Boko Haram attacks have become the “new normal” for way too many Nigerians. In this report from Yola and environs, Nigerians describe how they just try to get on with their lives in times of terror.
The report was originally published in the UK’s Guardian.
Everyday insurgency: Nigerians describe life in the time of Boko Haram
Buhari has promised to oust terror group by December but residents of the north say the threat has become entrenched
Eromo Egbejule in Yola
Monday 9 November 2015
Nigeria’s response to terror attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram has become grimly routine. An inspection, a statement, and then life returns to normal.
In 2014 more than 4,000 people were killed in the ongoing insurgency, with an estimated 2.1 million displaced in the six years since terror attacks began in the north-eastern states.
In the south, far away from the violence, residents of Lagos and Abuja have become numb to the ongoing tragedy as almost daily headlines report attacks, killings and bombings. For everyone, life in a time of insurgency has become normal.
Since his inauguration, president Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly stated he will end the attacks by December – even relocating the army command centre from the capital Abuja to Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s north-eastern home. Yet residents of the troubled region remain sceptical.
In Yola, the capital of Adamawa, one of the states most affected by Boko Haram’s violence, the threat of terror has become entrenched in everyday life.
Sitting in a permanent military base in the city, an officer who asked to remain anonymous describes how he and 122 members of his infantry unit were sent to the battlefront to take on Boko Haram last December. For nine months he fought as part of efforts to recapture key towns such as Gwoza, Madagali and Hong from the militants. “Only 45 of us returned,” he says. “Some were killed by bullets and bombs and others by dehydration, but it’s God that is the ultimate protection.”
In Yola most locals now ignore the 7pm-5am curfew, installed after a state of emergency was declared in 2013. As soon as night falls, the music of Nigerian pop stars such as Orezi and Wizkid booms from speakers in hair salons and the streets buzz with activity.
On one side of the central Bachure street, behind the military base, middle-aged men – both soldiers and civilians – sit around low tables with plates of spicy pepper soup and bottles of beers. On the surface, everything seems to be peaceful.
But it’s not. Just a few weeks ago a suicide bomber with alleged affiliations to Boko Haram struck at a newly opened mosque in Jimeta, a suburb of the city, as hundreds of worshippers gathered to pray there for the first time. More than 100 people were wounded and 42 were killed.
The attack came not long after a double bombing in the city’s main market, killing traders and commuters alike. “It only took two days for the market to reopen,” says local Asauten Anderibom. “Everyone has to feed their families so they went back to trading right at the same spot Boko Haram struck.”
Some residents described feeling dazed by the flurry of violence, as if their lives have been paused. For others life must go on, regardless of the constant threat. Since the insurgency began, the local micro-finance bank where Anderibom works has reduced its staff as business has declined. “Many people have left the city and the queues at the bank have reduced,” he says.
Alice, a 24-year-old working at the local City Green Hotel, says fewer people are visiting Yola. “People don’t come to our bar like before,” she says. “And the management is sacking people up and down.” Her elderly mother lost her shop during the market bombing and the family’s earnings have decreased significantly, so Alice has become the breadwinner for her family of five on her 8,000 naira (£26) monthly salary.
At the universities in town, fear has also taken its toll. “We have had to reinforce protection measures for our students,” says a professor at Modibbo Adama University of Technology, who asked to remain anonymous. “Many of them are already used to being searched from head to toe at the gates.” The army, which supervises many of the searches, now routinely patrols the city and some of the neighbouring towns, with trucks visible at major road junctions from sunset until dawn.
A two-hour drive away from Yola, Okechukwu Agu runs a small bookshop in Hong, a sleepy town surrounded by rocky hills. He describes how his life – and his business – were threatened during a terror attack in November 2014, when news reached the town that Boko Haram militants were on their way.
“I was told that the bus was not going to [come] again so I have to come and pick up my goods at Gombi,” he says, standing in front of his shop. “The reason was: everyone had heard Boko Haram people were coming soon.” A few days later, Agu and his brother, the owner of a local medicine store, were forced to leave town and live with family in Jalingo until it was safe to return.
But not everyone has a place to run to in the face of approaching danger. Across the street from the bookshop, another trader describes how he locked himself in his shop where he sells plastic bowls and buckets, when Boko Haram soldiers attacked. As he waited, he was sure they would kill him.
Instead, he says the insurgents shook his hand and then forced him to pray at a nearby mosque before letting him go. They went on to burn churches, schools and the local government council headquarters, symbols of westernisation and government the sect considers “haram” – forbidden.
For some, the rocks around Gombi were a source of refuge. Muhammadu Dadi Hong and Musa Saidu Hong, are farmers who live in in the town with their wives and a combined total of nearly 30 children. When the arrival of Boko Haram was imminent, the farmers ran into the rocks with their families.
“They came through Mubi shooting guns and the moment we heard [them], we all ran up behind the hills and rocks for hours,” says Dadi Hong. “I ran [away] with my wives and children,” Saidu adds. “We left no one behind.” They survived by eating raw food from abandoned plantations. “There was no shelter. The days it rained, it rained on us,” Dadi Hong says. Eventually, soldiers came to liberate the town after the villagers had been in the bush for weeks.
“They can come at any time again,” Agu says of the insurgents. “Everyone is going about their business with fear and hope. Only God can save us.”