I arrived Lagos on Wednesday night and take the first flight to the Enugu to visit some part of southeastern Nigeria for three days. From there I traveled to Abuja. I had the opportunity to interview some key people that have been working with Boko Haram and have had direct contact with the would-be and failed female suicide bombers. Information from the Abuja interviews shifted my perspectives, and I had to revaluate my questions before traveling to Maiduguri.
My trip to Maiduguri was not without fear, especially from family and friends. However, I got much encouragement from people that have visited and those living there. The fear of Borno is like an epidemic in Nigeria. At the airport, I found that two major groups are traveling to Maiduguri – people living there and International Non-governmental Agencies with their security personnel. There were a lot of first timers like me. However, for some reason, people come to me for questions about Maiduguri. I met a young banker posted to Maiduguri. He was also frightened on the prospect of working and living in Maiduguri. He noted that he is only going there to change his posting back.
It was surreal when I arrived Maiduguri. First, there were many foreigners. I have not seen such number foreigners in military gear anywhere in Nigeria. I met with my driver Usman (not real name). He was a very nice man proud of his city – Maiduguri. He knows his city very well. He told me stories of every street we passed, new constructions going on — the renovated school buildings with full air-conditioned classes. We drove through what he described as the most affluent area of the city and possibly the entire state — pointing at different magnificent buildings and their owners. Then we got to a large golden-gated estate that took half of the street. He said, this owned by the former governor. He had just a wife and couple of kids. What would he do with this? Along this quiet street are about five ragged, hungry boys begging for money. The first thing that comes to my mind was the Almajiris.
I asked Usman about them. He explained that there are possibly more of them in Borno state specifically in big cities like Maiduguri because historically Borno was center of Islamic education. He further explained - before the insurgency, truckloads of Almajiris are regularly dumped in the state from neighboring states and countries (Chad and Niger). The role of the Amajiri in the insurgency is a big debate. I learn a lot about Maiduguri and Borno state in general from Usman. I will use him when I go back.
However, the best part of my visit was gathering information on various aspect of Boko Haram insurgency. My contacts were very generous with their time. They were open and spoke freely. Some did not mind to be recorded, but people are more open without recording. I was able to visit different training centers for the Joint Civilian Task Force (JCT). I was surprised to find the number of women members of the JCT. I also visited a newly established school for girls that takes in the most vulnerable affected by the insurgency. Female education and women empowerment are now being promoted. Some women activists observed that there is more interest in female education than ever before. Generally, state and national government may not be doing much, but the citizens are. It is heartwarming to see the resilient and the work of local citizens in rebuilding their city and state. They gave me hope. I will take time in subsequent blogs to profile some of these local NGOs and their works.
There is a real and imagined fear of northeastern Nigeria. The real is the Boko Haram insurgency, while the imagined is that no one lives there and stepping your feet in the area is a death sentence. Contrary to general perceptions Maiduguri was peaceful and quiet during my visit. People were friendly and receptive. Even the banker acquaintance, changed his mind about his reposting. However, the economy is not doing well. On the surface, it seems like business as usual, but my interaction with the residents show that the city is feeling the economic impact of Boko Haram. Despite its relative peace, many people left the state with their businesses at the peak of the insurgency in 2014. The Borno state major agricultural produces are millet, wheat, rice, and peanut. Borno is also known for its fishery and beef.Unfortunately, about 2.5 million of the population are now displaced and are not able to go back to their communities and farm. Due to the declining economic activities, the cost of living at least for the visitor is astronomically high. Hotel accommodation, food, and taxi are more expensive in Maiduguri compared to major cities like Abuja and Lagos.
I am pleased to have made this trip and thankful to those that helped me.I am planning on traveling again pending funding. It has been very enlightening. I don’t think anyone could write about Boko Haram without visiting Nigeria, but one's understanding of the group insurgency will be more robust and authentic by visiting northeastern Nigeria. I cannot wait to review my data and start writing again.