I’ve been thinking recently about how difficult it is to get an even broadly accurate sense of conflict dynamics in Borno State, Nigeria, the state that is the continuing epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis. That crisis, broadly defined, includes not just the activities of Boko Haram and its splinter group the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), but also internal and external displacement, vigilantism, security force abuses, multiple forms of war economy, etc.
What makes analysis so difficult is that all the major sources of information are fraught: journalists and analysts rely on questionable sourcing and often contradict one another’s accounts; the military sometimes lies and exaggerates; civilian authorities sometimes contradict military statements; and Boko Haram and ISWAP propaganda is highly selective.
One of the most useful channels of information, then, is the humanitarian community (this is not primarily how they conceive of their own role, of course). I am particularly interested in which areas of Borno humanitarians considerable accessible or inaccessible at given times. The resulting portrait can differ somewhat from the military’s triumphalist narratives, from the somewhat scattershot image that emerges through the flow of jihadist attack claims, and even from the civilian authorities’ presentations of their own movements within the state.
Here are my notes on a recent report from REACH, titled “Situation Overview: Humanitarian Needs and Conflict Dynamics in Hard-to-Reach Areas of Borno State.” REACH is a humanitarian data-gathering and analysis initiative created by the think tank IMPACT, the French NGO ACTED (formerly the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development), and the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme. The report covers the period April-June 2020 and is based on interviews with 1,372 key informants regarding conditions in 558 hard-to-reach settlements. These key informants were based in and/or were recent arrivals to “garrison towns” in different parts of the state such as Maiduguri, the state capital; Monguno and Guzamala, in the north; Ngala, in the east near the border with Cameroon; and Gwoza, in the south.
For context, the government’s strategy of grouping people in “garrison towns” – and implicitly, partly ceding control of the countryside to jihadists – dates to 2017. As Médecins Sans Frontières wrote in a reflection on ten years of the Boko Haram crisis (August 2019), “Humanitarian workers can only work in so-called ‘garrison towns’ (enclaves controlled by the Nigerian military) and cannot access other areas outside military control. Yet people’s needs remain unmet even within these garrison towns. This has forced some people to leave the relative safety of the camps, risking their lives to seek food and firewood outside the security perimeter.” As of June 2020, there were more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Borno, of whom 54% were living in camps or “camp-like settings.” Some of the most recent population movements (August 24-30) are described here.
For further context, here is a detailed map of Borno State and its 27 Local Government Areas (LGAs), and here is a map that’s a bit easier to read, with senatorial zones color-coded. Boko Haram and ISWAP are sometimes described as having a rough territorial division, with ISWAP in the north and Boko Haram further south, and with both groups present (and sometimes with conflicting reports about who is the author of what attack) in the east.
A few highlights from the REACH report:
- There are four fully inaccessible LGAs (p. 2, footnote 5): Abadam, Guzamala, Kukawa, and Marte. All of these are in far northern Borno; Abadam is the northernmost LGA in the state. The first three LGAs are contiguous, and Marte is separated from Kukawa and Guzamala, both to the north of Marte and the south of Abadam, only by a relatively thin strip of Monguno LGA. So the far north and particularly the far northeast of the state is the most inaccessible zone.
- The most inaccessible zone is not necessarily the most dangerous zone. From p. 4 of the report: “In all assessed LGAs, an incident of conflict resulting in the death of a civilian/civilians had reportedly taken place in at least 10% of assessed settlements. The highest proportion of assessed settlements where this was reported was in Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). An incident of looting where most of a household’s property was stolen was reported to have occurred in at least 20% of assessed settlements in each LGA. Looting was most commonly reported to have happened in assessed settlements in Bama (93% of settlements), Jere (100%) and Konduga (100%). IDI [in-depth interview] participants reported additional protection concerns, including abductions, forced/early marriage, forced recruitment, and other forms of attacks and violence.” Jere and Konduga are not in the far north, but are rather in the center of the state, in the immediate vicinity of Maiduguri – Jere, relatively small by landmass, nearly encircles Maiduguri to the north, east, and south; while Konduga, much bigger by landmass, completes the circle around Maiduguri to the east and then also partly encircles Jere from the south (if that makes sense – it’s probably just easier to look at the map). As the report further comments (p. 4) regarding Jere and Konduga, “Although their proximity to Maiduguri and major roadways would generally be considered a positive factor for these areas, with regards to protection concerns being in the vicinity of an area of major concern for parties to the conflict may increase their risk.”
- The map on p. 3 confirms the impression that the hard-to-reach areas are primarily located in the far north, the far east (along the border with Cameroon), and to the immediate/near south of Maiduguri. A corollary to this is that western LGAs, far southern LGAs, and Maiduguri’s “near north” appear to be a bit calmer. Speaking of western Borno, some recent claims that Yobe State (to the west of Borno) is “peaceful and calm” are clearly overblown – but one does get a sense from the REACH report and other data that violence is more severe close to Maiduguri, and to the city’s east, rather than further to its west.
- The map on p. 3 of the REACH report also gives the impression that when people flee conflict, they often flee to major cities/”garrison towns” within their own LGA, except in the very far north where they leave the LGAs altogether; and if they head to a city outside their LGA it is typically either Maiduguri or to a few other hubs. For example, Monguno (the town) is a key destination for people coming from the far north and the far east, and Bama and Gwoza pull in pull from around much of the state.
- People are moving not just because of violence but also because of food insecurity (p. 3), which of course can be closely related to conflict. Many people (70% of assessed settlements) are subsistence farmers (p. 4), and the conflict has severely affected agricultural and commercial activities in many parts of the state. Here is a disturbing and striking paragraph from p. 4: “Most people were reported to not have access to their usual livelihoods in the majority of assessed settlements in Bama (97%), Damboa (83%), Dikwa (100%), Gwoza (97%), Jere (100%), Kala/Balge (100%), Konduga (86%) and Ngala (97%). On the contrary, a smaller proportion of assessed settlements in Abadam (30%), Guzamala (32%), Kukawa (44%) and Marte (40%) reported that most people did not have access to their usual livelihood.” It’s also striking to see the relatively smaller percentages reporting lack of access to usual livelihoods in the four fully inaccessible, northern LGAs; perhaps people leaving those areas are most motivated by security concerns or even by what we might call political concerns, in other words difficulties living under what is often reported as strong ISWAP influence/sway in the far north of Borno (see pp. 12-13 here for a discussion of ISWAP in the far north, although the linked content is a bit dated).
- Another notable finding of the REACH report is that movement itself is dangerous. From p. 3: “IDI [in-depth interview] participants reported challenges during their journeys related to fear of being attacked while en-route, thirst, hunger, snake bites and other injuries. All of the IDI participants reported making some or the entire journey on foot, with most reporting they spent between one to three days walking. After completing the journey to the garrison town, IDI participants reported that they did not intend to return to visit or move back to the H2R [hard-to-reach] settlement because returning to the settlement would not be safe.” It’s going to be a while before most of these citizens go home.
- There are a number of other key sections in the report – water, health, education, etc. – but this post is getting long. Notably although not surprisingly, in remote parts of the state one finds LGAs where fewer than half the population appears to be even aware of COVID-19’s existence, a finding that should reinforce skepticism about any official COVID-19 counts from Nigeria (or nearby Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, for that matter).
- I leave you with REACH’s conclusion (p. 9): “The findings in this situation overview are indicative of severe humanitarian needs in the H2R areas of Borno state, related to the reported impact of the protracted crisis and suggested historical lack of access to services. Continued monitoring of these areas is required to provide the information needed to inform the humanitarian response.”