Nigeria’s Forgotten Crisis

What strikes me most is the time.

I am in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, and the home to approximately 1.6 million people who have been displaced by the terrorist group Boko Haram. For the past few days, I have been meeting with some of those displaced, and hearing their stories of the attacks that forced them to flee.

As each of the people I speak to tells me their story, almost every single one of them states the exact time that Boko Haram attacked their village: 2 a.m., 6:55 a.m. – the specificity in their recounting making the trauma of the moment even more palpable.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has been terrorizing civilians across Nigeria’s northeast. The group gained international notoriety in 2014 when they abducted hundreds of girls from a school in Chibok in Borno State. #BringBackOurGirls was a rallying cry around the world.

Displaced people living in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Displaced people living in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Unfortunately, the majority of those schoolgirls didn’t come back, and neither have the thousands of other men, women, and children abducted by Boko Haram. An estimated 20,000 have been killed by the insurgents, and at least two million people displaced.

Which brings me back to those whom I met in Maiduguri.

People like Friday, who was 15-years-old when Boko Haram attacked his village. They killed his oldest brother, and Friday and his five youngest siblings were separated from their parents when they ran away from the violence.

Then there’s Rebecca, who was displaced not once but twice, when the first village she fled to seeking shelter was attacked by the group months later. When Boko Haram chased her and her four daughters from their refuge a second time, they were forced to live in hiding for a month, surviving on nothing but wild berries. They eventually made their way to Maiduguri, where she sells firewood to try to support her family.

These are just two of the many stories I heard from the displaced in Maiduguri. Each of the people I spoke to talked of the terror of their encounters with Boko Haram. And all of them now share a new challenge – trying to survive until there is enough security so that they can return home.

Each of the people I spoke to talked of the terror of their encounters with Boko Haram. And all of them now share a new challenge – trying to survive until there is enough security so that they can return home.

More than 90 percent of the displaced in Maiduguri are living outside of camps. Some are able to make a meagre living selling small items or begging in the streets. Others rely on the generosity of host communities, whose resources have been severely stretched as their support for the displaced has turned from months to years. Most of those I spoke to have not received any assistance from government or humanitarian actors. And all of them are hungry, not able to get enough food for themselves and their families.

Even for those living in the government-managed camps, life is not easy. The camps are poorly managed, and assistance is inconsistent and inadequate. Some of the displaced I met say they felt like prisoners in the camp, and all spoke of the need for more food, better sanitation and health facilities, and access to education for the children.

Far more must be done for the displaced of northeastern Nigeria. Although the calls to #BringBackOurGirls may have faded, the needs of Boko Haram’s many victims remain acute. This country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. It is time to bring Nigeria back into the international spotlight. 

Top photo: People flee with their belongings in Maiduguri in Borno State, Nigeria. Credit: REUTERS