eye on the community. When the military attacked and burnt Dugje last year, the two men fled like everyone else. But whereas the villagers headed to Bama, the two men returned to Sambisa, about 40 kilometres from the town. 


Five people died in the army raid, including a three-year-old child, two former residents said. Terrified by the violence, the child had hidden in a house the soldiers set alight. Two elderly women and two elderly men, too frail to run, also lost their lives – hit by the soldiers’ stray bullets, The New Humanitarian and VICE News were told.


Aisha from Dugje denied the village was ever loyal to Boko Haram. “The soldiers killed two elderly women and a child, can they be Boko Haram?” she noted. “One of the [two] elderly men they shot was even a cleric [who didn’t follow the jihadists' version of Islam].”


Fear of capture by jihadists and soldiers

According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, more than 45,400 people left the countryside for Bama in 2022, but some have chosen to remain.


Despite the taxation demands by Boko Haram, and threats of raids by the military, the villagers interviewed by The New Humanitarian and VICE News said they had stayed in the countryside for a number of reasons – none of which were to do with allegiance to the jihadists.


One powerful inducement to remaining was fear. To try to leave their villages and reach military-controlled territory would be seen as defecting by the militants.


“We were trapped by Boko Haram; we stayed by force.”


Boko Haram patrolled the countryside, often on motorbikes, and the villagers said the punishment for being caught fleeing – especially for men – could be fatal.


“To leave and come here is not a joke,” said Modu from Bula Daloye, roughly 15 kilometres from Bama. “If Boko Haram catches you, they kill you. Even your family would not be safe.”


“They had roadblocks surrounding us, so you couldn’t escape,” noted Maina of Amchaka village. “We were trapped by Boko Haram; we stayed by force.”


If you evaded the patrols by the jihadists, the next worry would be what would happen if you were found in the bush by the military – who typically suspect all young men as, at the very least, Boko Haram sympathisers. 


An almost universal fear was being sent to Giwa Barracks – a notorious detention facility for alleged jihadist supporters in an upmarket suburb of Maiduguri, the regional capital.


“I was always thinking of coming [to Bama], but I had heard of Giwa and was afraid,” said Ba Ali, 25, who arrived in Bama from Dugje in February 2022. “If there is no white in your beard, if you’re a young man, you’re definitely taken to Giwa.”


The imperative to leave was also eroded by a split within the jihadist movement, which weakened the insurgency. In 2021, the rival so-called Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP) raided deep into Sambisa and killed Boko Haram’s notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau. 


“We thought the military would finish Boko Haram [after Shekau’s death], that’s why we overstayed [in the village],” said Aisha from Dugje. “We hoped it would be easier after his death – the war would end and our troubles would be over.”


Despite the unpredictability of the militants – especially those loyal to Shekau – the villagers said they were reluctant to leave their farms for an uncertain future in Bama.


But ISWAP, initially supportive of farmers – offering protection against Boko Haram harassment – last year began ordering villagers to leave the countryside, seemingly fearful of spies, the villagers said.


At the same time, the military had also passed word to assure villagers that being sent to Giwa was no longer automatic. Instead, new arrivals are now stopped at the entrance to Bama and taken to the town’s prison for a “screening” security check. From there, they move to the displaced persons camp run by IOM.


Aisha gave three reasons for her decision to come to Bama. “One, the burning has become too much,” she said. “Two, we heard that the military had said no one will go to Giwa, so we started trusting. And three, ISWAP said we should all leave.”


*The names of the survivors in the targeted villages have been changed to protect people’s identity for security reasons.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.