On Tuesday, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) handed over a completely rebuilt Borno community earlier destroyed by Boko Haram to the affected displaced people.
The rebuilt village is Ngwom, an agrarian community in Mafa Local Government Area of Borno State, 10km from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. It was attacked and completely razed down by Boko Haram in 2014,
Over 100 persons were killed during that attack.
Tuesday’s colourful event, however, propped up some salient issues that seem to be a precursor of the post-conflict humanitarian challenges the war-wrecked state is likely to face in future.
The UNDP under its integrated rural development programme initiated the rebuilding of 300 destroyed mud houses with modern bricks and corrugated iron roofs in Ngwom. The community was also lifted with newly built 288 market stalls, a school complex, 20 grocery stores, a central mosque, two water boreholes and a police security outpost.
“It cost the UNDP the sum of $1 million to rebuild the community,” said Edward Kallon, head of the UN in Borno State.
The project, a pilot for the integrated community development scheme, is part of the post-conflict initiative supported by funding from the Swiss and Japanese government.
After Boko Haram attacked and burnt down Ngwom over three years ago, most of the residents fled to Maiduguri, where they lived a less dignified life in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Those that managed to return to the village weeks after the attack said they could not stand the ruins their homes had become. Many of them said due to the massive nature of the destruction, they had to leave with little or no hope of ever returning to rebuild their homes again.
But on Tuesday the villagers were asked to return to take delivery of the keys to their rebuilt homes.
Most of the villagers could not believe their eyes because their dusty community that used to be mostly of mud wall and thatch roofs had become a model city in the desert.
“I shed tears of joy seeing what this people (UNDP) have turned Ngwom village into,” said Bukar Kore, a man in his late 50s who lost two of his sons, his home and business during the attack.
“I managed to escape, together with my remaining family of 11, to Maiduguri where some of my relatives helped me to rent a single room in which all of us had been living for three years. I lost hope of ever returning to our ancestral community, not to even think of having a house of my own again. But here I am today in my liberated community with even a better house of two bedroom.”
Goroma Usman, a former ward councillor in Ngwom, said he was happy that he and other poor residents of the village have gotten houses of their own.
“Our village was attacked three different times”, he said. “The last attack was on a Friday night and it was massive, gun shots everywhere, and all of us who managed to escape fled and since then we have not been able to set our foot here till today that we were invited by the Borno State Government and the UNDP that we should come and take keys to our rebuilt homes.”
He said his younger brother, Mitti Usman, was among the over 100 persons that were killed during the attack on the community.
“But today I feel happy that despite all the loss of lives and property that I suffered, I still could come back to my community as a house owner,” he said.
“One would have lived a life of depression and defeat if we could not set our foot here in Ngwom. But this is a sign that goodness has triumphed over evil. Boko Haram cannot claim victory because here we are even better housed than we were before.”
Music and dance became the major spice of the event as the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, led other government officials and UNDP personnel to hold a colourful ceremony for the handover of the rebuilt community to the displaced residents.
Residents defied the hot sun as they moved their bodies in rhythm to different kinds of folk music. It was even more hilarious when some young girls tried to demonstrate their newly acquired city music dance after the DJ slotted in some modern R and B hit songs.
NOT ALL ROSY
PREMIUM TIMES was drawn to some of the villagers, also displaced members of Ngwom community, who revealed that beneath the façade of everything that took place at the event, there are others who had no cause to celebrate.
Some women were spotted from behind the crowd wearing long faces. Their facial expression was in sharp contrast with the mood of the day.
When PREMIUM TIMES spoke with this women, they relayed a sad story of how they were not included in the list of those to benefit from the newly-built two-room apartments. Some of them told their stories in tears of how their land spaces were used in building the new houses but were denied opportunities to own homes. Some claimed they may have been profiled during the selection of those to benefit from the new homes due to their ancestry.
Amina Musa, a mother of six and a Godogodo by tribe, said she was born and raised in Ngwom and has been married there for over 25 years. But sadly, she said, she and some of her kins were not allocated any of the new buildings like other residents of the community.
Standing on the rubbles of what used to be part of her old home where she lived for over 25 years, Ms. Musa looked towards the newly built community with tears rolling down her face.
“But why are we excluded from this,” she asked even as she knows the reporter has no answer to her touching questions.
“This spot where I stand is part of the land where our house used to be. When we heard the news that some organisation is rebuilding the community for all of us, we were excited that at least our days of living in camps have come to an end.
“But we came here today and no one is talking about our case. Every other person has gotten his or her house”.
Confirming the story of how their community was attacked by Boko Haram insurgents three years ago, Ms. Amina, who is in her mid-40s, said she and her family had lived a life of misery ever since after they fled to the IDP camps in Maiduguri.
“When this calamity befell us over three years ago, most of us fled to the camp near Customs area. We lived there for about two years until cholera broke out in the camp leading to the death of many children and even adults.
“We felt our lives would not be safe there so my husband and I had to move out of the camp and went to rent a room in the town where we pay N2000 monthly. Our landlord comes threatening with eviction at the end of the month because we could not pay him on time.
“Despite the fact that we were no longer in the camp, just like many other families did, we still kept in touch with the leaders of the community to know how far the rebuilding effort was going. At a point we were all asked to go and write our names in a register which would be used to determine how the houses would be shared. We all wrote our names.
“But when we came for the handover ceremony, most of those whose names were written said they had gotten their allocation of houses, except us. We tried to find out but none of the officials were ready to give us any explanation.”
PREMIUM TIMES observed about a dozen of the women that spoke about their plight were not the indigenous Kanuri or Shuwa-Arabs that are the majority in the community.
Ms. Musa, however, said she doubted she was profiled based on her ethnicity, because she was born and brought up in the village. And all her children were born in Ngwom.
“Though I am Godogodo by ancestry, but my entire life is here, so was that of my parents,” she said, in tears.
“We have our house here that has been destroyed; and I used to have a provision store too, and all were destroyed and looted by Boko Haram; I am amongst those who suffered the worst losses. But here we are left without a home when others had gotten theirs.”
Betty Andrew, an Urhobo woman from South-south Nigeria, said she lived in Ngwom village for over 30 years. She was into commodity business, taking farm products from Borno to the southern part of the country. She then brought back goods she sold to Ngwom residents.
She too said she lost everything to the Boko Haram attack, including her house. But when she came to join others to get her allocation, she was told her name was not mentioned.
“No one mentioned my name since we came here and everyone has gotten theirs. I do not understand the criteria used in sharing the houses and why I and my family was left out. My house used to be over there, now in rubbles. And when they were rebuilding the village we were told that the building would be done at random and everyone would get without recourse to where your house used to be because the entire community was levelled by earth moving machine.
“But we noticed that the portion where we used to live was cut off and we raised concerns that hope we would not be edged out, and the community leaders said no; that we are very well known in the village and we will surely get our allocation. But here we are today, no house has been given to us.”
Nafisat Suleiman, a mother of six, also said her parents had lived in the village for a long time. She was also denied a house in the rebuilt community.
“My father and mother have their separate houses here in Ngwom, we are not Kanuri or Shuwa, but we have lived here all our lives. I was born here and over there is the place my father’s house use to be and my mom’s house is on the far end of the village.
“We lost everything just like many other residents of this community. Before Boko Haram came to attack us we used to live as one community people despite our backgrounds. But it is sad that we came here to find out that most of us that did not get the houses were profiled.
“We want the governor of Borno state to know this, because we know he is a good man and would not allow anyone to segregate against any tribe or religion on matters like this.”
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Ibrahim Lawan, chairman of the Ngwom house allocation committee, he said the women’s claims were not true.
“That is not true. Everyone from this village has been allocated a house,” Mr. Lawan said. “Some of the old women were joined to share apartments.”
When PREMIUM TIMES mentioned specific cases as raised by the aggrieved women, Mr. Lawan said the women had no enough information on the issue of allocation of the houses.
“They did not have the information that is why”, he said. “Everybody has been accommodated in this allocation even if they did not hear their names, they too are covered. You see there are about 400 households here in Ngwom that were destroyed. But only 300 were approved for rebuilding; that is why we made an arrangement that some would have to pair up for the time being.”
Mr. Lawan promised to make the announcement before the end of the handing over ceremony. But he could not, and the women left without a word from the officials on what their fate would be.
THE TASK BEFORE BORNO GOVERNMENT
The stories of these women and many others with similar plight underscore the challenges the Nigerian government and Borno State would face in the post-conflict reconstruction of communities destroyed by Boko Haram and resettling of IDPs when the time comes for them to go back to their homes.
According to the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian activities, “up to 2.1 million people fled their homes at the height of the conflict, 1.7 million of whom are still currently internally displaced and close to 200, 000 people are still in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, after having been forced to flee.”
It has also been established that over 70 per cent of the displacement occurred in Borno State which is the epicentre of the Boko Haram conflict.
The Ngwom community case appears a test case for both the government and humanitarian agencies.
The Borno State Government is currently carrying out massive rebuilding of mega towns like Bama, Gwoza, Mobbar, Damboa and many other communities destroyed by Boko Haram.
Should the government fail to go by the books as stipulated by the international best practice on returning displaced persons in post-conflict situation, it may as well be breeding yet another bigger conflict after Boko Haram, one humanitarian worker told this newspaper.
The Borno governor, Mr. Shettima, had at the Ngwom ceremony, spoken of how women would be protected in the post-conflict scenario.
He said, “Let the women be joined as co-owners of the houses so that the men would not one day divorce them to marry other wives and leaving those women without homes.”
He also emphasised that the names of the women be on the certificate of occupancy so that the men would not sell off the houses.
But it appears the governor did not know there could be a deeper injustice that may have already played out in Ngwom, our reporter says.
VIOLATING UN RULES
The issue of housing, land and property dispute has been a major concern for the UN and its agencies in post-conflict situations.
To ensure justice, the UNHCR put in place some rules. Rules 1 and 3 as contained in ‘Principle 21’of the UNHCR’s Guiding Principle on Internal Displacement (GPID) states that “…No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of property possession” and “property and possessions left behind by internally displaced persons should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use..”
Those rules may have been violated in Ngwom until the controversy is resolved, the humanitarian official said, asking not to be named.
Both the UN and the Borno governor now have a responsibility to also implement ‘Principle 29 of the GPID’ which states that “competent authorities have the duty and responsibility to assist returned / or resettled internally displaced persons to recover, to the extent possible, their property and possessions which they left behind or were dispossessed of upon their displacement. When recovery of such property or possession is not possible, competent shall provide or assist these persons in obtaining appropriate compensation or another form of just reparation.”
However, apart from the families who feel left out in Ngwom, those who received their keys have been told not to move in yet.
Mr. Shettima explained that a lot still needs to be done to guarantee maximum security for the community to prevent another Boko Haram attack.