Letters from Baga: terror and mistrust in Boko Haram’s homeland

20 March 2015

My contact with Paul and the attack on Baga

On January 8th, BBC published a news article where Musa Alhaji Bukar, a Nigerian government official, reported fears that over 2,000 had been killed in attacks in Baga and neighbouring areas in the previous week. Largely underreported, due to virtually no access by media to the areas affected, the episode in Baga came with a lot of uncertainties and raised a lot of questions: what exactly happened? Was this attack foreseen? How did security forces deal with the situation? What happened to the local residents? In an attempt to try and understand more clearly what had happened I searched for anyone with a profile on Facebook who said they were currently living in Baga. On January 13th, I sent a private message to all of the 16 people who, at the time, said on Facebook that they were living in Baga. These included army officials, pastors, social workers, and local teenagers. No one replied to my message until exactly a month later.

On February 13th, I received a message from Paul, a pastor from Lagos State who was working in Baga until a few days before the attack, explaining that the “situation in Baga is very sad but I can tell you more if you call me.” Needless to say, ten minutes later we were talking on Skype.

Who is Paul

Paul was sent as a missionary to Baga in September 2013. He stayed in Baga until a few days before the attack as, according to him, they had been told that Boko Haram “was coming because they attacked neighbouring villages” and news had reached that Baga would soon be hit. Confirmation of the militant’s imminent attack came a few days later when a multinational military base near Baga was attacked and besieged by armed men who were allegedly Boko Haram militants. Realising that the threat was imminent, Paul decided to withdraw from Baga to Abuja with some of his members. Then, on January 3rd, Boko Haram militants entered the town of Baga and began their mayhem.

Baga, according to Paul

Having worked there for over a year, Paul had the chance to meet a lot of people from Baga, despite the language barrier (as Paul speaks Yuruba and English whereas a lot of people in Baga, especially Muslims, speak Hausa). He explains his work as “difficult” – perhaps an understatement – although he is “used to it”. A lot of the difficulty stems from the tense relations between the different communities in areas such as Baga where, due to the increased violence of Boko Haram’s activities, religious lines have become defining characteristics of an individual. This has led to strong social divisions that have heavy repercussions in the social fabric of small communities throughout the northeast of the country. Predominantly a Muslim town, other inhabitants of Baga with different religious beliefs felt almost as if they were second-class citizens, as sentiments of distrust grew due to the threat that Boko Haram posed. Indeed Paul has told me that during his stay in Baga he was mostly with Christians because, in his words, “you can’t trust some of the Muslims there so it is safer to move with the Christians” – very telling of the level of mistrust within Baga.

There are also some people in towns and communities in the northeast who directly report to Boko Haram militants and give them information to avoid being attacked in the future. Indeed, according to Paul, “they tell them what is going on, when to attack and whom to attack.” However he stressed “some members of the community [in Baga] are supporting them but others are against them, so there is a lot of tensions between them.” Boko Haram’s insurgency therefore not only creates fear amongst populations, but actually destroys solidarity and bonds between individuals who now feel threatened as they cannot trust anyone else other than strictly members of their own community. The attacks thus play on these feelings and destroy any sentiment of social cohesion that existed prior to the militants’ insurgency, which they claim to be in the name of a religion that does not promote or support in any way such brutal behaviour.

Boko Haram’s brutality

Paul was not in Baga during the bloody attack. Yet the accounts of stories from people he knows who were, are quite shocking. Contrary to some beliefs and according to Paul, “Christians there were killed, but also Muslims there who are not of Boko Haram’s sect were asked to leave and those who didn’t were killed.” Some local imams were also slaughtered because they refused to give the militants money, that they were asking “for their work of God.” Indiscriminately, more than 2,000 people were killed.

Some managed to escape to tell their stories. A young woman, in fear of what might happen to her small child if she stayed in her home, ran to the militants and told them that she would fight with them. She was accepted for the ’cause’ and kept in Baga under Boko Haram’s supervision for four days until, “by grace of God” as Paul puts it, a militant let her go and the young mother fled to Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital. Unfortunately, most Boko Haram abductees are not so lucky.

Indeed, Paul told me the story of one of his fellow pastors who was captured by Boko Haram militants on January 6th, 2014 in a town in Borno. He was held captive at one of the military barracks and was given occasional rice portions and very little water. The pastor was therefore forced to drink his own urine quite frequently in order to remain hydrated. However, according to Paul, the only reason why his friend had survived was because when he was asked to convert to Islam, he lied to them and told them that he accepted their creed. After ten months of captivity in inhumane conditions, the pastor managed to escape from the camp and walked to safety for countless miles until he reached Maiduguri.

What next for Nigeria?

Despite recent military victories and presidential promises that Boko Haram will be defeated in a month, the situation in Northern Nigeria is far from resolved. The latest news that Paul has had from Baga is that the town was retaken by the Nigerian military and that the church where he worked at is the only one that has not yet been burnt by the group. The military are having great difficulty in dislodging Boko Haram in different areas according to Paul because “some saboteurs in the government and the army are making billions” allegedly from local relief projects and, according to some, by receiving financial support from the militants. However, Nigerian officials, including the National Security Adviser to President Gooluck Jonathan Sambo Dasuki, deny such allegations. Moreover, although the government is sending some relief material to affected populations, this is not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the many people that have been displaced and affected by the insurgency.

As elections loom and the two contenders try to gain their final votes across the country, people throughout the nation are trying to find out who will best manage to resolve one of the worst crises of the 21st century, that thus far has killed more than 9,000 people and displaced over 1 million. Although there have been and continue to be a lot of promises of increasing defence funding, changing military strategies, and increasing the amount of relief given to the people affected, no electoral promise will be able (at least in the short term) to restore confidence and solidarity within communities that have come under attack by Boko Haram. Indeed the Boko Haram crisis has not only exacerbated strong inequalities between the wealthier south and the poorer north of the country, but it has also divided many communities by generating a perpetual fear amongst people. This is an aspect that may take decades to fix and may even outlast Boko Haram’s insurgency. If it is not dealt with, it is a problem that will certainly have repercussions in the future and may pose a serious threat to the existence of a united Nigeria. At this point for countless numbers of people the only thing left to do, in Paul’s words, is to pray and hope for better times ahead.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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