Mr. Mohammed is a Maiduguri resident who was in Bama when it fell to insurgents. He talks about the relationship between the military and civilians in Maiduguri and how the military’s attitude towards ordinary citizens in Borno has changed over time, and the fragile normalcy of daily life in the city. He also talks about the role that the youth volunteer group known as civilian JTF has played in securing Maiduguri, and trust in the Nigerian military to handle the ongoing crisis.
The violence has been going on for quite a while now in Borno State. How has the relationship between security forces and the populace changed over time?
The relationship between the military and the people at first was very bad, because the military first came with the mindset that everybody in Maiduguri was a Boko Haram member. They came with a mindset of complete destruction, killing, looting and violence. So at that time people had no confidence in them because they were attacking people. There was nothing like interrogating; they would just kill and loot, and even sometimes they would set houses on fire. So at that time there was no good relationship between civilians and the security agents at that time. But now, with the coming of the civilian JTF, [most military] know that not everybody is a Boko Haram man. What they have been doing for up to two years and could not curtail[the violence], they were able to do with coming of the civilian JTF. So people have confidence now in the civilian JTF more than the military men. As a result now, the military men have now become friends with the civilian JTF which are part of the civilian population. This is what is on ground now.
So basically the civilian JTF has acted almost as an intermediary between the military and the general population, mediating that relationship between both parties.
Yes. We were looking at the civilian JTF as our response because we have tried our best to throw out the Boko Haram members from Maidugiri to the outskirts of Maiduguri. We are thankful to them.
We’ve been hearing a lot in the news about some areas where Boko Haram is now in control. What impact does this have really on the day to day lives of the people in these communities? We have a vague sense of it being a very bad thing and perhaps an increase in violence and a sense of threat to Nigeria’s territorial integrity. But what does it mean to the people who live in these communities?
For the two communities which you have mentioned, Gwoza and Bama, what [we are seeing] in Gwoza [is that] there are only old men and women. Any young woman or able-bodied man is not there. In essence, the town is completely under the control of the insurgents. Anything like business, buying or selling, there is nothing like that. Especially those people who left their houses [in these controlled areas] unprepared, psychologically they are now affected. They are living in separate, different locations, so you can imagine how they are feeling. And if you come to the second place, Bama which you mentioned, as of yesterday (I don’t know of today), it was still completely under the control of the insurgents too. So there are no people in Bama – the only people remaining there are only women and old people – and the women are now suffering from lack of food, there is nowhere they can go to buy anything, they cannot move freely because insurgents are patrolling the whole town. The few people there are just living in a way that is…they cannot even understand what to do. They have nowhere to go. This is the situation. So as a result of this, either in Bama or in Gwoza or anywhere in Borno in general, people are living in a really desperate situation.
So in your community now, how are people relating to each other? Are they going to visit relatives, are markets or supermarkets still open? What’s it like now in Maiduguri where you are?
In Maiduguri, life is very normal. If a stranger comes here, he may not know that he is in Maiduguri because it is so normal. People are moving about without any fear or anything because here we believe that what they are doing outside they will never come to Maiduguri. It is not possible even. People are doing their business. Supermarkets, shops, markets, everything is open, except that our curfew starts from 7 in the evening to 6 in the morning, this is the only thing. Otherwise everything is normal. But one problem is that you cannot go outside Maiduguri, especially if you are going towards the East or towards the Southern parts, because we are in a kind of a cage. we have only one entrance. You cannot go towards Bama or Gwoza.
If people are living their day-to-day lives in the city, is it because they trust the police and army to protect the city?
No. We are with the military men, but we know not to trust them to defend us. We have had two scenarios in Gwoza and in Bama where the military abandoned their security posts and ran away. So how can you depend on them to protect you? In Bama, I was an eyewitness. I saw them stay with civilians to run away from Bama to Maiduguri. So how can you imagine that these people would protect you? Only our CJTF and the determination of the people, knowing that whatever happens in Maiduguri, we are going out en masse to face it together.
Are there still people joining these militants?
No, they are forcing people. They would take away young men and they conscript people into their ranks. When they take over a town, they take [the young men] away.
My final question: Have you heard of any militants forming a sort of government in these places?
Especially in a place like Gwoza where we are hearing is under [Boko Haram], we have not gotten any concrete way in which they are administering the place. We are trying other sources to know exactly what kind of government they are running, but up until now we have not concrete way that they are ruling the place, because no one is going there to bring out the information.
That’s all the questions I have. Is there anything else you want to say that I haven’t asked you?
Our military lacks the power, determination or morale to face these small insurgents. Or let’s look at it this way: does the government have the political will to end this insurgency? These are our concerns, because if our government is serious about this, if our military can go outside [the country] and do peacekeeping well, why can’t we do it in Nigeria? Also, where are these insurgents getting all their arms and ammunition? For example, a helicopter isn’t something that one can put in a house. It has to be in an airport or an airstrip. And the airspace is controlled by the government. So how can a helicopter fly from somewhere to go to the enclave of the insurgents and drop money, weapons, or medicine, and fly back? From where is this helicopter coming from, and who is controlling it? So how we are looking at it is that the government has no will to end the insurgency. Maybe because some people are benefiting from it, we don’t know.