In Nigeria, closure of IDP camps throws thousands on roads

In the abandoned Bakassi camp, near Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria.

A leaden silence fell on the Bakassi displaced persons camp. Almost nothing remains of this large makeshift village which, a few weeks ago, still housed more than 41,800 displaced people, on the outskirts of the big city of Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria. The tents and tin shelters have disappeared, the clinic has closed its doors and the earthen enclosures have been emptied of their animals.

For seven years, dozens of communities fleeing the atrocities of Boko Haram jihadists took refuge on this land, initially occupied by official housing, now abandoned. But on November 19, the displaced people from Bakassi were woken up in the middle of the night by an official delegation, which had come to tell them that they had eleven days to pack up and go back to their fields.

In the hours that followed, the governor of Borno State personally supervised the allocation of food and financial assistance to each head of the family present: 100,000 naira (215 euros) were paid for the men, and 50,000 naira (107 euros) for the women, as well as a 25 kg bag of rice, a carton of noodles and five liters of cooking oil. Aid supposed to allow them to last three months, the time to resume cultivation of their land or to find another place to live, in Maiduguri or near their land of origin.

The development plan drawn up by the authorities indicates that at least 50% of the displaced people in Borno state will have to leave the camps by next year and that all camps in the state will have to close their doors. ‘by 2026. For the time being, Governor Babagana Zulum has ordered the closure of official camps located around the town of Maiduguri, in order to push the populations towards food self-sufficiency. Four camps representing around 86,000 people have already closed. Five others hosting more than 140,000 people are to follow.

Abuse suffered by refugees

The local government, which ensures that it “Do not move anyone by force”, at justified his decision by pointing out in particular the abuses that refugees endure in these overcrowded spaces where they are victims of sexual violence and at the mercy of the diversion of emergency food aid. But the means deployed to empty the camps are not up to the needs.

“While the departure aid was being distributed, authorities asked all single men to move away. A lot of people my age haven’t received anything at all ”, assures Dahirou Moussa Mohammed. The 25-year-old farmer spent a little over a year in the camp after fleeing the territories occupied by Boko Haram, where he says he was forcibly taken following the invasion of his village by the jihadists in 2014.

Binetou Moussa and his family moved their tent to land lent by a local resident, just a few meters from the perimeter wall of the Bakassi camp (Nigeria).

Since Bakassi closed its doors, Dahirou has settled on a bare concrete slab, just a few meters from the perimeter wall now guarded by armed guards. “We recovered the canvas from our tents, the wooden structures and the sheets of the roof and moved them here”, explains the young man.

In a statement released on December 21, Human Rights Watch regrets the lack of “Consultations to prepare the displaced to return to their homes or to inform them of the possible alternatives” and recalls that nothing is known about the fate of 90% of the people who left Bakassi at the end of November. “Multiple displacements are likely to increase needs in areas where the humanitarian presence is already limited. This is of particular concern, given the indicators of food insecurity in the region ”, notes the INGO Forum Nigeria coalition.

2.4 million people at risk of hunger

According to a United Nations report from October, 2.4 million people are at risk of hunger in Borno, ravaged by twelve years of conflict. NGO concerns were further escalated with the publication of an official letter dated December 6, expressly banning food distributions in recently resettled communities. ” The deliberate creation of needs by humanitarians will not be accepted (…) Let people build their resilience ”, the governor insisted during a closed meeting with NGOs on December 21. He accuses them of making populations dependent on humanitarian aid without offering them long-term development solutions, in order to continue to benefit from the crisis.

Although the plan to close the Maiduguri camps has been mentioned repeatedly by the leaders of Borno in recent years, the execution of this plan by Governor Babagana Zulum has surprised everyone. “People need to find their land and we understand that, except that the current process is extremely questionable”, worries the head of an international NGO, who prefers to remain anonymous given the climate of mistrust that currently reigns in Borno. “We don’t even know how they are going to go home, given the dangerous nature of the trip, and we have no means of accompanying them “, she regrets.

The Bakassi camp (Nigeria) was improvised seven years ago, on land normally dedicated to official accommodation.

“IThe local government must recognize that the security situation does not allow these returns for the moment. In the current context, I am afraid that the displaced will be pushed into the arms of the insurgents ”, supports a Nigerian humanitarian who works for another international organization.

It is for fear of violence that Binetou Moussa has chosen not to take the way back. “Those who tried to reach our village of Agapalawa quickly gave up. There is nothing left there and it seems that gunshots are heard in the bush every day. I never want to go through this again! “, justifies the old woman who keeps in her the terrifying memory of her long flight on foot to Maiduguri, seven years ago.

Read also How southern Nigeria is trying to regain control of its security

Without being able to reach their village, many displaced people from Bakassi ended up stranded in Pulka or Gwoza, more than a hundred kilometers south-east of the regional capital. “They are sleeping outside in the market and they don’t even have enough money to come back here!” “, Binetou growls, wringing his gaunt hands. In these secondary towns secured by the army, the threat of an attack remains omnipresent beyond the trenches dug with the backhoe to prevent infiltration of jihadists. A situation which limits the agricultural prospects of the returnees.

The Islamic State in West Africa group (Iswap) is indeed active in some resettlement areas. “The army controls the secondary towns throughout Borno well, but they do not therefore hold the countryside”, underlines Vincent Foucher. “Iswap does a fundamental job [dans certaines zones rurales] with patrols to collect taxes, control people and even bring justice within communities ” develops the researcher at the CNRS.

And although ISIS is more peaceful in its dealings with civilians than was Abubakar Shekau – the historic leader of Boko Haram disappeared in May 2021 in clashes between rival jihadist factions – the risks to unaffiliated populations are very real. “If we send people back to secondary towns, Iswap could attack them”, warns Vincent Foucher. Without forgetting the civilians “Left to work in the territories controlled by Iswap and which were victims of army bombardments”.

Read also In Nigeria, fighting between Boko Haram and ISIS intensifies around Lake Chad

In a report released on December 15, Amnesty International describes attacks that targeted returnees during 2021 in Agiri, New Marte and Shuwari. The NGO adds that “Some were forced [par les militaires] to remain in the resettlement areas, despite the escalation of violence ”. From a political point of view, the closure of the camps would be a means of reclaiming territories and even of trying to put an end to a twelve-year conflict. Even if this amounts, in the words of Vincent Foucher, to “Leaving people with little mobility, surrounded by jihadists and forced to live with an army under pressure”.

Only a few meters from the surrounding wall of the Bakassi camp (Nigeria).

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