LONG READ: What shall we do about the North East?

Surely you must have noticed, the North East of Nigeria has been on a multi-year war that had killed thousands and left millions homeless.

Which is perhaps the problem – a lack of precision can lead to a lack of empathy, so that slowly a citizenry finds itself deadened to ‘thousands’ and ‘millions’; just another set for numbers for a distant tragedy.

So maybe some specific numbers.

Between 2009 and the date this piece was written, Boko Haram reportedly killed over 20,000 civilians across several Northern states (a clear majority of the terror attack localised in the North East, particularly Borno state) and displaced over 2.3 million persons from their homes.

Destruction in Bama
Destruction in Bama

As politics led to paralysis with government, the insurgents grew in numbers, along the way acquiring sophistication and expansion of operations, including outside Nigeria.

What started off with soft targets, as the world now knows, soon grew into a fearless operation on the offensive against our military, attacking government locations, and claiming territories faster than a conquering army. Indeed it was only last year that the Global Terrorism Index tagged this band of killers the most deadly terror group in the world.

We, the people of Nigeria

And what about the people who Boko Haram has willed to crush?

First, in 2013, Nigerians met a local group of superheroes if there ever was – the Civilian Joint Task Force, a loose group of citizens first formed in Maiduguri who decided that enough was enough.

Soon, working with the military, these civilians managed to push Boko Haram further and further away from territories previously held, liberating towns and powering down the capacity of the enemy.

And as the military pushed the militants away, citizens in the region planted their feet firmly on the ground, determined to succeed and, simply, to live again.

The citizens are the real story.

They have been relayed, newspaper to public, research paper to world, as numbers. And inevitably, the victims of a single story – of helplessness, and gloom, and the erosion of a future, for those who had seen the very worst.

But no one had told the story of Dauda Abukabar.

Originally from Bama – the second largest local government area in Borno state – the 20-year-old Abubakar’s life changed forever the day Boko Haram attacked his hometown. And then he lost his father only a few months after, saddled with caring for his fourteen siblings and his father’s two wives.

The Boy from Bama
Dauda Abubakar, the Boy from Bama

Slowly taking charge of his life, he moved with his family to the Dalori camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), where Abubakar learnt how to make the popular ‘Bama cap.’

Then his luck changed. Taken under the wings of Bala Geidam, a philanthropist and realtor, Abubakar is now a Political Science student at the College of Education, Bama.

But trouble remains for other boys in the region.

Over 12,000 young people are members (mostly boys and young men) of the Civilian JTF. Their lives disrupted, as the war winds to an end, they find themselves with nothing to do.

Young men who have seen war, whose arms have been trained for battle, and who may or may not have access to local weapons – what will their hands find to do?

The thought keeps Abba Aji Khalli awake at night.

The man who has commandeered the CJTF in the past few years, Khalli, referred to as ‘Elder’ by his troops, is a former auditor employed by the Borno state civil service. Born and educated in the ancient city of Maiduguri, Khalli moved to save his beloved city from the hands of blood thirty terrorists. His troops, possessing little training and weapons, went where the armed forces hadn’t, pushing the terrorists away from Maiduguri and restoring peace to the region.

civilian jtf for the commander story1
The Commander: Civilian Joint Task Force members

About 250 of the CJTF members have been absorbed into the Nigerian military while another 1,850 are paid a monthly stipend of N15,000 by the state government. Yet a great majority of them are left with little to do, and nothing with which to make a living.

Khalli truly fears.

“I ask the federal government,” he says “Between the Niger Delta militants and my boys, who are more responsible? Who ought to be taken care of?’”

Infographic: The North East in numbers

Still, we rise

“But we will manage till something better comes so my children can go to school,” says Falmata, a 32-years-old mother of four who had suffered a miscarriage months after surviving a Boko Haram attack on her village. “We survived Shekau’s men, we can survive hunger.”

There is Mamman Abba, a 43 year-old father of six children, who has seen it all.

He survived thirteen different Boko Haram attacks, until the fourteenth one forced him to flee his home, abandoning the life he had always known. In a bid to save himself and his family, Mamman was cut off from his wife and six children for days, lucky to find them after a long trek to Maiduguri.

This is a man still scarred from losing his 13-year-old daughter, who died in his arms in an attack on his hometown.

It took him months and cost him hope, but Mamman – now a 200 level student of Public Relations at the University – finally found his family. And hope.

Then there is 6-year old Jibrin – his scars emotional, and jarringly physical.


Jibrin lost his father in a terror attack, one that left his face so badly burnt, he needs major facial reconstruction surgery.

Now, he must wear a mask, and not just to hide his scars, but also to keep his ears and skin from falling off.

Fiona Lovatt, founder of a not-for-profit called Lovatt Foundation has taken the wounded child under its care. But for now, they can only do the basics of sustenance until Jibrin can get the medical intervention, and reconstruction he urgently needs.

How to help

We are part of this

Adamawa, like Borno, is also picking up its pieces.

Boko Haram’s repeated incursions have left a trail of bombs, death and destruction. But Yola, Maiduguri, Mubi and all across the huge swaths of land and humanity, hope is impossible to kill.

There is for one, economic restoration.

“This economic rebound is most evident in how property prices have recovered, and even surpassed pre-insurgency levels, particularly in the three major cities in the region: Maiduguri, the northeast’s biggest city—home to some two million people in Borno state; Potiskum, the commercial capital of Yobe state and Mubi, a town on the Cameroonian border that is the commercial hub of Adamawa State,” Mark Amaza wrote in Quartz in May.

“There have been reports that Maiduguri property owners have been able to make up to 500% profit on their properties and there is an increasing demand for land for residential homes construction. The rebound in Maiduguri is particularly notable because it had been Boko Haram’s stronghold for several years before the Army’s operations pushed the majority into the nearby Sambisa Forest.”

There is the same story in Mubi, where he reports that “the population in the city now has even increased to even more than pre-insurgency levels as many from neighboring villages and towns have resettled in Mubi, thus increasing demand for housing and driving prices upwards.”

In Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, a banker, Asauten Anderibom, has firmly refused to run away from his home. Yes, he tells our reporter that he lives in the mortal fear of the past but he is resolute that the future will demonstrably “be better”.

And he is not waiting for government, before he picks up the pieces. Neither are many of them.

Just some kilometers away from Anderibom, a number of refugees have built a thriving community for themselves without the intervention of government. In Malkohi II, this small community of about 1,500 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) behind the Gibson Jalo Cantonment, Jimeta, Yola, is the perfect example of how societies grow even in hard times.

The women are learning to make economic stoves and start up small holder business that at least enable them survive.

But more importantly, they are learning to confront the trauma that has brought them here. They build communities and support groups, held together by not-for-profit organisations that have chosen the North East for mission, and they talk, and they remember, and they fan hope – even if they can’t find good water, they have forgotten good roads, and even food can be a luxury.

No one knows tomorrow is a popular Nigerian saying. But today, at least, the survivors of Boko Haram have chosen to live, and then to thrive.


*This piece wraps up YNaija’s ‘We Survived Boko Haram’ special series focusing on stories of hope, victory, loss, and survival from people living in terrorist ravaged North East Nigeria.

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