Danny Glenwright is the executive director of Action Against Hunger. The humanitarian organization fights hunger and its root causes worldwide. Glenwright was in Nigeria from Sept. 5 to 11.
MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA—The first time the militants came for her daughters, Zara Shuwa refused to give them up.
It was 2013 and the terrorist group then known as Boko Haram had just killed her husband as he attempted to flee the family’s farm near the town of Monguno in the northeast.
But they came back, again and again. Each time Shuwa pleaded with them, and each time she breathed a sigh of relief when she convinced them to leave without her young girls, Fatima, 14, and Falmata, 11.
The fifth time they arrived at her door she wasn’t as lucky: that’s when they forced their way into the family’s home, beat up Shuwa and her eldest sons, and left with Fatima and Falmata. It was the last time she ever saw her daughters.
“I thought my life was over,” she says, looking down at her lap, her hands fidgeting with her shin-length striped hijab. “I can’t stop thinking about them.” Her youngest son, Rafiq, 5, glances anxiously up at his mother — he was a baby when the traumatized family fled Monguno following the murder of his father and abduction of his sisters.
Shuwa walked for five days with Rafiq and her five other sons, returning to the home where she was raised in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, which is ground zero for the violent conflict that has plagued this region, now in its ninth year.
Those of us who work in the humanitarian sector refer to it as a “forgotten crisis.” But while it may have fallen off most front pages, the ongoing conflict involving a constellation of non-state armed groups continues to destabilize the entire Lake Chad district, which includes neighbouring countries Niger, Cameroon and Chad. It has uprooted more than 2.4 million people and left as many as five million without enough to eat.
Over four days at the front lines of this conflict, I spoke to dozens of Nigerians who shared stories like Shuwa’s, including many who only recently fled to hastily assembled camps in the relative safety of Maiduguri. I visited several of these sites; all of them continue to welcome new arrivals daily, expanding their borders to encompass local schoolyards, farmers’ fields and government-owned land.
The word unprecedented is having a good run these days, but if it truly applies to any existing crisis, this is it. A dozen humanitarian agencies working in northeast Nigeria, including Action Against Hunger, the Toronto-based organization I help run, sounded the alarm last month, noting that 11 million people are currently in urgent need of aid in this hard-to-reach region.
Like so many protracted crises, this one has taken on its own nomenclature: “non-state armed groups” or “armed opposition groups” is how local stakeholders now refer to members of the group commonly known as Boko Haram, following its splintering in recent years into various affiliated cells with different aims and loyalties.
Whichever way you put it, the terror continues. On Sept. 4, the same day Canadian representatives highlighted the $68 million our country has pledged to address the Lake Chad humanitarian catastrophe at a high-level conference in Berlin, non-state militants reportedly kidnapped more than 10 people from a bus travelling in the east of Borno state. Kidnappings like this are a hallmark of the conflict.
Another abduction brought this crisis to the world’s attention in April 2014: the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, a town south of Maiduguri. By then, non-state militants had been terrorizing Nigerians in this region since July 2009, when police killed their spiritual leader, Mohammed Yusuf, following violent clashes with his followers outside the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque where he preached here in Maiduguri.
Officials then demolished Yusuf’s mosque complex and launched a campaign to force his followers from the city. The remains of the compound are still visible today, sitting eerily abandoned amid overgrown rows of maize in one of the few spots in this mushrooming city of more than two million that is not bustling with human activity. Following his death, Yusuf’s number two, Abubakar Shekau, took the reins, regrouping from a new base in nearby Sambisa Forest, which is where the group took the kidnapped schoolgirls from Chibok.
In recent years, the government has fortified Maiduguri and all major centres in the northeast, surrounding them with military outposts and trenches. The wide ditches that border these “garrison towns” are reminiscent of medieval moats, except in 2018 the enemy arrives on motorbike, not horseback. Officials here even banned the use of motorbikes — which are ubiquitous in most other crowded West African cities — to curb drive-by attacks by militants.
Shuwa grew up not far from the site of the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque, but she had left Maiduguri by the time Yusuf founded his sect in 2002. Like most women in northern Nigeria, Shuwa was a child bride — married at 13 and a mother of eight children by the time she turned 30.
Shuwa and her husband settled near Monguno, his hometown. They started their family and a farm, growing millet and cowpeas. “We had enough to feed ourselves and sell the rest, and we eventually did well for ourselves,” she says.
The 105-kilometre drive from Maiduguri to Monguno is a very different road today from when 13-year-old Shuwa and her new husband took it back in 1996, when the region was a busy commercial centre.
The heavily potholed stretch is now regularly the scene of skirmishes between the military and armed opposition groups — they had reportedly clashed near the road earlier in the morning on the day our convoy travelled to Monguno. At one point on the journey, we passed a community that had recently been attacked. Burned-out vehicles and the charred remnants of homes and businesses now stand abandoned. A few children sat by the roadside, attempting to sell papayas and nuts.
The road is peppered with dozens of checkpoints — manned by both the military and the Civilian Joint Task Force, which formed in 2013 to help dislodge armed opposition groups from Maiduguri. As well, desperate bands of young boys hold their hands out, hoping for generosity from the transport trucks and aid convoys that pass through.
The rainy season recently turned vegetation on either side of the road a bright green. In many places, rows of beans and sorghum stand tall and healthy. The main thing you notice, though, is the lack of human activity. The communities of farmers who used to live along this stretch have all fled to the safety of nearby cities and towns, which are all under strict curfews. They now only venture out for a few hours during the day to harvest their crops or spray pesticide, which means yields have been drastically reduced.
Others aren’t as lucky. Most farmers here can’t access their crops at all because large areas of northeast Nigeria are no-go zones. The conflict has decimated local agriculture and wiped out regional trade routes. The result is a crisis that has left hundreds of thousands severely malnourished. In this region, many more people die from starvation than are killed directly by militants.
About halfway between Maiduguri and Monguno, at a maternal and child health clinic that my organization runs in Gajiram, I watched dozens of mothers with malnourished babies queuing to receive services, including Plumpy’Nut, a nutrient- and energy-rich peanut-based paste that they can take home with them. Some of their children also required treatment for malaria or cholera, which are both becoming problems here, exacerbated by overcrowded camps and the rainy season. Others need to be admitted because their kids are too sick to receive treatment at home.
I found one of these children, 2-year-old Hassan Modu, wrapped in a blanket beside his 18-year-old mother, Hawa. He and four other children in the clinic were suffering from severe wasting. Hassan had also developed a respiratory tract infection — his rib cage protruded from his tiny chest, the skin was tight around his head and neck, and his arms resembled small twigs. His outsized eyes, joyless, full of angst, and too big for his shrunken face, stared up at his mother.
Unfortunately, my job means I often see malnourished children in places like this, but no matter how many times I do, the horror of it never wanes. No 2-year-old should look as diminished and sickly as young Hassan.
“When we brought him in he was much worse,” the clinic doctor, Ahmed Dogara, assured me. “He is doing much better now.” It was hard to imagine what worse might look like.
Hawa told me the family is from a village near the clinic. Because of the conflict, her husband, who is a farmer, has not been able to reach his land so the family doesn’t have any food to eat. Like so many in this region, they now live in a camp for the internally displaced.
Hassan is now taking antibiotics and a therapeutic milk to stabilize him. Dogara says he’s improving.
Life for most women and children in this conflict-affected area of northeast Nigeria is grim. In July, the UN found that one in five children is severely malnourished. Meanwhile, more than 80 per cent of women in the region are illiterate; only 4 per cent of girls complete secondary school; more than half are married by age 16; and the number of women who die in childbirth is five times the global average.
Stories like Modu’s and Shuwa’s often get lost amid these staggering numbers and the headline-grabbing mass abductions.
Besides, the story of the role of women in this crisis is a complicated one to tell. In her book Women and the War on Boko Haram, Hilary Matfess says life is actually better for some women who support and live with the armed opposition groups. “The sect’s gender politics, while regressive and patriarchal by western standards, often represent a significant improvement in women’s status within the local context of Borno state.” Matfess notes that the militants provide food and shelter and prevent women from farming and performing other hard labour, which means they have more time for education and leisure.
Indeed, Amina Ali Nkeki, the first of the Chibok girls who was rescued, wanted to be reunited with the man she married during captivity. Local media outlets have reported that other Chibok girls have declined to be returned to their families, saying they prefer to remain in the Sambisa Forest stronghold.
Conversely, a number of young women taking part in a focus group in the region said they had all been married before age 16. They said they felt safer that way because armed groups tend to abduct young unmarried girls, like Shuwa’s two daughters. These young women are probably acutely aware that the armed groups in this region increasingly use young girls as suicide bombers. These are “options” no young girl should ever have to contemplate.
Most of the displaced women I met also remain terrified of the armed groups, including Aisha Mohammed Minti, 53, from Marte, which is one of the local government areas that is currently closed off to aid agencies due to the heavy presence of armed groups. In a now familiar story, Minti fled her village with her 10 children (four boys and six girls) after armed militants killed her husband and all the other men in her family. “I walked for three days … We had nothing, except the clothes we were wearing. Nothing.”
When Minti first arrived at the camp, she and her children had to forage for food, collecting leaves and other disposed food from waste bins. “I had to boil it and that’s all we had to eat in those first days,” she said. “My children were all super-thin,” she says, pointing to her arms.
Her children now have meat on their bones and they are healthy. Minti shakes her head when I ask if she would like to return home. “No, life is much safer in the camp.”
Back in Maiduguri, the same is true for Shuwa. When she first returned to Maiduguri, her six young boys often went hungry, and none of them went to school because they all had to beg for food to survive.
Last year we provided Shuwa with a cash grant to invest in a small business. She bought four lambs and started fattening them up so she could sell them at the festival of Eid al Adha, when Muslims sacrifice sheep and other livestock and give a portion of the meat away to the poor.
She now has enough money to feed her children and send four of her six sons to school. She’s hoping to grow her business next year so she can afford to educate all her boys.
That’s more than most mothers in this region can dream about.
Danny Glenwright is the executive director of Action Against Hunger.