Nigeria’s internal refugees

Displaced: Nigeria´s Internal Refugee
Displaced: Nigeria´s Internal Refugee | Photo (detail): Victoria / © Claudia Cuadra

No terrorist organisation has killed as many people in 2014 as Boko Haram. Anyone with the option to do so tries to escape. The over two million internally displaced people in Nigeria may be little more than statistics to the rest of the population, but they represent a humanitarian crisis.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has spread terror through North East Nigeria in the name of jihad, reducing towns and villages to rubble. The stories of the innumerable victims of their violence and the many dead barely register in the jumble of daily news messages. Although Nigeria has amongst the highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, their plight is rarely discussed. Nigerian writer Ekene Atusiubah thinks that to do so would expose deeper social wounds. ‘No one wants their wounds exposed. The obvious question would be: why do we have so many IDPs? The answer would be because our country is in a state of war. I prefer things to be called by their names.’


The displaced mostly remain within the conflict zone in North East Nigeria. They stay with friends or relatives, in host communities or, in about 8% of cases, in government camps. There are no official IDP camps outside the region: the government is wary of people from the north east, some of whom might be terrorists, arriving in other parts of the country. How to distinguish victim from perpetrator when even women and children blow themselves up in the name of Boko Haram? The displaced are dependent for their survival on charitable aid, mainly from NGOs, churches and individuals. Meeting their basic needs for food, water and health care is a major challenge. Although the violence continues, the government wants the displaced to return to their places of origin. But many remain trapped, in temporary accommodation intended for emergencies, for years on end.

The tales of escape are quickly told, but the suffering behind them takes longer to sink in. Rural areas have borne the brunt of the terror attacks. When a place is occupied, the women and children are either imprisoned or abducted. The young men can choose to join Boko Haram or be killed.

According to Dawa (not his real name), a police officer who took part in an operation against the terrorists in 2013, nearly all of Boko Haram’s members have been conscripted by force: ‘many people in the North East live only for religion, and because Boko Haram fights in the name of religion, they can be convinced. They’re easy prey for the terrorists.’

Those who manage to escape with their lives and their freedom are the lucky ones. ‘Getting away was all we thought about, until there was no money left and we couldn’t go any further,’ says Malluni from Yobe, who reached Abuja with his family. Like most, he can’t wait to return home. The fact that their houses have been destroyed and further attacks are still a possibility doesn’t eclipse the longing to end the instability of homelessness. Lida from Borno, however, doesn’t want to go back. Her eyes mist over at the memory of her children screaming on the journey to Cameroon, when they’d been bitten by scorpions and no one could help them. When they arrived in Cameroon, Boko Haram was there too, so they kept on travelling. Immediately after telling me this, Lida looks calmly over to where some helpers are handing out aid packages, and asks me if there are any saucepans.

Pedro / ©Ekene Atusiubah Pedro / ©Ekene Atusiubah | Photo: © Ekene Atusiubah


I set off on a Saturday morning to visit the IDP colony in Kuchingoro, a suburb of Abuja. I’m shocked to discover that only thirty minutes from Asokoro, an affluent area of the city, nearly a thousand Nigerians are barely subsisting in self-built huts made of plastic bags. Even more shocking is the fact that this settlement has been in existence for ten years, attracting those internally displaced by conflicts all over the country - Nassarawa, Plateau and Kaduna are just some examples. Since the humanitarian crisis in North East Nigeria, the country’s other displaced people have received some attention, though aid projects are still targeted first and foremost at the victims of Boko Haram.

Unsurprisingly, Kuchingoro has a charged atmosphere: people from numerous ethnic and cultural groups and different branches of Islam and Christianity live together in very limited space, in slum-like conditions. They’re exposed to the elements: when it rains, the earth floors of the plastic houses become mud, when it’s oppressively hot outside, it’s even hotter in the windowless spaces. On average, each woman has six or seven children although their bowl of rice is hardly enough for one.

In the midst of all the suffering, though, there are chinks of light. The IDPs at Kuchingoro are well supported by the local church. Some of them have become involved in the primary school, passing their knowledge on to the children.

The prospect of finding work or using their skills in any way is slim for the IDPs as outside the camp they’re greeted with widespread mistrust. Nicholas from Adamawa extends his calloused hands to me, almost reproachfully, calling them the ‘hands of a farmer without land’. Pedro, who has made a name for himself as a striker amongst the camp’s football players, dreams of finding a sponsor for his passion. When leisure is enforced, the card games played by the young men cease to be games, and alcohol is never far away. Suddenly, a big man starts thrashing around wildly with a stick. Other men rush to him and bind his hands roughly. They explain that he’s calm during the rainy season, but when it gets dry, he turns crazy. 24-year-old Victoria pulls me protectively into her hut whereshe shows me photographs of her previous life. But the happy images are tainted by her memories. In a quiet voice, she tells me of 130 men killed in one day, her brother amongst them. Her mother was imprisoned by Boko Haram for nine months. Victoria was able to escape, and spent a week wandering alone through Adamawa. Her hand gropes tentatively for mine, mine for hers. When I leave her stuffy hut, for a moment the heat outside feels almost fresh, and permeated with humanity.

Kuchingoro is just one of many settlements of IDPs and only gives a tiny sense of what the settlements and camps in the north east are like - in Maiduguri they hold up to 20,000 people. According to Fatima Mohammed, aid worker for the Likeminds project, the relationship between displaced people and their host communities is different in every location. The fact that many communities live in extreme poverty themselves can lead to rivalries. The situation is always better where the communities have cultural common ground and where the displaced people have the opportunity to work. Mohammed gives the example of a rural community in Nassarawa that gave land to a farmer who had fled from Gwoza, and declared itself prepared to welcome more refugees. About 450 people came from Gwoza during the course of a year, and the villagers shared what little they had with them. The displaced people told Likeminds workers they would share the aid they received with the inhabitants of the village, because they had shared with them.


The limbo in which the displaced people live should be reaching an end, with plans to return them to their places of origin. But this will first require a year-long phase of reconstruction, both physical and emotional: along with their homes, the displaced have lost their capacity to feel at peace. Their interactions are characterised by suspicion and mistrust. How to recover their faith in fellow human beings and in their country? Following attacks by female suicide bombers in the IDP camps, women were forbidden from wearing their voluminous robes, because they were being misused as hiding places for bombs. Some of the displaced have already been returned to their home towns and villages by the government, only to flee again. As well as blackened earth, Boko Haram had left behind landmines, endangering the life of returnees. When talking about reconstruction, it has to be considered that in some places the roads and bridges needed to transport the required building materials are still not in place.

The shocking situation of Nigeria’s internally displaced has also drawn attention to the miserable living conditions of many settled communities in North Nigeria. ‘Before Boko Haram, people in rural areas in Borno had practically no access to decent health and education provision,’ says Fatima Mohammed. ‘Now we’re talking about giving them those things, things they’ve never had or never even knew existed, although they were living in peace at the time.’ She stresses the importance of making sure aid interventions are sensitive to the existing cultures and customs of the IDPs, to avoid alienation. The question suggests itself of how far it is necessary or desirable to replace previous structures, and how much they might be improved. The government’s pledge to defeat Boko Haram in the near future gives the displaced some hope. But the road from the current situation in which people languish in emergency accommodation to a homecoming to the places they left behind will be a long one - and a task for the whole community.