Some of the reasons the Borno state government has cited for the resettlement drive is the need to build resilience and self-reliance among the displaced people. Limited access to livelihood support and starvation are, however, forcing many returnees to flee back to the state capital.
From the city centre, it takes about 30 minutes of moving through the tiny streets and dusty paths to arrive at the heart of Bulabulin-Ngaranam, one of Maiduguri’s least developed suburbs.
Bulabulim-Ngaranam in Borno, Northeast Nigeria, once earned notoriety as the hell hole of Boko Haram terrorists before they were eventually forced to flee to the Sambisa forest area in 2013.
Finally, the commercial tricyclist stops at the terminal. A few hundred metres ahead lies a tiny kiosk built with corrugated iron sheets. It is where Modu Bulu, an internally displaced person from the Kukawa Local Government Area (LGA), sells kola nuts.
“I am a former timber merchant who by the test of fate is now a peasant kola nut seller,” he said in a way that seemed to have a tinge of mockery. He is known to be from a rich business family in the ancient Borno village. It is obvious that even as he tries to be lighthearted about his misery, Bulu comes around as a man struggling to bottle up some of his pains.
He was among the horde of IDPs who were returned to Kukawa village, their ancestral home, in January as the state government carried on with the closure of camps that started last year. He and his family had lived in a displacement camp for about six years before it was shut down.
The Borno government recently said that it had returned about 700,000 IDPs in 13 out of the 16 official camps located within Maiduguri to their respective local government areas.
“I was born and brought up in Kukawa, my entire family lived there, and I was happy when the government informed us that we were going home,” Bulu said. One of the reasons for his excitement was the prospect of returning to his old, lucrative business of trading in timber and wood.
“I am not bragging, but I know that in those good old days, I made average sales of not less than two million Naira in a week. My father used to be one of the biggest cattle traders whose trucks transported cows to Lagos and Ibadan. At a time our family jointly owned over 200 cows that were being managed by Fulanis in the Kukawa forests. But all these wealth and fortunes have all disappeared since the night Boko Haram terrorists came attacking our community.
“They burnt down our houses, destroyed our businesses, stole our cows, killed our kinsmen and left us empty-handed,” he said.
Those familiar with Bulu’s travail said he was nearly losing his mind when he was in the IDP camp.
“He had made several dangerous attempts to return to Kukawa on his own, and each attempt left him more depressed and broken because Boko Haram had left nothing for him to take possession of,” said Abba Kaka, a Maiduguri-based business owner and a family friend.
“We had to help him with a token to start up something small and he decided to go into kola nut vending to keep body and soul together.”
Returning to Kukawa
When the state government announced the closure of the Teachers Village Camp which housed displaced people from Kukawa in Jan. 2022, Bulu said he joined many IDPs in celebrating as they looked forward to a more prosperous life.
But they were wrong.
“We all returned to Kukawa to meet a life very different from what it was before we fled about six years ago,” he said.
“Everyone who returned in January had to confine themself within the local government headquarters that is surrounded by dug up trenches and parapets which prohibit our movement outside the village. Most men and women have nothing to do other than sit and idle away. You have no trade or menial jobs to do. Hunger and starvation gradually set in as the little food given to each household got finished.”
Bulu’s father who rose to fame in the village as a result of his livestock trade now works as an agent at the market in Monguno, selling one or two cows ‘for a paltry commission’.
“The situation became so tough and hopeless that many of us had to reconsider our stay in Kukawa. We came to understand that survival is easier in Maiduguri where one has options of doing different things to get money,” Bulu explained.
“So, three weeks ago, I had to make up my mind on conveying my family back to Maiduguri. We came here and I borrowed some money to pay the annual rent of ₦35,000 for a single room here in Bulabulin-Ngaranam, where my wife, our four children and I currently live.”
He compared staying in Kukawa as a family man to ‘committing suicide’.
“Maybe the government has greater insight than what we know for returning people to a place where they have limited access to livelihood support. But for me, living in Kukawa in this critical period is worse than what we faced when we were in the IDP camp.”
Bulu has come to learn how to readjust his lifestyle and even the expectations of his family.
“I used to control a successful business and make monthly profits in millions of naira; everyone who lived in Kukawa knew that. But today, I am running a business that is not worth more than ₦20,000. It is not very common for a Kanuri man, no matter how poor, to dwell in a single room with his wife and children, but today here I am with my family living in a single room within a rented compound. But what can we do? At least we are still alive. Maybe one day something positive will happen in this land so that we can move back to our old life.”
He described access to food as the biggest challenge for displaced people living in camps and host communities.
“From the daily sales of kola nuts, I sometimes make up to between ₦1,500 and ₦2,000. It is out of these sales that I have squeezed out something for buying foodstuff to feed the family. I now have to diversify my business by selling ridiculous stuff like aphrodisiacs for men just to make ends meet,” he said.
“It is not easy feeding the family. There are even days that we can only manage to eat once, but it is still better than what we saw in Kukawa town.”