Exiled by Boko Haram


Exiled by Boko Haram

Over 40,000 Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram now live as refugees in Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon. James Schneider visited the camp and finds out that despite the hardships of life in exile, their tenacity is remarkable – but most are unwilling to return home soon. 

Heavy pre-dawn rain wakes Minawao refugee camp. Over 40,000 Nigerians live here in Cameroon’s Far North Region, around 30km from the Nigerian border. The refugees fled from Nigeria’s northeast, mostly from the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, but some, by their account, from the military.

The refugees are mainly from Borno State, with a minority from neighbouring Adamawa. Many come from the Mandara Mountains, which straddles and forms the border between Nigeria and Cameroon here. Borno State, especially this part of the border with Cameroon, is a heterogeneous place, despite simplistic narratives of Nigeria’s Muslim North, or more nuanced ones about the Kanuri Northeast. That diversity is represented at Minawao where Kanuri, Hausa, Fulani, Mandara and many other peoples are present. The camp is religiously mixed – 70 per cent Christian, 30 per cent Muslim according to UNHCR.

The camp’s varied population is located in one of Cameroon’s most diverse areas. The Mandara area, usually, but not only, through the Mandara Kingdom that ruled here, has resisted a succession of larger political entities: The Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Adamawa Emirate and Sokoto Caliphate, and British, German and French empires.

Cameroon is no stranger to housing refugees – 250,000 Central Africans are here. The government welcomes them and appears proud of meeting its international commitments. However, it is putting a strain on this part of the country. The camp “is putting pressure on [food] prices in the area” leading to “a price hike”, the Minister for Agriculture Essemi Menge told New African.

While Cameroon provides the land and some commodities for the camp, the primary responsibilities fall to the UNHCR. The World Food Program (WFP) provides food, and a number of NGOs are active at Minawao.

“No food, no water, no tablets”

The camp is well laid out and relatively spacious. The housing and other structures do not look significantly less habitable than the surrounding villages. In the camp as in the nearby Cameroonian villages, children run about as the smell of cooking mingles with that of rain on semi-parched earth while cocks crow and the sun rises. However, the villages are all surrounded by farmland – this is a rural area, albeit no more than an hour’s drive from the regional capital of Maroua. The camp may be relatively spacious in its layout but is hemmed in by other people’s land. Menge says, “If we have some land available, [the refugees] can produce some vegetables”. But 40,000 people would require a lot of land, land that doesn’t seem available.

So, the refugees are reliant on the UN for food. The UN, in turn, is reliant on donors. In refugee situations, pledges tend to run far behind the growth of camps and actual receipt of promised funds moves even further behind that. Minawao is no exception.

“The people of the UN try,” Mousa Youssoufou, a 42-year-old refugee from Altagara, a town of 10,000 people in Gwoza Local Government Area (LGA) very close to the border, tells New African.

Despite UN efforts, however, life in Minawao is characterised by shortages. “There is not enough food or water,” explains Youssoufou, who has been in the camp nearly a year. As the camp has grown dramatically – according to the UN there were only 6,000 refugees here at the end of August 2014 – shortages have become more acute. The UN used to distribute beans, flour for porridge, rice, and cooking oil. Youssoufou hasn’t seen the beans for three months. He says they haven’t received soup for four months. Food is distributed monthly, but “it does not last the month,” according to Saratu John, from Arboko, Gwoza LGA, who was living outside Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, when she fled Boko Haram with her children.

The unregistered population, which may number as high as 9,000 according to camp residents, amplifies the shortages. Only the 40,000 registered refugees receive supplies from the UN, which means those who do not have registration documents do not receive supplies from the UN and have to rely on internal trade and the market just outside the camp.

As such, scarcity is a daily reality of camp life. Refugees told New African that there is not enough food, there is a shortage of water – something UNHCR calls its top challenge – meaning the refugees have to get dirty river water, and there is not enough medicine. One refugee summed up his problems as “no food, no water, no tablets”.

The refugees are also concerned about housing shortages. The rainy season has just begun, and the camp population keeps growing. Toilet provision struggles to keep up with the camp’s growth.

While the refugees said they were grateful to the UN, they need more help. “We are begging the UN to help us with better healthcare, food and shelter. We are very grateful for what they have done for us, but we are still begging the UN to help us in those things,” says Baba Shehu Makinta, an accountant from Bama, who has been in the camp almost two years.


 Photo by Ben Kilb

The inability of the UN to keep up with all of the needs of the refugees is breeding anger and theories of conspiracy and theft. The system to communicate concerns to the camp’s authorities does not appear to work. Youssoufou, who is the officer for his block, one of the 29 that make up Minawao, explains how every day the block officers go “from house to house in our blocks collecting people’s problems. Every day we go with a report to the camp manager. But we are not seeing anything given to those people who complain.”

Another refugee, Baba Gana Mohamed, is exasperated. “No one listens to complaints,” he says. He explains that we are the first outsiders to be allowed free access to the camp, unaccompanied by a camp authority or soldier. Speaking to New African “is my first opportunity to say there is a problem,” he says.

This inability to object directly and see a result is “one of the most important complaints [refugees] have,” Mohamed continues.

It is not meant to be this way. The refugees have their own representatives, including an elected president, who took office on 29 November 2014. Judging by the comments from the refugees New African spoke to, he is not popular six months into his term. “The camp president does not help. Whenever you go with your complaint, he tells you to go and wait,” says Makinta.

Mohamed alleges, “Those people who are distributing the commodities are the ones cheating other members.” Charles Patrick, from Gwoza LGA, repeats the theory, saying that the refugees are only left with “small, small”.

Life goes on

While many refugees speak about Minawao’s difficulties, life continues here despite the hardship.  Indeed, Joseph Naga, a Catholic priest and a refugee from Pulka, a town at the northern end of the Mandara Mountains, less than 20km from the border with Cameroon in Gwoza LGA, perhaps somewhat stoically, described camp life as “comfortable”. The refugees have no choice but to build their communities and rebuild their lives here. There are children who have known little else but this camp. 580 births were registered in the camp between November and May, according to Youssoufou.

A number of institutions help bring degrees of normality to camp life. Unsurprisingly, the mosque plays an important community role, but there is also a diverse offering for Christians too. The camp houses Catholic churches and those from three independent evangelical churches: Ekklesiyar Yan-uwa a Nigeria (Church of the Brethren, EYN), Believers Gospel Mission, and Deeper Life. EYN has four churches in Minawao, the largest of which has three services a week and is attended by up to 800 people, according to one congregant sitting inside on a rock-cum-pew. There is “no tension between Christians and Muslims” in the camp, he says. Naga concurs that there is “no problem” and “peace” between the different faiths in the camp.

Minawao is full of children – 73% are under 18 and 50% are under 12. The school is probably the biggest series of structures in the camp, built around a large central yard the size of a football pitch. In one classroom, around 60 children sit at desks, diligently learning French through song from their Cameroonian teacher. They appear disciplined and excited by study.

In April, UN Women opened up a large court for women. It serves as a meeting place for women and to provide justice in cases of domestic violence. Cameroonian judges run the court, and if a man is convicted twice, he is sent to a Cameroonian prison.

The court’s proceedings take place in whatever language those involved speak and are then typically translated into Fulfulde, which serves as the tribunal’s lingua franca, for the judges. One court translator, a young Fulani woman, explains that domestic violence is a “big problem in the camp” and how she is pleased to have her job.

Jobs are in short supply in Minawao and highly prized. Jonny Yakubu, a Mandara man who guards the women’s court, describes his job as “a great gift”. But, as the refugees’ president Isaac Luka, a 37-year-old who worked as a legal assistant in Nigeria, says, with so many refugees in the camp, “you can’t expect all of them to get a job.” But, he is proud to say, 30 people are due to start new jobs that morning as hygiene promoters for an NGO.

These jobs and informal trade help sustain the camp’s economy, which includes a bakery that sells bread for 80CFA ($0.14).


Photo by Ben Kilb

Leadership problems

Responding to questions about the refugees’ concerns, Nasir Abel Fernandes, a Kenyan national and the UNHCR’s Senior Emergency Coordinator, concedes that there are difficulties at Minawao. But, he says, “The number one problem is funding”.

Isaac Luka, the refugees’ president, seems put out hearing the refugees’ concerns. He says he feels stuck as the “middle man between the refugees and the humanitarian organisations”. Isaac Luka, who speaks seven languages, says he listens to his fellow refugees’ complaints and “forwards them to the [humanitarian] hierarchy”. He argues that if the UN has money, “they take immediate action,” but if not, issues need to go up and down the hierarchy: from the camp they “must pass maybe to Yaoundé, from Yaoundé maybe [they] must pass to Geneva.”

Isaac Luka appears frustrated that the people that elected him expect him to solve problems for them. He “can’t solve their problems,” he protests, “only represent them [to the authorities]”. He complains, “The mentality of the people here is that when they complain, at that particular time, they need an immediate answer, which is not possible… that is the problem with my people.”

Going home?

Despite the camp’s many shortages, distant leadership, and reliance on humanitarians that themselves depend upon donors a long way away, no one New African spoke to was actively planning to return home soon. Features of self-organisation – such as the camp’s 15 self-run committees, or the Minawao football team that recently defeated a local Cameroonian side 2-1 – or self-reliance, such as the bakery, or small-scale agricultural projects, are likely to expand.

It would be too bleak to suggest that the children learning French should stick to it and not bother with English as their futures now rest in mainly Francophone Cameroon, not Anglophone Nigeria. However, the refugees at Minawao are not ready to return home.

Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian forces have made substantial advances in the battle against Boko Haram since February, although it is reported that Boko Haram has killed 500 people in Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s first month in office. However, much more would need to be done to convince many in the camp to go home.

Youssoufou, who fought Boko Haram himself as part of a local self-defence force, says that he does not trust the Nigerian army, which stood by as Boko Haram attacked his community. His experience of the Cameroonian army has been much better. He says that if Cameroonian forces were able to “protect us in Nigeria, even today, I would go [home]”.

For some, the trauma of what happened to them is too great to consider returning to Nigeria now. Saratu John, who saw her husband beheaded by Boko Haram for being a Christian, says her “heart won’t leave her in peace in Nigeria.”

Naga wants to go back to Nigeria. After all, “there’s no place like home,” he says. However, much needs to be done before he is willing to go back. He needs “a strong military to [provide] very good security”. His community needs assistance to rebuild some of its churches. Naga says Boko Haram destroyed all of Gwoza’s more than 200 churches during their occupation. And, they need economic help as they “are empty-handed now.”

Addressing these issues is a tall order for the Nigerian government. Trust between communities and the army is weak. Some refugees in the camp, such as Abbakura Umaru from Bama LGA, say they fled an army, not a Boko Haram massacre.

Isaac is hopeful that Nigeria’s new government will bring positive change. He asserts, “Buhari will do something because he is from the North.”

If Buhari doesn’t bring about change and “is like [former president] Goodluck [Jonathan],” Youssoufou says he “will become an indigene of Cameroon”. 

This article is part of a five part series on Cameroon’s battle against Boko Haram, written by New African senior correspondent James Schneider. For the other articles in the series, click the links below. 

Life as a Boko Haram hostage 

Inside Boko Haram

Boko Haram: fearsome yet reliant on exploited children

Boko Haram: refugee stories


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