Nigeria’s presidency claimed Boko Haram’s 10-year-old insurgency had been “defeated” but admitted that international jihadists posed a growing threat.
“The position of the Nigerian government is that the Boko Haram terrorism has been degraded and defeated. The real Boko Haram we know is defeated,” the presidency said in a statement late Tuesday.
It said the country was now facing “a mixture” of Boko Haram remnants, criminal groups and jihadists from the Maghreb and West Africa fuelled by turmoil in Libya and the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate in the Middle East.
“As a consequence of these international gangs, we have seen an increase of trans-border crimes and the proliferation of small arms in the Lake Chad Basin area,” the statement said.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general who vowed to crush Boko Haram when he became president in 2015 for his first term in office, has previously said the group were “beaten”.
The uprising began in northeast Nigeria in July 2009 when fighting between the hardline group and government forces left hundreds of jihadists dead, including leader Muhammad Yusuf.
Since then, the bloody campaign has killed some 27,000 people, displaced over two million people and spilled over into neighbouring countries.
In 2015, the Nigerian army forced the jihadists out of major towns but they remain at large in remote strongholds.
Fighters still launch persistent attacks and a breakaway faction loyal to IS, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), has ratcheted up assaults against the military since last year.
Over the weekend an attack by the Boko Haram group headed by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau killed 65 villagers close to the regional capital Maiduguri.
The army has often been criticised for failing to safeguard local communities, with vigilante groups stepping into the void left by the authorities.
But the presidency said it was looking to bolster its military capacity and expected the long-awaited delivery of Super Tucano turbo-prop warplanes from the United States “beginning next year”.
Maiduguri resident Ahmed Muhammed wanders through the rubble left behind as he recalls the outbreak of fighting in his city a decade ago that launched the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.
“We heard shooting — badadadadadada — here, there, everywhere around us,” the 44-year-old railway worker told AFP.
“We thought the end of the universe had come.”
In late July 2009, tensions between the hardline Islamist sect and authorities in northeast Nigeria boiled over as the group launched a wave of attacks and security forces fought back ruthlessly.
The epicentre of the violence was the compound of the group’s founder Muhammad Yusuf.
After several days of fighting, Yusuf and hundreds of Boko Haram members were dead and a conflict had been unleashed that would devastate the region.
The mosque and the homes that once stood there are now just a pile of debris — an unmarked monument to the suffering of the past 10 years.
In the decade since the uprising began, some two million people have been uprooted from their homes and 27,000 killed as the bloodshed has spilt into neighbouring countries.
Boko Haram has turned vast swathes of territory into a no man’s land and forced its way into international headlines by abducting hundreds of schoolgirls.
While the Nigerian army has pushed the fighters from major towns, the jihadists have splintered into factions and spawned an offshoot aligned to the Islamic State group that has unleashed its own campaign of violence.
– ‘No option’ –
Waves of the conflict crashed over Hadiza Bukar’s village near Baga close to the shores of Lake Chad in 2015 when Boko Haram fighters stormed through the area.
Bukar fled with her newborn twin sons, leaving behind her husband and two other children.
She has not heard from them since.
What remains of the family is now among the roughly quarter-of-a-million people displaced and struggling to survive in and around Maiduguri, capital of Borno State.
Studded across the city are government-approved camps and informal settlements of corrugated iron, sticks and shreds of tarpaulin.
The only place Bukar found to live is at the ground zero of the insurgency that tore her life apart. Her makeshift home stands on the edge of the ruins of Yusuf’s former compound.
When the downpours come in the rainy season the place turns into a quagmire.
“Many people told us stories about what happened here. They warned us there was a history,” she said, of the bloodshed in 2009. “But we had no option. We have nowhere to go. We decided to stay.”
Across town in another district Idrissa Isah, 45, scrapes by as best he can.
Isah used to send cows to Nigeria’s economic hub Lagos, but now all he has is a small patch of earth near his shack that a local landowner lets him till.
The little he grows helps supplement sporadic handouts from international aid groups and feed his family. He says he has had no government support.
Isah is desperate to return to his village of Makulbe about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Maiduguri, but the risk is too high.
“If I could go back I would — I would have a big, big farm,” he said.
“There is no way I can.”
– Attempted return –
Finding a way home for the displaced is seen as key to solving the humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria.
After forcing the jihadists back to remote hideouts, the government insists the security situation is stabilising.
But attacks persist outside heavily fortified towns.
Over just a few days in July, five soldiers were killed and six aid workers kidnapped.
On Thursday, a Boko Haram raid killed at least two people in a displaced camp near Maiduguri.
So far this year, 130,000 people have been displaced in northeast Nigeria, the International Organization for Migration says.
Ibrahim Bukar, 48, is comparatively lucky.
The local government accountant still receives his official salary of about $80 (75 euros) a month even though he has not worked in his hometown Bama, 65 km from Maiduguri, since it was devastated by fighting more than four years ago.
But the wage does not cover rent and he squats with his wife and four children in the one-room servants’ quarters of an acquaintance’s house.
Last October, after more than four years away, he decided to go home.
“There was nothing,” he said.
“No food, no potable water, no health services, no teachers — don’t even talk of electricity.”
Beyond the town, he said, you cannot travel safely for more than a kilometre. After three months, Bukar gave up and headed back to Maiduguri.
– Camps still filling –
The displaced camps are still filling up.
A sprawling site around the city’s main stadium opened in March and has already reached its capacity with over 12,000 people.
Fatima Mohammed, 38, moved into a tarpaulin shelter three weeks ago with her husband and two children.
She arrived from an overcrowded camp not far away, having been displaced several times since being forced from her village five years ago.
She has no idea if, or when, she will see home again.
“All depends on god — if there is peace I will go back immediately,” she said.
“But if there is no peace then there is no way I can return.”