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In northern Nigeria’s conflict zone, camp closures make for high-risk returns

‘When you move people without adequate preparation, that amounts to a secondary displacement.’

More than 2,500 people have resettled in Soye from Maiduguri and are struggling to get on their feet. Obi Anyadike/TNH
More than 2,500 people have resettled in Soye from Maiduguri and are struggling to get on their feet.

When Aisha Kaiwu’s crowded dust-whipped camp for displaced people closed in August in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, she was promised money and a new start on life by the state government if she relocated back to her rural home.


By the time the buses and trailers carrying hundreds of people from her Dalori II settlement pulled up in the hamlet of Soye, 80 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri, Kaiwu was having second thoughts.


Rather than proper homes, it was the same regimented blocks of white tarpaulin huts she had lived in for six years in Dalori II. There were no toilets, no functioning school or health post, and just a single water pump for everyone to share if they paid a small fee to cover the generator’s fuel costs.


The biggest shock was the lack of security. 

“By closing the camps they have created the conditions where people are compelled to move.”

The bush began just behind the tents, and the officials doing the admin check-in for the new arrivals were clearly in a hurry to leave. They said remnants of the jihadist group, People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (JAS) – better known as Boko Haram – were in the area, and warned everyone to be indoors by 4pm.


“That made us really nervous,” Kaiwu, who had lived under JAS control until she managed to escape in 2015, told The New Humanitarian. “They kept talking about the danger; that we shouldn’t leave [any possessions] out in the open: I thought, ‘These people (the state government) have brought us here to finish us off’.”


In October last year, the Borno State government announced it intended to close all 10 formal displacement camps in Maiduguri, the region’s capital, and would be offering cash to encourage residents to return to their rural homes. So far, eight camps have been fully shut, affecting some 140,000 people, with a further 60,000 people on notice.

map of nigeria

The closure programme has been condemned by rights groups. They argue it puts people’s lives at risk, while the lack of consultation with camp residents on alternative options violates both the Kampala Convention on the safe and dignified return of displaced people, and the federal government’s own policy.


“There is no use of actual force, but by closing the camps they have created the conditions where people are compelled to move,” Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian. Privately, parts of the humanitarian system are equally critical, but far less vocal.


The lack of basic services in the resettlement areas – and the absence of livelihood support programmes to ease transition from the formal camps – are additional worries. “When you move people without adequate preparation, that amounts to a secondary displacement,” said Hussaini Abdu, director of Care Nigeria.


Back in harm’s way


Soye is just five kilometres from Bama, the base of the Nigerian military’s 21 Armoured Brigade. But that proximity hasn’t deterred roving JAS units. “We see them in the farms,” said Alimu Adam, who arrived from Dalori II just ahead of Kaiwu. “They stole my [agricultural] chemicals and bean seeds; they even took my shoes.”


The state government insists people are returning to areas where there’s a “reasonable degree of peace”. Yet some of the resettlement locations include the far north, where the military’s presence is challenged by the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), a more proficient fighting force than JAS, its jihadist rival.

“We think the environment is not safe enough for people to move back.”

Last month, during an ISWAP attack on the town of Malam Fatori, at least 20 returnees died in a nearby camp, caught in the crossfire, according to witnesses. There were additional casualties when an airstrike accidentally hit the camp. The New Humanitarian visited survivors being treated at a hospital in Maiduguri, among them a seven-year-old boy, with a fresh dressing on his stomach after surgery had removed shrapnel.


Yet the state government believes the tide is turning in the gruelling 13-year war, and this will mitigate the risks of relocation. It points to a decisive split within the jihadist movement last year, which led to the defection of thousands of JAS fighters – driven out of the bush by ISWAP – and the military’s own widening security cordon around less remote towns.


Abdulhameed al-Ghazali, founder and editor of Maiduguri’s Yerwa Express newspaper, sees the return programme as a strategic step to “fill the empty spaces” in a depopulated countryside. He acknowledges, however, that it also heightens the risk of both recruitment by a politically savvy ISWAP – of potentially poorly integrated and frustrated newly arrived young men – and of sexual violence against women.

The Borno State government’s development plan aims to rebuild after 13 years of war.
Obi Anyadike/TNH
The Borno State government’s development plan aims to rebuild after 13 years of war.

“While we understand the government’s commitment, and even desperation, to stabilise the state, we think the environment is not safe enough for people to move back,” said Abdu. “The military are stretched thin, their capacity to occupy and cover the countryside is extremely weak.”


Recent reports of a possible truce being negotiated between ISWAP and at least one key JAS commander are yet more cause for concern. “We’re experimenting [with the returnee programme],” al-Ghazali told The New Humanitarian. “It’s risky, but these are the circumstances we sometimes have to live with.” 


‘Our concern is with the process’


The state government has long wanted to send home the 1.8 million internally displaced people living in Borno – the majority of whom are not camp-based and are sheltering instead with relatives and friends in the community, or in informal settlements. 


But for Governor Babagana Zulum, a former professor and agronomist, the camps are a particular target. Elected in 2019, he reflects a sentiment widely held that they institutionalise aid dependency, fatten the budgets of unaccountable international aid agencies, and are anathema to the self-reliant traditions of Borno people. 


The displaced in Soye were provided with a starter-pack of food that included maize, rice and cooking oil. For most, the rations lasted less than a month.


Getting farmers back into their fields, and local markets up and running, are key planks of his 25-year development plan. The goal is to rebuild Borno, returning it to its pre-war status as a significant agricultural trading hub. By contrast, the camps represent a war that has killed 350,000 people, including indirect fatalities, and are incompatible with that image, and that mission.

“The intentions are good – to want to get people to relocate back to their communities, to restart their lives,” said a senior humanitarian official in Borno, who asked not to be named to avoid upsetting the state government. “Our concern is with the process.”


The state government argues nobody is being forced to go home. Out of the just over 13,000 individuals that were in Dalori II, roughly 2,500 had moved to Soye by early August. The bulk of the former residents took the first instalment of the cash payment and dispersed into host communities around Borno, or into existing informal camps.  


 A ‘politically correct’ UN


Food has provided real leverage for the closure programme. A month after the governor announced the shutdowns, the World Food Programme halted food and cash distributions to the formal sites, although rations to displaced people living in the community and informal settlements have continued.


Fred Eno, special adviser to UN resident coordinator Matthias Schmale, told The New Humanitarian the halting of WFP aid was due to “funding constraints” rather than an “expression of agreement or disagreement with the camp closure process”.


Yet no food aid for over a year has sharpened the appeal of relocation. Camp-based, male-headed households are promised roughly $222, and women-led families $111 (the gender bias is inexplicable) if they head home. 


It’s a two-stage pay out: The second tranche is conditional on households arriving in their resettlement areas – a so-called “negative pull factor”.

“The UN wants to try and manage the relationship with the state government.”

In a June survey by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, 46% of camp-based displaced people said the main reason they would head home was, “there was no other option”. The second most common response – 29% – was the lack of aid in the camps. Only 15% believed the security situation had improved to an extent to warrant return.


Aid workers The New Humanitarian spoke to said the UN system has become too “politically correct” and should have denounced the return policy – including during a visit to Borno in May by Secretary-General António Guterres. 


“The UN wants to try and manage the relationship with the state government,” said Abdu. “But I don’t think there’s enough common ground. When we assert ‘humanitarian principles’, for example, I don’t think the state government actually agrees with them.”


Despite repeated attempts, The New Humanitarian was unable to get comment for this story from Governor Zulum’s spokesperson, or Mairo Mandara, his special adviser on humanitarian affairs.


Scraping by


Soye is rich, irrigated agricultural land, but it’s a difficult path from displaced person to productive farmer or trader, especially when so little support is offered. 


When The New Humanitarian visited last month, work was finally underway on the toilet blocks, a nearby hospital was being renovated, and an existing school was next in line for refurbishment. A military detachment with gun trucks to escort lorries to the town of Banki, on the border with Cameroon, was a kilometre away, providing a little extra security.


But crucially, nobody had received the promised second cash instalment. With no clarity on when it will be provided, it has created real suffering. Those who can afford it have moved to Bama to try and start small businesses where trade prospects are brighter – or have attempted to get registered in the town’s overflowing displacement camp.


Amsotu Goni, for one, had been banking on the relocation grant: She came to Soye with just $11 after using the bulk of her first payment to settle debts owed in Maiduguri. A start-up food package provided by a Nigerian NGO and state government partner lasted only into mid-August. 


To feed herself, she labours on local farms at a day rate of less than $2. When there’s no work, she collects firewood, making $1 a bundle if she’s lucky enough to find a buyer. Few of the returnees are specifically from Soye, so most have no land rights.

“Humanitarians who are good at early recovery should have been encouraged to get involved from the beginning.”

Relief agencies are banned from providing food aid: The returnees are supposed to rise to the challenge to feed themselves. Although the state government has called for development support to build livelihoods, aid workers say the lack of coordination – and possibly the diversion of resources – has made the resettlement process unnecessarily fraught.


“This has been a missed opportunity for an effective relocation; humanitarians who are good at early recovery should have been encouraged to get involved from the beginning,” said the senior aid official.


For most returnees, there’s no option but to try and make the best of a bad hand.


Aba Modu is the kind of man you sense could make a go of life in Soye given the chance. Before the war he was a successful farmer, and he sees the potential of the land. But right now, his rations exhausted, all he can do is hire himself out to local landowners to clear their fields for the next planting.


“What I’m getting now is just enough to eat and to survive,” he told The New Humanitarian. “But I’m telling myself, ‘just be patient’.” He hopes the coming harvest will be good, because then his plan is to ask a landowner to stake him a small plot and throw in some seeds so he can begin to farm for himself. 


He’s confident that within a few seasons – if the relative security holds – he could repay the debt and gradually expand. “We’re farmers, we’re experts,” he said with a smile. “We can make Soye grow.”


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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