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'It Was As If the Town Had Never Existed': Residents of Nigeria's Adamawa State Flee Attacks as Boko Haram Advances

Nigeria's government has postponed elections, saying it needs time to push back the Islamist rebels. In the eastern state neighboring the group's stronghold, locals say help can't come too soon.

by Katarina Hoije
Feb 9 2015, 7:08pm

Image via Reuters

To this day Margret Yohanna is not sure what woke her up that Sunday morning: the soft popping sound of gunfire in the distant or the roar of the militants' motorbikes as they entered the village. "When I heard them calling "Allahu Akbar," "God is great," I knew it was too late," she said.

Moments later the armed men entered the house, instantly killing her husband and father-in-law. Ms Yohanna and her four children fled into the nearby mountains. Together with friends and neighbours who also had managed to escape, she watched from afar as the rebels went on a looting and killing spree throughout the village. Before leaving they loaded sacks of rice, beans and pasta — foodstuffs they couldn't find in the bush — together with women and children onto their battered 4x4s.

When the villagers finally dared to descend from the mountain they were faced with total destruction.

"It was as if the town had never existed," Ms Yohanna told VICE News in a refugee camp in Yola, the capital of Nigeria's Adamawa state, where she had just arrived following the assault on her village.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and three million displaced in Boko Haram's five-year insurgency. Through its ruthless practices — bombings, kidnappings and executions — the group has expanded its territory in northern Nigeria, from Borno state in the far northeastern corner into neighboring Adamawa and Yobe. 

In May 2013 president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in all three states. The insurgents have intensified its attacks in recent months in the lead-up to the country's presidential elections, originally scheduled for 14 February. On Saturday Nigeria's electoral commission announced elections would be postponed until 28 March. The decision came after the military said its fight against Boko Haram, the Islamist group it has been fighting for nearly six years, couldn't ensure a safe election.

The move came a week before the election, which some say are set to be the closest in the country's history. It caused a protest, at home and abroad. The opposition All Progressives Congress, APC, called the move a "setback for democracy."

Abdullahi Bello at the American University in Yola suggested that the government had wanted an excuse to push back the vote. "It's hard not to see it as (that) civilians have been sacrificed so the elections could be postponed," he told VICE News.

Over the past weeks, Boko Haram militants have attacked dozens of villages in the Michika district of Adamawa state, close to the border with Cameroon, slaughtering male residents and abducting women and children, said Uantre Tumba, a community leader from Michika.

"Half of the population has been forced to flee. In some villages there are only the children and elderly left," Tumba told VICE News as he arrived in Yola.

For more than a year, Boko Haram has been fueling a refugee crisis in the northeast part of the country. Hundreds of thousands have fled Borno, where Boko Haram formed in 2002, and entered Adamawa — one of the largest of Nigeria's 36 states, to the south. In Yola, the state capital, internally displaced people (IDPs) outnumber the population of 400,000 inhabitants. Aid agencies struggle to provide food and shelter to the IDPs who continue to flow into government run camps. Only a small percentage of refugees end up in the five state facilities; the majority chose to stay with relatives or in the many mosques and churches that have opened their doors for those fleeing the insurgents.

"Because there are no exact figures and many of the IDPs are in fact invisible, living in private homes, no one realizes how bad the situation really is," said Hassan Coulibaly of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). 

In September, IRC estimated the number of IDPs in Yola as 100,000. Two months later they doubled that figure.

"Three months later the funding is still not sufficient and the numbers keep on increasing," Coulibaly told VICE News.

Last Monday a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the northern town of Gombe, in Gombe state, just minutes after President Goodluck Jonathan left a campaign rally. The previous day at least eleven people were killed in twin blasts in the town. Explosions have also hit court buildings in three towns in the oil-rich south in what authorities described as co-ordinated attacks. 

Meanwhile human rights organization Amnesty International said the Nigerian government had ignored warnings of several Boko Haram attacks, among them the attack on the northern town of Baga in January, in which activists say up to 2,000 people were killed. The organization fear a humanitarian crisis if the government does not intensify efforts to fight the insurgents.

The government is often criticized for not making enough effort to stop the insurgency. With almost 3,000 troops deployed beyond its borders, Nigeria is the world's eighth largest contributor of peacekeepers to UN missions and the third largest in Africa. While participating in peacekeeping deployments and sending troops on African Union missions, the recourses given to the army to fight Boko Haram are limited, according to analysts. It's not that the president is ignoring Boko Haram, but he hasn't taken all the measures necessary to fight the group, said Bello at the American University.

"There's a lack of will from the government's side to stop the attacks," he added.

During his visit to the state capital, Yola, Jonathan promised that he would step up the battle against Boko Haram, and announced the liberation of Michika town by government forces.

But the president's reception was hardly warm; his convoy came under attack from youths throwing stones, a repeat of similar incidents elsewhere on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile the displaced continued to arrive at the camp at Yola's Church of the Brethren. Zeinab Adamu, a 27-year-old mother of five, fled Gwoza in Borno state after Boko Haram militants attacked her hometown.

"What worries me the most is how I'm going to feed my children," she told VICE News. "The rebels still control Gwoza, there's no way for us to go back."

Since Nigeria officially became Africa's largest economy last year, donors have turned elsewhere. "The country's no longer seen as a priority. It's become really hard to get funding," said an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous.

Haruna Furo is the state emergency coordinator in Yola. He has a team of only 20 staff assigned to the 29,000 people in official camps, though they work with NGOs.

"The government has responded well to our plea for more funding. We're currently assessing people in all the five government camps." However, he added, there are an additional 15 non-government camps where IDPs rely on the few NGOs in town and the local population for support.

"We're trying our best," Mr Furo says.

In Yola, the citizens can do nothing but watch as the insurgents inch closer. In December last year, national forces and the paramilitary Joint task Force, JTF, averted a push towards the city, and vehicles burned by the militants still line the road approaching from the town of Mubi, to the north. Two months earlier, hundreds of Boko Haram fighters had entered Mubi, driving through the town, taking what they wanted from shops and market stalls and forcing their way into the people's homes. Abdullahi Umar, senior bodyguard to the local emir, could only watch as they took over the ruler's palace and set up shop. Every Friday they preached the importance of being good Muslims from the central mosque. But the militants, some of them rugged fighters from neighboring Chad, would drink beer, smoke and stare at the local women, according to accounts from the town. Some of them were later forced to marry the fighters.

Julius Ayuk Tabe, assistant vice-president at the American University in Yola, began working to counter the influence of the insurgents after the first church bombing in Adamawa in 2012. A group of Yola citizens created the Adamawa Peace Initiative to try and stop the militants in their tracks. That year, priests prayed in the mosque and Muslim prayers could be heard from church rooms," he said. Three years later, the social cohesion built then is inspiring ordinary citizens to rally together and provide safe havens for those who fled the insurgents.

"At some point on of the university staff had over 50 people staying at his house," he told VICE News.

"We saw the threat and managed to, if not avert it, at least to limit the impact. Boko Haram has not managed to get a foothold here."