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Nigerian City Recovers After Militants Are Driven Out

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Staying in Africa, we go now to Nigeria and one of its northeastern capitals, Maiduguri. Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist group, set up camp there in 2002, then used the city as a base when they launched a reign of terror across the region. Thousands have died. The police killed the group's leader four years ago and drove the militants from the city, leaving behind shell-shocked residents.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

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OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: This is downtown Maiduguri and its teeming. Brightly colored yellow tuk tuks are transporting people up and down. Now, one doesn't quite imagine that Maiduguri, which is the home of Boko Haram - this is where it was created. You know, some people get the impression it's a bit of a conflict zone. But this looks like a normal Nigerian town that's busy, busy, with people doing their weekend shopping.

Not so long ago, Maiduguri was fearful, cowed by local Haram insurgents who were terrorizing the city. But in May, Nigeria's president imposed a state of emergency in the region, which has just been extended by six months to chase out the fighters. The crackdown included cutting off cell phone access, which was how militants reportedly were coordinating their attacks.

Borno state leaders say the violence has been devastating and very trying for the capital, Maiduguri.

INUWA BWALA: There is no doubt about it. It's really been very trying. It has taken a toll on our resources, both human and material.

QUIST-ARCTON: So says Borno's commissioner for information, Inuwa Bwala.

BWALA: Managing an insurgency of this magnitude, you know, is not going to be a tea party.

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram, whose name loosely translates as Western education is Haram, i.e. forbidden to Muslims, was founded by Islamic cleric Mohammed Yusuf about a decade ago. E.J. Hogendoorn, the deputy Africa director of the International Crisis Group, is preparing a new report on Boko Haram, including its history and links to Maiduguri.

E.J. HOGENDOORN: Essentially Mohammed Yusuf's attempt was to establish a pure Islamist state that would solve some of the ills, such as large scale official corruption, bad governance, a lack of development, a lot of problems attributed to the political class.

QUIST-ARCTON: It was from his base in Maiduguri that Mohammed Yusuf began his battle against the government, and later Christians and even fellow Muslims. In 2009, Boko Haram killed more than 1,000 people. Nigerian security forces destroyed Yusuf's camp, killing many of his followers, and the police reportedly summarily executed the Boko Haram leader.

But since his death, the rebellion has only gathered steam in the surrounding region of Northeastern Nigeria and beyond. People we spoke to in the market, like 23-year-old geography graduate Mohammed Baba Gana, said life had improved since emergency rule was imposed. He said at the height of the violence, Maiduguri was in a desperate situation.

MOHAMMED BABA GANA: We are in a critical situation. It was frightening, very frightening, but as of now, we are calm and without any fear, yeah.

QUIST-ARCTON: But concern remains that if Nigeria's leaders fail to tackle the root causes of the troubles - poverty, high youth unemployment and endemic corruption - young men with few prospects and little hope will continue to join groups like Boko Haram.

KALTUM UMAR: (Through interpreter) The problem now is our people in the villages and rural areas. We hear they are still being attacked regularly. It is still tense.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's 63-year-old Kaltum Umar, a snack seller and mother of seven. She says she just wants peace.

UMAR: (Through interpreter) The problems can be resolved if the government deals with them sincerely and decisively.

QUIST-ARCTON: The U.S. added Boko Haram to its list of terrorist organizations on November 13. The White House says it is ready to help Nigeria in its fight to subdue the insurgents and stop the spread of extremism. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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