Boko Haram, IDP returns and political calculations in Nigeria

Why are IDPs being urged to return to unsafe areas in Nigeria’s northeast?

Nigeria Boko Haram
Local volunteers carrying weapons stand in the Jiddari Polo area in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, after an attack by Boko Haram fighters, in Nigeria on April 27, 2018 [Reuters/Ola Lanre]

On June 17, the Nigerian army announced that 2,000 internally displaced people were to go back home to the district of Guzamala in Borno state, northeast Nigeria. This was made possible by “the achievements recorded by the troops of Operation Lafiya Dole”, an army spokesperson declared.

The announcement followed Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai’s call on internally displaced people (IDPs) to return to their homes in northern Borno state after a months-long operation against the Boko Haram armed group there. Another 1,200 IDPs returned to the city of Bama in Borno state in April.

The June 17 announcement of the return of IDPs to Guzamala was widely publicised and celebrated in the Nigerian media and the departures were even attended by local dignitaries.

But there was one disturbing detail that seemed to drown out by the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the army: that IDPs would be arriving to an unsafe area and destroyed homes which they would have to rebuild themselves. The military vowed to escort them on their way, guarantee their safety and distribute building materials.

But the fact that the army needs to escort the IDPs is an acknowledgement that where they were going is not yet safe.

In the absence of strong security, most of these returning IDPs would face the risk of either being displaced again by fighting or being killed.

Just a day before the announcement, a suicide bomb attack killed dozens of civilians celebrating Eid al-Fitr in the town of Damboa, Borno state. Boko Haram has recently targeted forcefully repatriated refugees returning from neighbouring Cameroon, as well.

In late June, the UN also released a report in which it said that in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram has “intensified attacks on civilians, including through suicide bombings and ground attacks”.

Aid workers and even members of local protection militias have warned that security is still a problem in Borno state and returnees would not be safe.

Local reports also suggest that most IDPs are quite aware of the inadequacies of the current arrangements for returnees and have refused to go back to their homes. Last year, Vanguard newspaper reported that 350,000 IDPs in Borno state decided to stay in camps instead of returning to “liberated communities” to the “surprise” of the military.

So, why are then the IDPs being urged to return? Perhaps the 2019 presidential elections have something to do with it.

Big promises, big failures

In the 2015 election race, then-presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari ran on a platform promising security for Nigeria and a defeat of Boko Haram. In a February 2015 interview, he told Al Jazeera that if he were to come to power, he would work to “pressure Boko Haram out of Nigeria”.

For that commitment alone, Buhari curried favour with millions of Nigerians which translated into millions of ballots at the presidential elections. As a result, he won 53 percent of the votes.

With a declared commitment to security, Buhari aligned himself with the same promises that eluded his predecessors, from President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to his predecessor, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

During his first speech as president-elect, Buhari asserted: “In tackling the insurgency, we have a tough and urgent job to do. But I assure you that Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and our commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy.

With the growing ferocity of the insurgents and the mounting casualties of the war, this wasn’t a promise Nigerians would forget. And as the years rolled by, expectations grew and so did pressure upon the government to meet them.

Just seven months after he assumed office, Buhari announced that Boko Haram has been technically defeated and that “people are now going back to their neighbourhoods”. Many reacted with anger to this statement and the government had to backtrack on sending IDPs back to their homes.

Now, almost three years later, the country still has some 1.8 million IDPs in camps around the country, while Boko Haram attacks are still claiming hundreds of lives every year. That will not look good on the campaign trail for the upcoming 2019 presidential race.

The problem Buhari is facing now is that he planted the legitimacy of his government on a promise of defeating Boko Haram. His failures on that front are now exposing him to the criticism from his opponents which could cost him the 2019 election.

From the standpoint of domestic politics in Nigeria, there was a good reason for him to go that way. Politics here, after all, is not really about pragmatism. It’s more about promises, wriggled around attestations of the opposition’s undoubted failures.

By now, it is public knowledge that Nigeria has not defeated Boko Haram and the government has to do something to save face. It has to appear to be winning, to be doing something about the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis in the north.

Unfortunately, it has decided that pretending like the security situation is good enough and pushing people to return to their homes is a good strategy. But gambling with the lives of Boko Haram victims to win a few votes is a step too far. 

Everyone wants an end of the conflict with Boko Haram and all IDPs undoubtedly want to go home one day. But that should happen after the security situation has markedly improved, after a concerted effort has been made to rebuild razed villages and towns and after IDPs can be given honest guarantees that they will not have to flee again or face death threats.

Anything short of that would lead to yet another disaster the Buhari government will have to deal with. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.