Displaced by unending violence and abandoned by their government, locals from Shiroro Local Government Area have returned to villages they once deserted due to the activities of terror groups. Sadly, they are now in a tightrope: suffering unending kidnapping, rival clashes between terror groups and military onslaught targeting the terrorists.
In this report, PREMIUM TIMES’ Yakubu Mohammed spoke with some locals who share their experiences as ‘freed captives’ in their homeland.
Women in Kuta IDP camp during palliative distribution last year
Zakari Adam, a 25-year-old farmer from Bassa, one of the villages in the Allawa district of Shiroro Local Government Area (LGA), fled his community in 2021 following repeated terror attacks. Like a nomad, he moved from one displaced persons camp to another until hardship forced him back home.
“In 2021, I fled to an IDP camp at Erena village,” Mr Adam recalled, adding that the village later witnessed a deadly attack that forced him to Kuta, the headquarters of Shiroro LGA. “At the IDP camp in Kuta, we were left to cater for ourselves.”
The young farmer explained that he lived in Kuta camp for nearly a year before returning to his community last year.
He told PREMIUM TIMES he would rather be killed by terrorists than starve to death in a tough metropolis.
Back to hell
Locals from Kurebe, also in Shiroro LGA, started witnessing terror attacks in 2020 when Boko Haram insurgents invaded the village on a market day. It reached its peak in 2022 when the Nigerian Air Force while targeting terrorists, killed at least 14 villagers including minor girls and a woman. The operations in April and August 2022 were targeted at the terrorists but killed civilians. Subsequently, many of them fled the village to various urban cities.
But survival was not easy for the escapees as they had to live like abandoned refugees in other parts of the state and neighbouring states. Many have now returned to the banditry-ravaged village, while some sneak in and out for farming.
When Babangida Ahmed, a young farmer from Kurebe, fled the village, he had hope of not going back but he was faced with realities at Udawa, a Kaduna community bordering his village in Niger State. So, he went back last March.
Unfortunately, he was kidnapped by terrorists six months later. His family had to pay N1 million after selling his farm produce and solicited more funds from relatives.
Yet, Mr Ahmed could not imagine starving or doing any other thing apart from farming. “I often go to the village to farm and return,” he told PREMIUM TIMES. “But to harvest the farm produce is another challenge. They [terrorists] would waylay farmers transporting their goods to the market and hold some of them while releasing a few to go and sell the produce.”
Despite their experiences, locals told PREMIUM TIMES they will remain in Kurebe and keep enduring hostility from the terror group. A community leader from Kurebe said the locals who have now returned home might lack everything but not food.
“This is what they were not getting in the urban cities where they sought refuge,” he explained. “Some of them even say the bandits are more friendly than before. They said the bandits won’t disturb them again.”
This appears tricky, locals in Bassa, another community in Shiroro LGA said, noting the terrorists were unpredictable. “Sometimes, they are nice and many times, they come after us,” Buliyaminu Ibrahim, a resident of the village said.
Mr Ibrahim said he would not have returned if not that he heard that normalcy had returned to his village. “I was in Kuta then and they told us the terrorists were not harmful anymore. So I thought of fleeing from hunger to go and farm.”
A few months after he returned home, Mr Ibrahim was thrown into a dilemma that would render him bankrupt. His brother was kidnapped while returning from the mosque in the morning, sometime last year.
He had to empty his soybean farm to provide a ransom for his brother’s freedom. He managed to harvest two bags of soybeans from the farm. “Each costs N60,000 and I used it to secure his freedom,” he recalled.
“So, the thing is we get to eat here, but we’re still not safe,” he grumbled. “Just two months ago, they came and kidnapped over 20 of our people and are now asking us for N80 million. Although the negotiation is ongoing.”
Torn between rival clashes and military air raids
Niger is one of the states in north-central and north-west Nigeria whose rural communities are affected by the incessant attacks of terrorists, locally called bandits. Apart from Boko Haram, which was based in the north-east but also operates in the north-central and north-west, several terror groups operate in the regions.
The Dogo Gide terror group and fighters of Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) have turned the villages in Shiroro and their surroundings into battlefields. Whenever a fight breaks out, locals control their movement within the village.
A youth leader in the area, Jibrin Allawa, said the terrorists established various camps in the forest around the village.
“Eyewitnesses told us about two months ago that the ISWAP and Dogo Gide boys intensified their rivalry and they were killing each other almost every day,” he narrated. “They said another terror kingpin, Kachalla Ali operating along Pandogari axis, had to intervene before they ceased fire.”
While rivalry clashes only prevent locals from moving around, they are direct victims of military raids.
On August 14, Dogo Gide’s group said it shot down a military aircraft around Chukuba village in Shiroro, killing some officials of the Nigerian Air Force. But the harmless locals living around the villages paid for it when a fighter jet avenged and killed an unspecified number of innocent villagers.
According to data obtained from Nextier Violence Database, Niger State had the highest number of casualties of banditry in 2022 with 724 deaths. It ranked second as the worst-hit banditry-ravaged state by incidents.
A year-round data collated by the centre shows that there were, at least, 168 kidnappings in the north-central state in 2023. This is in addition to killings recorded in a series of wanton attacks by the terrorists.
‘The future is dangerous for us’
Mr Allawa who doubles as youth president in the area said the future is bleak for many communities in Shiroro.
“These are places where children were prevented from going to school. They keep seeing guns every day and we think it would not affect their perception about life?”
“Parents fled to safer places with their children but ended up returning to the same communities due to lack of humanitarian assistance,” he continued. “Could you imagine a farmer begging for food in urban cities? They could not do that for a long time and they decided to go back home.
“When they were displaced, they came back to the urban centre — to the street, IDPs and some were squatting with relatives. But they were lacking food. Those at the IDPs were not being adequately taken care of, so they had to beg for food.”
Despite its residents suffering from banditry for many years, the Niger State government had no ministry to address the humanitarian concerns of the displaced people until recently when Governor Mohammed Umaru Bago assumed office.
Habibu Wushishi, the director of Information and Strategy at the Niger State Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, could not be reached for comments. He neither responded to calls nor a short message sent to him on the state government’s plans for Shiroro LGA residents