In Nigeria’s long-running jihadist conflict in the northeast, residents in the sprawling savannah-like countryside say their lives have been upended by both the insurgents and soldiers.
Since the war began in earnest in 2010, raids by Boko Haram have looted villages, killed and abducted young men and women, forced 2.5 million people from their homes and collapsed the rural economy.
The Nigerian military, initially on the backfoot, has fought back. But the soldiers are seen by some villagers as yet another threat, their scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign failing to distinguish between jihadist gunmen and civilians.
During a year-long investigation, The New Humanitarian and VICE News gathered satellite imagery, photographs, and videos – as well as dozens of testimonies from local and international aid workers, military experts, witnesses, and soldiers – that all support allegations of international humanitarian law (IHL) violations by the military. Some alleged violations occurred as recently as May this year.
In more than 30 interviews in the northeastern town of Bama in late 2022, men and women described the depopulation of the countryside by military “clearance” operations that they said had torched their villages, destroyed food supplies and killed those unable to flee.
These actions are in direct violation of IHL.
Maina*, from Amchaka, a village of 110 households roughly 10 kilometres southwest of Bama, worked his white prayer beads as he talked. “If the military had come in a polite manner, to really rescue us, and not burn and shoot at us, then we were ready to leave,” he said.
Soldiers interviewed in Bama, the headquarters of the 21 Armoured Brigade, said they viewed anyone living in the countryside as likely loyal to Boko Haram. But the villagers who had been driven from their homes described a more complex relationship, where co-existence with the jihadists did not denote support.
Boko Haram imposes strict controls in the zones it occupies. Women are confined to their homes, unable to farm or interact socially. Travel and trade outside the territory is banned. Petty rule-breaking is harshly punished, typically with detentions and floggings. Perceived disloyalty – including escape attempts – warrants execution.
Boko Haram regard villagers as awam or “commoners”. They refer to themselves as rijal – literally “men”, fighting for their Islamic faith. The hierarchy leaves awam as little more than serfs. Although all Muslim, the villagers are viewed as religiously ignorant and by not joining the jihadists, generally not to be trusted – always suspected of trying to escape.
Yet awam are a productive, taxable base. Villagers described how each season the insurgents demanded a cut of the harvest, anything from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. They also took livestock – sometimes paying, more often simply seizing – and could grab whatever else they wanted.
Boko Haram fighters do not generally stay in the villages, preferring to separate themselves from people they regard as religiously tainted. They have their own rough-and-ready camps, hidden in the bush, less easily located by the military.
Rural communities say they have learnt to manage the risks of living next to these violent and volatile young men. It’s an accommodation that is a feature of nearly every other insurgent conflict zone, from Colombia to the Sahel.
“They don’t have any support in the village, but we fear them,” said Lawan from Yemati, a village southeast of Bama he said was destroyed by the military last year. “We’re just farmers – somebody with a gun, you have to obey them.”
“People support Boko Haram by force,” explained Barna from Botori, a village of about 150 households. “If you don’t obey, they kill you. Even if in your heart you don’t agree, you must convince them.”
The military describes its destruction of rural settlements as successful attacks on Boko Haram camps. It’s a depiction disputed by the men and women who survived the raids.
They had come from 20 villages in the Bama area, and in only three – Dugje, Gremari, and Kashimri – did they say there had been armed Boko Haram present in their community.
In the case of Dugje, several hours walk from Bama, two Boko Haram members – originally from the village but who had moved to the jihadists’ Sambisa forest base where they had new wives – would come to visit their original families. People were always cautious around them.
They were the first rung of Boko Haram’s administration, keeping an eye on the community. When the military attacked and burnt Dugje last year, the two men fled like everyone else. But whereas the villagers headed to Bama, the two men returned to Sambisa, about 40 kilometres from the town.
Five people died in the army raid, including a three-year-old child, two former residents said. Terrified by the violence, the child had hidden in a house the soldiers set alight. Two elderly women and two elderly men, too frail to run, also lost their lives – hit by the soldiers’ stray bullets were told.
Aisha from Dugje denied the village was ever loyal to Boko Haram. “The soldiers killed two elderly women and a child, can they be Boko Haram?” she noted. “One of the [two] elderly men they shot was even a cleric [who didn’t follow the jihadists’ version of Islam].”
According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, more than 45,400 people left the countryside for Bama in 2022, but some have chosen to remain.
Despite the taxation demands by Boko Haram, and threats of raids by the military, the villagers interviewed said they had stayed in the countryside for a number of reasons – none of which were to do with allegiance to the jihadists.
One powerful inducement to remaining was fear. To try to leave their villages and reach military-controlled territory would be seen as defecting by the militants. Boko Haram patrolled the countryside, often on motorbikes and the villagers said the punishment for being caught fleeing – especially for men – could be fatal.
“To leave and come here is not a joke,” said Modu from Bula Daloye, roughly 15 kilometres from Bama. “If Boko Haram catches you, they kill you. Even your family would not be safe. They had roadblocks surrounding us, so you couldn’t escape,” noted Maina of Amchaka village. “We were trapped by Boko Haram; we stayed by force.”
If you evaded the patrols by the jihadists, the next worry would be what would happen if you were found in the bush by the military – who typically suspect all young men as, at the very least, Boko Haram sympathisers.
An almost universal fear was being sent to Giwa Barracks – a notorious detention facility for alleged jihadist supporters in an upmarket suburb of Maiduguri, the regional capital.
“I was always thinking of coming [to Bama], but I had heard of Giwa and was afraid,” said Ba Ali, 25, who arrived in Bama from Dugje in February 2022. “If there is no white in your beard, if you’re a young man, you’re definitely taken to Giwa.”
The imperative to leave was also eroded by a split within the jihadist movement, which weakened the insurgency. In 2021, the rival so-called Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP) raided deep into Sambisa and killed Boko Haram’s notorious leader, Abubakar Shekau.
“We thought the military would finish Boko Haram [after Shekau’s death], that’s why we overstayed [in the village],” said Aisha from Dugje. “We hoped it would be easier after his death – the war would end and our troubles would be over.”
Despite the unpredictability of the militants – especially those loyal to Shekau – the villagers said they were reluctant to leave their farms for an uncertain future in Bama. But ISWAP, initially supportive of farmers – offering protection against Boko Haram harassment – last year began ordering villagers to leave the countryside, seemingly fearful of spies, the villagers said.
At the same time, the military had also passed word to assure villagers that being sent to Giwa was no longer automatic. Instead, new arrivals are now stopped at the entrance to Bama and taken to the town’s prison for a “screening” security check. From there, they move to the displaced persons camp run by IOM.
Aisha gave three reasons for her decision to come to Bama. “One, the burning has become too much,” she said. “Two, we heard that the military had said no one will go to Giwa, so we started trusting. And three, ISWAP said we should all leave.”
*The names of the survivors in the targeted villages have been changed to protect people’s identity for security reasons.
– The New Humanitarian report