A student looks out from the remains of a classroom destroyed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria.
A student looks out from the remains of a classroom destroyed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria.
Photo: pius utomi expei / AFTP / GETTY IMAGES

Kareem Omar had the misfortune to be shopping at the Monday market in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, when a Boko Haram gunman took a pot shot at a soldier and ran for it, disappearing into the crowd.

Troops rounded up Kareem, along with others, telling them to ‘fish out the boy or die’. The young man in front of him was rough-looking and shook with fear as he answered the soldiers’ questions, arousing their suspicion. The boy had no gun, but they killed him anyway. ‘Back then, if someone was shot, nobody bothered,’ Kareem recalls. ‘They killed thousands of people like that.’

In 2011, the army’s indiscriminate response to an uprising of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Maiduguri, the provincial capital of Borno state, was such that the influential local elders begged the President to withdraw the troops altogether. If this is how the army is going to behave, they said, please take them away. They are killing more people than Boko Haram. We can handle this ourselves.

It’s a familiar story across Africa and the world at large: military responses to violent extremism routinely make things worse. Nine years since Boko Haram rose up against the state, over 30,000 people have died, 2.4 million are displaced and 5 million are dependent on food aid.1,2 The insurgency’s eye-watering brutality – against women in particular – has made it a household name. But deploying violent force against Boko Haram has only made things worse.

 Free at last? The Nigerian military is greeted by people in Monguno town after driving out Boko Haram in 2015.
Free at last? The Nigerian military is greeted by people in Monguno town after driving out Boko Haram in 2015.
Photo: benedicte kurzen / noor

How it all began

The bad behaviour of governments is often at the heart of why conflicts begin and persist. Northeast Nigeria is no exception. When Boko Haram first emerged in Maiduguri in 2003, the group was oppositional but largely peaceful, under the leadership of a radical Salafist cleric, Mohamed Yusuf. ‘We saw them as serious, religious people,’ remembers one Maiduguri resident. ‘They said they would bring social amenities, and lent money for young people to start a business and to get married.’

That all changed in 2009 when the police and military cracked down on the sect. Around 800 of its members were killed, including Yusuf, who died in police custody. While no-one knows for sure if Yusuf’s long-term game would have included violence, government aggression nudged a religious movement from preaching and proselytizing mode into full-blown jihad. Yusuf’s more radical deputy, Abubeker Shekau, took the helm, launching attacks across multiple northern states. Bent on revenge, Boko Haram’s brutality has increased ever since. They shifted from targeting police stations and barracks, to attacking schools, markets and refugee camps.

The Nigerian military response was ruthless and heavy-handed. Citizens were treated as suspects or sympathizers. ‘They were abusive and intolerant,’ remembers one man. ‘Soldiers could mishandle you, they crashed into cars, used bayonets to puncture people’s tyres.’ Ignorant of local languages, often ill-equipped and with no means to identify Boko Haram members, the Nigerian army is estimated to have killed three times more civilians than Boko Haram at the peak of the violence in 2010-12.1

The army finally dislodged militants from Maiduguri in 2013, after youths set up vigilante groups in an act of desperate self-preservation. The city centre is now secure, its main roads patrolled by soldiers on desert-camouflage gun-trucks. But vigilante groups, having tasted power, are committing abuses of their own.

And, as the Nigerian military successfully claws back territory, the problem has moved elsewhere. Boko Haram has spread across the border into Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and split into six groups. The notorious leader Shekau is now allied with Islamic State. In a terrible case of history repeating itself, Cameroonian soldiers were recently filmed executing female Boko Haram suspects, along with their children.3

The state thought it could use military force to crush Boko Haram. As is so often the case with rebel groups, it underestimated its foe. In the words of Kenyan aid worker Maurice Onyango: ‘the government should have talked to these people when they had the chance.’

All together now – the younger sisters of Ramatu Hassan (centre) have welcomed her and her daughter back since her escape from Boko Haram.
All together now – the younger sisters of Ramatu Hassan (centre) have welcomed her and her daughter back since her escape from Boko Haram.
Photo: Hazel Healy

Rebuilding relationships

There are ways to prevent death and destruction without using violent force. In Bama, a town 70 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri, communities are doing it differently – building peace from the ground up.

A once-bustling commercial centre, Bama was reduced to ashes towards the end of its six-month spell as ‘caliphate’ in 2015. It’s now a semi-rebuilt garrison town, home to a vast camp for 21,000 internally displaced people (IDPs).

Inside the gates, a ragged group of women and children are crouched together, being poked at by government nurses with long sticks – they are just some of the thousands arriving each day, picked up by military clearance operations or ‘rescues’. Movements in and out are highly restricted. It’s tense; a suicide attack was foiled a few days after our visit, and five died at a mosque in town last April.

It takes a certain amount of courage to leave the relative safety of Maiduguri. But Agnes Bashir, a powerful orator and retired high-ranking civil servant, and Amina Kyari, whose huge smile lingers on after her, are not easily daunted. They work for two NGO partners trained up by peacebuilding charity International Alert to counter the stigma that affects women abducted by Boko Haram.

‘We don’t like it when families discriminate,’ says Amina. ‘We let them know it’s not the girls’ fault.’ Thousands have been taken from the countryside in Borno state, with none of the outcry that accompanied the kidnap of 276 girls from Chibok, brought to international attention by the powerful grassroots campaign Bring Back Our Girls. The children are used as slave labour or strapped with bombs. Boys are coerced into fighting, girls forced into ‘marriages’ with fighters or gang-raped.

Husseina Buba, aged 15, was abducted from her village when she was nine. She arrived at the camp eight months ago, pregnant with her son Alagi. She playfully grips the chubby forearms of the five-month-old baby as she recounts how she and other girls plotted their escape.

Her mother welcomed her with huge relief – after six years she had given up hope. But the rest of the camp were not so accepting. She found herself last in line for food and water. People would whisper and stare and keep their distance, afraid that she had been radicalized.

In the bush she had given birth once before, at night, completely alone. The child had died after three days. Alagi, born among a crowd of women, helped fill the gap left by the first. ‘I hate the act,’ she says. ‘But my son is a blessing from God.’

Her baby gave her hope, but neighbours said Alagi had ‘bad blood’ and would turn into a Boko Haram fighter like his father, and kept their children away. She has seen stigma kill, as young girls dumped their infants in latrines or women committed infanticide to escape it.

But the atmosphere has changed, thanks to the activities of the NGOs. ‘Now people show me love,’ she says.

It doesn’t come easily for some. Abdulai Yuse, a farmer from Gwoza, holds out his calloused hands to me as his ‘ID card’. He admits that he couldn’t bring himself to trust Fatima, the third of his eight children, after she was rescued by the military and returned pregnant aged 18.

He sits playing with the toes of his solemn, sweet granddaughter (‘a happy child’), now three, as he relays how the family-support sessions weaned him off the idea that his daughter had brought shame on the family. Fatima looks less convinced. ‘It’s getting better,’ she says. At one time, he was badmouthing her daughter so much, she nearly sold her to traffickers.

One woman defused her daughter’s suicide vest with water, as she’d seen Boko Haram fighters do in the training camp

Women navigated their abductions in different ways; some have extraordinary stories of resistance. One mother defused her daughter’s suicide vest with water, as she had seen it done by militants in the camp. Another managed to smuggle her two sons out of a Boko Haram prison disguised as girls, and married a fighter in order to get her two-year-old son – who had been taken to force her into joining the group – returned, bearing another son in the process. Others have yet to recover, as in the case of a woman from Chad, back living with her husband for the past year but still too traumatized to speak.

Another girl is ambivalent about her ‘Boko Haram husband’, whose job it was to place the vests around the waists of suicide bombers and produce video messages for Shekau. He treated her kindly, she says. ‘I even volunteered to go on a mission myself,’ she adds casually.

Amina confides that community workers use the sessions to slip in women’s rights ‘by the back door’. Girls make friends, emerge stronger and have moved to protect other women at risk of violence or exploitation. The war has also prompted a shift in gender relations, as widows are forced to strike out alone. ‘Men say “wow! Look at these women standing up”,’ says Agnes. ‘It made me realize that there can even be a positive side to conflict.’

Abdulai Yuse at first rejected his pregnant daughter but over time has grown to love and accept his new grandchild.
Abdulai Yuse at first rejected his pregnant daughter but over time has grown to love and accept his new grandchild.
Photo: Hazel Healy

Everyday diplomacy

In the Bama camp for displaced people, peacebuilders are boosting everyday diplomacy to keep community relations civil. Mistrust runs high. There is not always enough food to go round and people from all different locations and ethnicities – Kanuri, Hausa, Shuwa Arabs – are thrown together.

Community dialogue sessions, which begin with a Muslim prayer and end with a Christian one, foster unity and the recognition that ‘we are all in this together’, explains a traditional leader. ‘It’s made us stronger.’

Now people let their children play together. Religious counselling is also used to help people recover and drive away thoughts of revenge. Everyone in this room has lost someone. They may have seen parents killed, children abducted. Faith can bring comfort and build a climate of hope and empathy.

Omar Banqui, whose grandchild is still missing, says he was plagued at night by thoughts of Boko Haram’s crimes. ‘The sessions have helped me sleep,’ he says, touching his chest.

The people here say they are prepared to accept back former Boko Haram combatants – provided they are repentant and deemed safe by the government. ‘Even Shekau himself!’ announces Omar. ‘We just want to go home,’ he adds. They say the message of forgiveness will reach Boko Haram members and convince them to surrender.

The group reminds me: ‘They were once part of us.’ Agnes agrees: ‘Our sons brought this conflict. It is the indigenous people themselves who can bring peace. Nobody else.’

With Maiduguri courts facing a three-year backlog, legal justice is not easy to find. But when it comes to the complicated, personal question of forgiveness for crimes on this scale, local people already have ‘many homemade strategies’, says Idayat Hassan, head of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and architect of the northeast’s fledgling transitional justice plan.

‘Our sons brought this conflict. It is the indigenous people themselves who can bring peace’

A traditional leader in neighbouring Adewama state, he was able to broker settlements in his community by negotiating the payment of compensation to the family of an innocent man killed by a soldier. The alternative dispute mechanism of sulhu under Islamic law could be another key to unlock peace.

The prevailing wisdom in mainstream peacebuilding efforts is that if you bring development, build state institutions, or intervene militarily to degrade the opposition, then peace will happen.

‘But the real finding is that it’s the other way round,’ says Alexander Ramsbotham, director of online publication Accord. ‘You need to get the relationships, get agreements going among people before the rest can happen.’

Funmi Olonisakin, peace and conflict professor at King’s College London, believes it is time to turn the peace-

building architecture on its head. ‘We need to reverse the order, and look organically,’ she says. ‘Africans need to use our own formulas; local people must be allowed to make peace in their own time at their own pace, to articulate their own ideas.’

The international community – especially the US and Britain, which are both heavily involved in Nigeria today – have favoured a military (‘securitized’) response over a locally driven, grassroots peace. Both countries have an interest in the stability of Nigeria, the world’s 12th largest oil producer, and make substantial contributions to humanitarian aid.

But there are other factors. Nigeria is seen as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, which needs to be supported militarily – and with arms sales.

Dubious allies

At a summit last May with Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, President Trump confirmed the sale of nearly $593 million-worth of weapons, including 12 light attack ‘Super Tucano’ aircraft, guided rockets and other equipment (delayed under the Obama administration over human rights concerns). ‘Not good reasons,’ declared Trump. ‘Terrorism…’ he articulated, ‘it’s a hotbed, and we’re going to be stopping that’ – before pressing Buhari to reduce barriers to trade.

A soldier I met at the airport in the capital Abuja told me that British forces ‘are all over Africa now’ – much like the US Special Forces, engaged across the world in covert operations to combat ‘radical Islam’.

The British are here to train Nigerian troops, as the Ministry of Defence element that makes up 70 per cent of a $13.8 million programme from the UK’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Britain has many such ‘train and equip’ programmes.

The brief includes making the Nigerian army human rights compliant, which is welcomed by locals on principle. But an independent review has criticized the CSSF for its implicit assumption that ‘skills gaps’ are the source of the problem, as opposed to politics or conflicting objectives.

In Maiduguri, the Nigerian army’s excesses are over. Locals say that the army has learned it ‘cannot win this alone’ and the government has a plan for the northeast that promises to boost development.

But the priorities are clear: while funds for the plan have yet to be released, $1 billion has just been made available to the army, whose narrative remains, as one aid worker put it: ‘We will finish you!’

Meanwhile, reports of unlawful detention in appalling conditions and extrajudicial executions persist. There are fears that 850,000 civilians are in grave danger as the army tries to ‘starve out’ the remaining insurgents.

Military assistance supports the idea that ultimately you can win by ‘degrading’ the opposition – you just need to get better at it. It also risks lending credibility to an ally who may be uninterested in serious reform.

‘Even if they succeed,’ points out local investigative journalist Samuel Malik, ‘tomorrow another group will come up. They have to look at what’s driving these people.’

Keeping a lid on things: Yagana Konto and Idris Umar from the Youth Peace Platform.
Keeping a lid on things: Yagana Konto and Idris Umar from the Youth Peace Platform.
Photo: Hazel Healy

Attacking the roots

A lasting peace in Nigeria requires engaging with why Boko Haram appealed to Nigerians. Young recruits say that in the early days they were attracted to what they saw as an opportunity to ‘sanitize government and be recognized’.4 A project in Bulumkutu Kasawa, downtown Maiduguri, is offering alternative ways to earn respect and call government to account.

‘In the 2019 election, youth thuggery will not be tolerated,’ Idris Umar, a leader from the Youth Peace Platform (YPP) tells a packed room of community leaders. ‘They are used as tools... Politicians don’t use their own children, only those from poor communities.’ The room nods in agreement. Elders complain about the ‘youth from the main road’, who could be enticed to plant bombs or to attack supporters of rival political parties, in return for small money.

Idris has already lost two brothers to post-election riots in Nigeria. He doesn’t want to lose any more. He’s one of 120 youth leaders trained up in techniques of conflict resolution and advocacy by the civil society Borno Coalition for Democracy and Progress (BOCODEP), in partnership with peacebuilding charity Conciliation Resources.

YPPs have since kicked off a range of social projects to engage government on problems that plague poor neighbourhoods. Combating an epidemic of addiction to codeine-based cough syrup and opioid painkiller Tramadol – often in response to trauma – in partnership with government drug counsellors, is one key priority.

Elders welcomed the project from the start. ‘One of the leaders said, “If you had come to give my people food or clothes to wear, I would tell you that we have had enough of that”,’ recalls BOCODEP head Abubakar Mu’azu. ‘“Since you are here to talk about peace you are welcome. If we had peace we could take care of ourselves.”’

On a personal level, the YPPs recount many powerful stories, in which young people stop hurting others, and themselves.

One former female Boko Haram member recruited as a suicide bomber has now become a leader in Yobe province. A young man, Abbas Ali, was addicted to ‘syrup’ and led a violent gang armed with machetes that committed robberies and rape. He has given up drugs and turned his energies to painting school buildings and persuading friends and family to ‘get on the right path’.

His converts include his step-sister Zara al Haji. After her father was killed and her mother, a food-seller accused of cooking for Boko Haram, imprisoned for nearly three years, Zara found herself alone, unable to support herself and her two young children. She took drugs to ‘get knocked out, to get peace’ and used sex work to fund her habit.

Since Abbas pulled her into the YPP, Zara has come off drugs, discovered a knack for public speaking and is working to reunite sex workers with their families. ‘Anything that happens, people come looking for me,’ she says. Her mother, now out of jail, is impressed by her daughter’s new-found confidence. ‘My mum tells me, hold that trust that people give you, hold it well,’ she says, her fist clenched.

Knitted back into their communities, young people are less vulnerable to the next armed group that might come recruiting. ‘If Boko Haram came today we would not let them in,’ says Abbas.

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign marked a new chapter for effective nonviolent activism in Nigeria.
The Bring Back Our Girls campaign marked a new chapter for effective nonviolent activism in Nigeria.
Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Playing the long game

For peacebuilding to work, change has to happen at different levels of society simultaneously. In Abuja, the centre of government, civil society is tackling the bad politics at the top, working on an extensive reform programme to get Nigeria to respond to the needs of its citizens, not its elites.

‘If people know their vote is their power, and beyond voting you can actually hold your representative to account… then we will see change,’ says Temitope Fashola. As head of the governance programme at Christian Aid, he supports some of the many civil-society groups, networks and coalitions.

They have a long to-do list. Nigeria faces formidable challenges. This year it moved ahead of South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy by GDP, while also becoming the country with the highest numbers living in extreme poverty: 89 million, around half its citizens. Corruption is systemic, and combines with one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world at six per cent. Justice is slow. There are deep divisions along ethnic and religious lines, a lasting legacy of British colonialism.

But civil society is not easily overwhelmed. ‘It took us nine years to get the Freedom of Information act passed,’ says Mu’azu. ‘But now we have great gains for transparency. Now they publish budgets on websites, and they are subjected to scrutiny.’

‘I would say there’s progress,’ says Temitope, weighing his words carefully. He reminds me that military rule only ended in 1999. ‘Nigerians have very high expectations, and that’s why if you speak to a typical person they will say nothing is working.’

He points to some high-profile scalps – notably, the jailing of two former state governors. There’s a justice reform bill being rolled out across all states. ‘I’m an optimist. Nigeria can work and it will work,’ he says.

For Isa Sanusi at Amnesty, Bring Back Our Girls marked a new chapter for successful nonviolent activism. Some even credit the campaign – which secured the return of around 100 Chibok girls and still holds daily vigils for the 112 that remain in captivity – with bringing down the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan.

Isa is in awe of a group of displaced women living in camps who, in ‘an unexpected act of courage’, are agitating for the return of their husbands and sons, detained without charge as Boko Haram suspects, and are speaking out against sexual exploitation by soldiers. They are forcing the military to explain themselves.

It’s painstaking yet urgent work – there are signs of strain throughout the country. Nigeria is practically on a war footing, with the military operating in nearly all 36 states: the south faces ongoing militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta; there’s a resurgent secessionist movement in Biafra in the southeast; and across the Middle Belt region escalating clashes over resources between Fulani herders and farmers are taking a dangerous religious hue; banditry is widespread.

Yes, agrees Temitope, they are worried about the rise in violent conflict throughout Nigeria. But they have no intention of giving up now. Mu’azu, a professor of mass communication in his day job, is planning a project on Hate Speech. His focus is on building a larger moral community who will say ‘stop’ and insist on different standards.

‘People who believe in peaceful co-existence and tolerance must pick up the courage to speak up,’ he says. ‘Silence is not an option.’

Optimism, hope and courage lie at the heart of peacebuilding work in Nigeria – an ability to see a future beyond conflict and imagine something better.

It’s clear that any lasting peace must be informed by ordinary people’s wisdom and experience, and an attempt to give them justice for what they have suffered.

With conflict in the style of Boko Haram on the rise throughout the world, we need urgently to rebalance our priorities towards nonviolence and prevention, and away from the easy and disastrous recourse to violent and military options.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

  1. Nigeria Watch, Sixth report on violence in Nigeria, 2016, Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, nin.tl/NigeriaWatch
  2. UN OCHA Lake Chad Basin: Crisis Update, March-April 2018, nin.tl/OCHA
  3. ITV News, July 2018, nin.tl/CameroonAbuses
  4. ‘Motivations and Empty Promises. Voices of Former Boko Haram Combatants and Nigerian Youth’, April 2016
  5. nin.tl/BokoHaramRecruits