Inside the lion’s den of Nigeria’s Boko Haram

Thousands have fled Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri as the security situation continues to deteriorate.

My five days in Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria – the epicentre of violence perpetrated by the armed group, Boko Haram – was fraught with danger. I had been trying to get access to report from the city for over a year.

I had been told that I needed clearance from the head of Nigeria’s armed forces to report from the ground. I’d also been told that Maiduguri was classified as a “security zone”, off-limits to journalists, according to the ministry of information. In the end, I decided to take a chance and make the journey, hoping to come out with some reportage but prepared to get absolutely nothing too. All this was against the advice of security advisors, professional colleagues, NGOs and government contacts.

For months I had heard that Boko Haram had taken control of not just Maiduguri, the state capital, but large swathes of Borno State. I had been to Maiduguri a few times before, including in 2009 when I reported on the killing of the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, while in police custody.

Before the chaos took hold, I remembered Maiduguri as a surprisingly cosmopolitan and peaceful town, with an eclectic mix of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and subcultures as well as different types of food and music. The people of Maiduguri had struck me as ordinary people, with a somewhat royal air, steeped in their tradition – but at the same time having a somewhat modern and outward look. Borno State shares borders with the former French colonies of Niger to the north and Chad to the north-east – giving one a strange feeling of being in Francophone Africa too.

During my five days there, I found a Maiduguri under siege by Boko Haram fighters and the Joint Task Force. The colour described above had been replaced by a city enmeshed in road blocks, checkpoints, sandbags on virtually every major road and intersection. The city was patrolled by heavily armed military personnel donning ski masks, poised to fire at any moment.

A TV vehicle like our own, visibly packed with television equipment, could easily provoke suspicion. So our first priority was to unpack our kit at our hotel so we could travel light, and go out and talk to as many people as possible.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to film openly in Maiduguri because of the threat of violence from Boko Haram. In our time there we heard the noise of bombs exploding, and bullets being fired – followed by the screeching of JTF sirens that seemed to be coming from all directions. This happened every 2-3 hours. We later learned that Boko Haram had attacked a JTF position with rocket-propelled grenades just adjacent to our hotel.

We were stopped from filming on several occasions by JTF patrols who demanded to know whether we had military clearance to report from the city. It seemed like the only reason we were not forcibly stopped from newsgathering was because the soldiers we encountered were familiar with my face and my reports on Boko Haram. This seemed to cool things down. And – it has to be said – the huge popularity of Al Jazeera English in the region helped.

The security situation in Maiduguri is so bad that tens of thousands of people from “Maiduguri-stan”, as some Nigerians nickname the city, have fled. They are unable to live a normal life, not knowing whether they may be caught up in the daily bomb explosions, suicide attacks and gunfire that rocks parts of the city. Those we spoke to who chose to remain in Maiduguri say it’s because it’s their home and they have no other place to go to, or the means to leave for elsewhere.

According to Father David Bridling, from St Patrick’s Catholic Church, half the Christian inhabitants of Borno State have left. But the “irony” of the Boko Haram insurgency is that more Muslims than people of any other faith have been killed by Boko Haram attacks – even though the group claims to want to “grow” Islam in Nigeria.

The curfew in Maiduguri is strictly enforced. No movement is allowed in Borno State between 2000GMT and 0500GMT. But inhabitants have adopted their own timetable for staying alive. People we spoke to said nobody tries to leave home before 11am and everyone gets back home by 4pm, as most of the fighting between Boko Haram and the JTF happens in the early hours of the day. If there’s no fighting, people rush out to do whatever small-scale business they can to survive, and quickly return home.

Three senior JTF personnel who were gracious enough to meet with us informally about the situation tried to explain just how bad the Boko Haram crisis is. They used the words “war zone”, “Iraq”, and “guerilla war” to describe the battle. They explained that Boko Haram fighters are embedded in many of the communities and neighbourhoods in the city, and that it was impossible to distinguish their fighters from civilians.

Two of the JTF personnel expressed confidence that the “war” would soon be over, though another was more sceptical, explaining that Boko Haram fighters’ “jihad” in Nigeria was being inspired by conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Worryingly for Nigeria and for the region, neighbouring Mali’s northern region – which has recently been overrun by al-Qaeda-linked groups – was mentioned as a possible place from which Boko Haram fighters may be getting weapons. This officer saw no imminent end to the crisis.

Poverty, unemployment, a lack of education, marginalisation, and endemic corruption in Nigeria are cited as some of the reasons why Boko Haram has not been stamped out in over a year of fighting with security forces. There is a feeling that the Nigerian government is not addressing these issues, focusing too heavily on a military strategy to rid the country of the group.

Whatever the case, the journey out of the Boko Haram crisis in Maiduguri will be a complex one. Until the authorities can find a solution that quells the fighting and stops young men from being recruited to the group, Maiduguri will remain in crisis.

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