Kano | Authorities in Borno State, a region in northeastern Nigeria which alone has two million displaced people from the conflict against Boko Haram jihadists, want to send them home, but continued insecurity after more than ten years insurrection always makes this return impossible.
At the end of September, hundreds of residents of Baga, a large town on the shores of Lake Chad, were invited to return home, six years after a particularly bloody attack and the capture of the town by the insurgents.
This repatriation of the population, long awaited by the displaced themselves, who have lived since 2014 crammed into unsanitary camps, without drinking water and with little food distribution, was to be an important and solemn moment.
The governor of Borno State, Babagana Umara Zulum, had also made the trip to welcome them in the city, which he assured secured by the Nigerian army.
The day ended in bloodshed: fighters from the Islamic State in West Africa group (Iswap), a branch of Boko Haram affiliated with ISIS, ambushed the governor’s convoy, killing at least 30 people among its security personnel and civilians. It was the third ambush against him since coming to power last year.
At the end of August, insurgents had taken hundreds of civilians hostage in Kukawa, in the Lake Chad region, after they had just been relocated to their homes, two years after fleeing the violence.
These “repatriations” of civilian populations have been a priority for the authorities of Borno State for several years.
“Just a bigger camp”
Governor Zulum, like his predecessor, assures us that welcoming and feeding the 1.6 million displaced people who have taken refuge in the capital of Maiduguri is simply impossible for financial and health reasons.
They must return home to find a “dignified” life, he said recently, despite numerous warnings and objections from NGOs based in the region, which denounce the violence which has not disappeared despite the victorious declarations. of the Army.
Indeed, for the vast majority of “displaced” people, these “repatriations” to towns “secured” by the Nigerian army are just transfers to other camps, even more remote.
“We left Maiduguri with the idea of living a normal life, as before the war, but in reality, we just returned to an even bigger camp, where our survival depends on the same food distributions”, tells AFP Gana Ibrahim, a resident of Baga.
“We still cannot cultivate our fields, nor fetch firewood in the forest, at the risk of being killed or kidnapped,” he laments.
Iswap uses the marshy edges of Lake Chad and its inaccessible islands as retreat bases or training camps and has made this region its bastion.
According to testimonies from fishermen, Islamist fighters have also forbidden access to certain villages to “returnees” from Maiduguri, threatening them with death if they return home.
Its combatants make people pay taxes on fishing, or on certain roads, in exchange for their “protection”: an extremely important shortfall for the authorities in this very busy border area, crossroads between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.
The edges of the lake have become in recent months the epicenter of violence, and for Shehu Sani, former senator and former negotiator in the peace processes, even if “the governor of Borno is courageous and wants the best for his people, to send back the displaced there, it is to throw them in the mouth of the wolf ”.
In recent weeks, the Nigerian military has carried out numerous air raids on insurgent bases, killing scores of fighters and three important commanders.
“The dismissal of civilians could not have happened at a worse time,” said a security source on condition of anonymity.
“The insurgents have been particularly affected by these losses, and will take revenge in a brutal way,” warned another conflict specialist in an interview with AFP.
Governor Zulum has repeated on numerous occasions that he would regain control of the territories occupied by the jihadists, and succeed in evacuating the camps for displaced persons in Maiduguri, which are increasingly unpopular among the local population: political promises that his predecessor , Kashim Shettima, had never been able to hold on.
The insurgents, for their part, seem determined to oppose his person, targeting him directly in organized attacks.
“Displaced civilians are caught in a war of ego,” deplores the same security source. “And it will be them, in the end, who will pay the price.”