As Nigeria’s army continues its offensive against Boko Haram extremists, our reporters Catherine Norris-Trent and Jonathan Walsh travelled to the northeast of the country, still plagued by violence. For this special 26-minute documentary, they bring us rare eyewitness accounts from victims of the jihadist group, but also those who persecuted them. Security forces and ordinary citizens also speak out about the fight against Boko Haram and their hopes for reconciliation.
“The ground war aginst Boko Haram has been won”: that’s what Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff told us when we managed to grab him for an on-the-hoof interview on the country’s National Army Day. The annual celebration is a chance for the Nigerian military to show off its strength, and this year, they were holding festivities in the far northeast of the country, near Lake Chad. It was a highly symbolic move, designed to hammer home just how far they’ve advanced into former Boko Haram territory.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari flew in by helicopter to thank Nigerian troops for their “defeat” of the jihadist group. In this crucial period leading up to the February 2019 elections in which Buhari hopes to win another term, Nigerian authorities are keen to underline the progress they’ve made in securing the northeast.
The city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, is bustling and colourful, with yellow tuk-tuks honking on busy roads and markets rammed full of people. The night-time curfew has been shortened and daily life, locals told us, is getting back on track. But the birthplace of Boko Haram still bears many scars of the nine-year conflict. The militants have been pushed back and significantly weakened, but it is clear on the ground that they still operate terror cells and can still wreak significant havoc.
Security checkpoints manned by the military and civilian self-defence militias are positioned on all the roads leading into town. They’re the targets of frequent, often co-ordinated, suicide bomb attacks. Another major risk is kidnapping, so outside of the city even locals usually travel in convoy with an army escort. As a white person, you’re immediately very visible, so our security procedures while reporting were ramped right up. There are more international faces in Maiduguri these days; more than a hundred NGOs have a presence there to help deal with the continuing humanitarian crisis. But white faces are still rare enough that my colleague and I were constantly scrutinised in Maiduguri, and often assumed to be other Europeans who’d passed through.
Outside of the city, the only way to safely access more remote zones was by taking a UN helicopter or negotiating an armed escort from the military. The roads north, or in the direction of the Sambisa forest to the south, were pockmarked by craters every hundred metres or so: the result, we were told, of frequent roadside bombs placed by Boko Haram. Our excellent local fixer said he was equally suspicious of poor local villagers who re-filled the craters with sand to level off the road. He told us they were often paid by the jihadists to place new explosive devices in the potholes.
But it was on flying out to the town of Pulka, near the Cameroonian border, that we really got a sense of how long this war could take to win definitively. Pulka was seized by Boko Haram at their height in 2014. They ruled over it for nine months before the Nigerian army won it back, and to this day troops still guard the enclave. Locals told us that the militants are only about 5 kilometres away from the security perimeter around the enclave, and that to go outside that boundary is to risk your life. A few weeks after our filming, Boko Haram captured a busload of passengers and killed at least two people in an ambush on a military-escorted convoy on the road out of Pulka.
Around the edges of the town lie several large camps for internally displaced people. There were some 20,000 people crammed in there at the time of filming, and the local IOM co-ordinator told us around 500 more were arriving each week. The Nigerian government is encouraging displaced people to return home, but in Pulka, no one we met was able or willing to take that step.
Despite the huge challenges the region is still facing, though, there is a real desire to move forwards and rebuild. In every site we visited, we were struck by the extraordinary resilience and even optimism of the people we interviewed. Christians once too afraid to attend Mass now pour through the streets of Maiduguri on Sundays to go and worship. The sound of construction work rings out, as people in the city rebuild their homes and businesses. And schools, once a main target of Boko Haram, are back open in Maiduguri and other large towns, after being closed across Borno State in 2014. Every morning was brightened by throngs of children, girls and boys, wearing brightly coloured uniforms and heading happily off to class.