Traveling north from Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, through Adamawa and Borno states from 25 October to 1 November 2016, I personally interviewed nearly 100 Boko Haram victims—men and women—some of whom have returned to their communities and others who remain among the displaced. In addition, I interviewed local scholars, religious leaders, and former Boko Haram fighters. The information presented—the “facts”—have been provided here by those eyewitnesses. The opinions rendered from them, unless noted, are, of course, my own.
Speaking for Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, on 29 October Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, Director of Defence Information, offered these assurances:
Today, I am please[d] to inform you that we have defeated Boko Haram. It is not an easy feat. Yes, you may [have] heard that an inaccessible village has been attack[ed] or that there was an attack somewhere. But that is the last kicking of a dying group.
Believe none of it. Boko Haram is far from defeated. Since I arrived in Yola, the terrorist group has carried out attacks with a frequency that rivals that of 2014, when the Institute for Economics named the organization the world’s deadliest. Indeed, Boko Haram has not only not been defeated, the information detailed herein suggests that the insurgency still controls vast swaths of territory in northeast Nigeria and that it continues to pose a significant threat in the region.
When asked how large—in numbers—the insurgency is, one former Boko Haram fighter told me, “Too many to count.” Even now, he asserted, despite having been driven out of much of the territory it once had occupied, it has not been driven from all and is, in fact, starting to infiltrate back into some urban communities—such as Michika and Mubi in northern Adamawa state—where its members can hide among the many who remain displaced. Moreover, he claimed, Boko Haram has the capacity to replace its losses and is doing so. The stories of its victims seem to support these claims.
Though many people displaced by the insurgency have returned to their communities, village elders in the hills east of Gwoza town—the seat of Boko Haram’s short-lived caliphate—told me they cannot. While Nigerian military forces occupy Gwoza proper and some other urban areas, the countryside—an immense expanse of bush and rocky hills stretching from the Sambisa Forest Reserve to the Cameroon border—remains under the control of Boko Haram. A former captive with whom I spoke in Michika described Boko Haram’s Sambisa redoubt as a kind of city state. “There are,” she said, “settlements inside Sambisa the size of Michika [a town of about 50,000] . . . where people go about business as they would in any town.” During her two years of captivity with Boko Haram in Sambisa she visited five of these towns, though she understood as many as 12 such communities were located within the bounds of the reserve. On market days, she observed that “people came in and out [of Sambisa] . . . to buy food.” Overflights by Nigerian military aircraft were met with gunfire from fighters on the ground who made no attempt to conceal either themselves or their positions. Before her escape in October, she personally witnessed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, on several occasions appear at night to preach to his companions, urging them to stand firm. His followers, she said, appeared to be in high spirits.
In addition to the direct security challenge presented by the insurgency, there is another, perhaps more deadly and more pressing threat being posed by Boko Haram to the civilian population of Nigeria’s northeast. Years of warfare and the displacement of millions from the largely agrarian communities of the region has led, according to the World Food Program, “to one of the most acute—and sorely neglected—humanitarian crises in the world.” For farmers able to return to their fields—such as those I spoke with in rural villages surrounding Mubi, in Adamawa state—crop yields in this first season have been pitifully low; barely subsistence level.
Thus, there is little surplus available to sell for cash or to feed those who cannot return to their own communities because of the persistent threat posed by the insurgency and who must, instead, eke out an existence in teeming cities such as Mubi itself, where some may see little more than a few thousand naira—just a few dollars—in a month. While Nigerian officials had promised the farmers I spoke with much-needed fertilizer, it was delivered only after their crops were ready to harvest. These same officials then collected the fertilizer and delivered it to businessmen who raised the price from ??2,600 to an unaffordable ??12,500 per bag. Many of the people I met see themselves as victims not only of the insurgency but also of their own officials.
Boko Haram, indeed, is alive and kicking, and the direct threat it poses is real, despite claims to the contrary coming from Abuja. That said, the most immediate concern for thousands of people already victimized by the insurgency may be where their next meal will come from. Thus, at this moment, while greater energy needs to be expended by officials and even academics in examining the insurgency, simultaneously, those concerned about Boko Haram’s victims must work to push humanitarian relief directly into the hands of those who need it most. Given the conditions on the ground, neither of these efforts will be easy.
Mr. Ross is a writer living in Easton, Maryland. He is a PhD researcher at King’s College, London.