Boko Haram’s Den: Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

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Written by Emma Hall

Nigeria concluded its 2019 presidential elections on February 23, 2019 between two northern candidates, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and opposition Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). With over 80 political parties running in the beginning, this race was an imperative and poignant time in Nigeria’s history. Elections were originally supposed to take place on February 16, 2019 but were postponed one week to February 23, 2019. Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the electoral body set up to oversee elections, declared the postponement was due to “logistical issues.” INEC announced the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, the winner of the 2019 presidential elections. After the elections were announced, opposition, Abubakar, is currently challenging the results in court on the basis of “irregularities,” saying he won by more than two million votes. Inauguration day is May 29, 2019 and the court ruling will conveniently take place after President Buhari has been inaugurated for his second term.

Nigerians travel in large trucks to their villages outside the city center to vote.

The past three presidential elections have been nothing short of bloody. In 2011, an estimated 800 people were killed in election related violence. Boko Haram also took advantage of the country’s unstable political situation in the 2011 presidential election by bombing polling stations, killing gubernatorial candidates in Borno State, and shooting employees in the headquarters of INEC. Boko Haram’s involvement in disrupting presidential elections didn’t change in 2019. On election morning, Maiduguri experienced seven RPG explosions as a scare tactic for voters. They were set off at 06:00, released within a 10-minute period. With polling stations opening two hours later, voters still showed up despite the unstable atmosphere.

Boko Haram has been the root of grief and suffering throughout Nigeria for the past 10 years. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), across the three main affected states, Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe 7.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance out of the population of 13.4 million. Of that, over 80% of the population in Borno State are internally displaced peoples (IDP) in 2019 alone.

A group protesting government corruption during elections.

Founded in 2002, Mohammed Yusuf started what is now known as Boko Haram in Maiduguri, Nigeria. His aim was to attract poor Muslim families across the country, with the political goal of creating an Islamic State. By denouncing police and state corruption, he groomed unemployed and vulnerable youth to join his group. By 2009, Boko Haram started its uprising and curated suicide bombs, kidnappings, and executions. The group’s main targets were and still are today, government officials and buildings, mosques, and police headquarters.

Originally being based on the outskirts of Maiduguri in a community named, Bulabulin Ngaranam, as Boko Haram grew in size, it relocated to a place now known as Sambisa Forest. This forest is an ambiguous place Nigerians rarely speak of, but is held heavy in their hearts. You can land in Maiduguri and ask the first person you see if they know someone affected by Boko Haram and the answer will be yes. Executions and kidnappings are almost normalized now because of how frequently they happen. Arriving in the city I had no idea the kinds of stories people would be willing to share with me. It was through a mutual friend that I had the opportunity to meet with three children who were held captive by Boko Haram for five years and risked their lives to escape just two months ago.

From left to right, Aisha (13), Lucas (12), and Muhammed (7) (names changed to protect identity) escaped from Boko Haram.

The three children have the same father. Their uncle is a Boko Haram member who took them to the Sambisa Forest to live there without telling their father. Aisha and her little brother, Muhammed, who were kept in a separate camp than Lucas, fled for their lives while ordered to collect food in the forest. A risky attempt that many children had tried and failed. Aisha and Muhammed were eventually found by soldiers and taken to a safe place in case their uncle went in search of them. Lucas had no idea if his brother and sister were alive. He also was brave enough to run away while collecting food just two weeks after his siblings. He made it to an abandoned gas station where he met 12 other kids who had escaped. Many malnourished, dehydrated, and sick. After leaving the gas station to continue his trek to safety, Lucas was the only kid alive that didn’t die from hunger or dehydration. Soldiers found him and took him to a hospital for treatment. Their father had been looking for his kids for five years by the time he was reunited.

The kids sit at their school where they have started intensive therapy and the integration process into a “normal” life. Though the trauma has impacted them so intensely, their lives can never be “normal.” Usually when taking portraits, I have to ask kids not to smile, this was not the case when taking their picture. They stared at me, eyes glazed over and crossing their arms to put on a strong face. When speaking about her experiences, Aisha couldn’t stop fidgeting with her skirt and her legs were shaking up and down, a clear sign of PTSD. She has barely opened up to her therapist about the traumas she endured, but was brave to share one story of her and her friends being used as human shields when the military attacked Boko Haram. The insurgency believed the military wouldn’t shoot at kids. Many children lost their lives and had severe injuries, receiving only paracetamol to treat wounds; simple infections became life threatening.

Security guards walk at the conference explaining the postponement of elections.

The sad truth of this story is that it isn’t the only one. There are many men, women, and children that share similar stories and traumas like this. When you talk to the locals, there are varying opinions about the government’s role in eradicating Boko Haram. Some believe the government is purposely not killing off the terrorist group in order to keep more money flowing within the military and the country. Others believe the Nigerian army just isn’t capable, and most importantly, they believe that the change they were promised by the president will happen. Although each candidate discussed the actions they planned to change in regards to Boko Haram, the conversation surrounding the issue just isn’t enough. And the people of Nigeria keep waiting for the change they are told will come every election. There is no greater burden than bearing an untold story within you, and all those affected by Boko Haram and the empty promises will continue being burdened until the government allows them to tell their stories.