Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won't eat you. African proverb.
I was part of a delegation of Northern Elders Forum that visited the Borno State capital, Maiduguri last week. The visit lasted all of one day, but it revealed an entire future that is both inspiring and frightening. The last time a delegation of the Forum visited Maiduguri was about three years ago, and it barely managed to leave the beleaguered city with some dignity because President Jonathan's State of Emergency order was made on its first day in Maiduguri. There was no such cause for panic this time. The short stay was informed by the challenges of age and conditions of people well past use-before dates, and a loaded program designed to engage major stakeholders, political and community leaders as well as victims. A day was long enough to see the outlines of a disaster in transition, and enough to judge the progress of communities and a nation through an uncertain future.
Surreal is one way of describing the overall feeling you get when you look deep into the faces and soul of Maiduguri. The city which witnessed the tipping point in the history of the insurgency and then went through six years of agony is bravely attempting to come back to life although the war is far from over, it is stretched beyond imaginable limits with more than one and a half million internally displaced people in homes and camps, the odd suicide bomb goes off now and then, soldiers and other security personnel live on constant alert, nieghbours closely scrutinize each other, and the global community attempts to find entry points into one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in recent human history. In this city where families were split into insurgents and victims, or scattered into varied circumstances, there are children who will never know the love of parents. Many did not know electricity until the last two years. Many have spent years out of school or lived under care, or no care at all. Many have seen deaths and other psychologically-traumatizing experiences that require intense counseling and other therapies they will never get. Children under ten in Maiduguri have grown up knowing what bullets and bombs sound like. In twenty years, they will be adults, the people who will determine the way all others live.
Engaging the Governor and senior public officials, you get the distinct impression of leaders who believe they have won decisive battles by not surrendering to the insurgency. You see confidence among public officials who could not visit home in towns and villages this time last year, and a few whose towns are still not easily accessible. You see evidence of a leadership made up of Muslims and Christians bonded by the realization that Boko Haram makes all faiths equal victims. The governor's confidence belies his recent altercation with NGOs and relief organizations, the challenges of meandering through the forest of federal and state agencies as well as frustrations over the daily struggle to balance current needs of citizens against rebuilding a context for a secure and productive future. The relief over the recent successes of the military campaign in Sambisa forest is palpable, and you get the impression that Borno state people will vote for President Buhari as many times as he will ask for their support. You will not detect a feeling that they feel abandoned, but the leadership and citizens of Borno are quick to appreciate gratitude for even token gestures that assure them that they are not alone as they walk away from a murderous insurgency into a future full of challenges.
The spectacle of dignified splendour around the Shehu of Bornu barely conceals the reality that this ancient civilization has been traumatized and squeezed into Maiduguri by an insurgency whose origin and development it disowns at every opportunity. The Shehu's empire substantially hangs around his palace, with subordinates chased out of palaces, while government offices, schools, hospitals, basic social and economic infrastructure, homes, mosques and churches have all largely been largely destroyed. If you thought the Shehu's assertion that Borno will rise again was conjured bravado, you are forced into doubt as you see hundreds of young people outside his palace watching a football match, the number of young people who run towards any siren to raise clenched fists in greetings and adulation, or the number of school children (including, significantly, school-age girls) who squeeze through heavy traffic to go to school, or the relaxed faces on streets even when no one is certain that the next person may not be concealing a bomb.
The faces of resistance are represented in elders and elite who have stayed behind to resist this assault either because they have no choice or because they chose to risk staying put in Maiduguri. It is also represented by the mostly young Civilian JTF, that precocious group that forced its way into a war, making the difference by exposing relations, neighbours and suspects, providing an invaluable compass in the fight and paying a very high price for its effort. Borno Elders Forum serves as the voice and vanguard of the community, often irritating or serially annoying authority at all levels by its insistence that there are right ways of dealing with security challenges and the rights and dignity of citizens. These elders paid their dues to the Nigerian state at many levels, and they will not abandon the belief that it is possible to re-engineer a Nigeria with Borno as a pillar.
In the Northeast generally, and in Borno State in particular, everyone speaks in statistics. You will hear that there are over 2m IDPs in the region, only 10% of whom live in camps. The numbers increase literally by the day, as the military dislodge more insurgents and free captive populations. There are anywhere between fifty and one hundred thousand young orphans, a curious phenomenon in an African context until you are reminded that no one has the space or resources to give them a home. Many of the IDPs are children or relations of insurgents who are shunned with such vehemence, they require special protection. More than half of school-age children have not been to school in the last 5 years. 90% of the IDPs living with families receive no assistance, nor do their host families. Their future depends largely on when towns and villages can be secured, when basic infrastructure including houses are rebuilt and when the means of production are made available. The statistics relating to poverty levels, malnourishment, juvenile delinquency, crimes and vulnerability of women and children and even the possibility of the prolongation or mutation of the insurgency can safely be marked up in the next few months, even with increased support, coordination and resources. The .2m IDPs who will be released into the population if the Government of Borno State goes ahead with its plans to close down all IDP camps in May this year, will pose additional problems for security and victims' management.
Maiduguri is the epicenter of devastation, the magnitude of which the nation is yet to fully grasp. At this stage, only a few things are certain: the resolve of the government of Nigeria to degrade the insurgency to a point where it is no longer a credible threat; the determination of the leaders and the communities in the northeast region to claw their ways into a rebuilt future; the determination of international relief and humanitarian organizations and friendly nations and many Nigerian NGOs to sustain the difficult tasks of reaching the vulnerable and the needy; and finally, a hugely uncertain future for millions of people in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. The pace and tempo of the military campaign must be sustained and matched by parallel efforts at rehabilitation, reintegration and reconstruction. In the last few months, the federal government has made improvements in the manner it coordinates activities of governments and agencies involved in managing a major humanitarian disaster. Still, the domestication of the Kampala Declaration will vastly improve the legal and policy framework for protecting and assisting IDPs. The people of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States and many parts of the North have lived with a nightmare for many years. Even if the insurgency is comprehensively defeated soon, this will only mark the beginning of another long and tasking challenge to rebuild lives and livelihoods. In Maiduguri, we saw signs among the population that there is hope for a safe and secure future. It is not just their future, because every Nigerian lives in Maiduguri.