‘How Boko Haram attacks have changed the Maiduguri where I grew up’
Jimeh Saleh from BBC Hausa returns to his home town of Maiduguri in the far north-east of Nigeria for the first time in almost a year – to find the city is a mere shell of its once lively self, following a spate of deadly attacks by the Boko Haram Islamist group.
As dusk falls in Maiduguri, and the bright afternoon sun gradually turns orange and slowly dips in the evening sky, a muezzin leads the call to pray.
His spirited voice echoes from a pair of loud speakers on a minaret atop one of the oldest mosques in town.
The faithful observe the evening Maghreb prayer – and then have to go straight on to the Isha, the late evening prayer, because Maiduguri has to live under a strict 19:00-06:00 curfew.
Today’s quiet nights – the uncertainty and the insecurity – are a far cry from the Maiduguri I grew up in.
Firmly padlocked houses
My home town, in the far north-east of Nigeria, is also the stronghold the country’s radical Islamist group, Boko Haram.
We live in constant fear, and you are the only journalist I can talk to, because I know you personally”
And in the past few months, the group has carried out a number of violent and devastating attacks in many parts of Nigeria – including drive-by shootings and bombings in Maiduguri, even the central mosque in December.
Back from London in Maiduguri for the first time in almost a year, the town is as dusty as I left it – but it appears poorer – and so do its industrious and boisterous people.
No more do buses, taxis, beggars, vendors and shop keepers hustle for business late into the night.
Families are no longer able to afford three meals a day.
Property speculators are complaining that business is down, and some are suffering losses.
“Closing shops at 7pm is just like working half-day,” said an economist with the University of Maiduguri who, like most people I spoke to, asked to remain anonymous.
“The economy here is driven by the informal sector which has no closing hours,” he added.
“We live in constant fear,” one resident told me, ”and you are the only journalist I can talk to, because I know you personally, but please do not reveal my name.”
Many people fled Maiduguri months ago in the wake of the killings, leaving behind firmly padlocked houses.
Some of the town’s wealthy businessmen have relocated their enterprises to other states.
When bombs went off on Christmas Day 2011 in churches in Abuja and Jos killing at least 40 people, Maiduguri was placed under a state of emergency because of the many Boko Haram members who are based there.
Since then, gun-toting soldiers have set up countless checkpoints and taken up positions outside churches, police stations and other high-profile locations that have previously been Boko Haram’s targets.
The soldiers are there to protect the residents of Maiduguri – but people seem united in their condemnation of the curfew and the militarisation of the streets.
They accuse the soldiers of torture and other human rights violations.
Boko Haram squads target soldiers and security agents with explosives, either in their fortified positions or in their patrol vehicles.
After an attack, the soldiers go into neighbouring houses, and are said to indiscriminately beat up the male occupants.
The army denies this is happening – nevertheless, it is a recurring cry that is hard to ignore.
Maiduguri’s age-old commercial centre used to be on Babban Layi, which simply means “a wide street”.
It used to be a shoppers’ paradise for textile, electronics, clothing, and household items.
Lebanese and Chadian merchants jostled alongside low-tech con men and pickpockets – all hoping to get a slice of the bulging sacks of
Overloaded trucks, known locally as giwa-giwa, transported goods from Babban Layi to neighbouring countries such as Chad and Cameroon, and even to distant places like Sudan and the Central African Republic.
But this once thriving regional trading hub is now almost empty – brought to a virtual standstill not least because the borders were closed as a result of the state of emergency.
For many months now, the labourers who load the trucks, the merchants, the truck drivers and many others have been “surviving by the grace of God”.
The authorities in Maiduguri remain hopeful that things will get better.
“We are not at all pleased by the state of insecurity in Maiduguri and very soon the situation will improve,” Borno state’s information commissioner, Inuwa Bwala, says.
The questions many Maiduguri residents want answered is: When will the borders reopen and when will the army leave the streets?
“Since the state of emergency the federal government has taken over security matters here and the announcement to close the borders was made from Abuja,” Mr Bwala said.
It is, however, not all a tale of gloom – despite the curfew and the explosions.
Among the lucky few are bicycle dealers and mechanics: There has been a boom in sales since the banning last year of motor bikes after a series of drive-by killings were committed by gunmen on the back of bikes.
Despite this glimmer of hope, the situation in Maiduguri seems pretty desperate.
There is a palpable sense of fear.
Many people are resigned to their fate and have resorted to prayer to try to rediscover the virtues of peace and hospitality – which, once upon a time, was the defining feature of my home town