On a clear day, Bulama Abbagana can see an outline of his village Antul, which lies barely four kilometres from the town of Dikwa in Nigeria’s northeast state of Borno. Like all garrison towns in Borno, Dikwa is encircled by a deep trench designed to protect the local population. Visiting his village would simply be too dangerous for Bulama Abbagana who, for the past four years, has served as Chairman of Shehu Masta camp.
The camp houses 4,000 people displaced from surrounding villages as a consequence of the decade-long conflict between government forces and non-state armed actors. Despite the weight of his daily responsibilities, he wears a genial smile.
“The main source of income for people in the camp is collecting firewood beyond the trench to sell in town,” he says.
“They know that if they go too far they are in danger. Boko Haram has abducted or killed 10 people in the past five months. It’s risky but there are no other opportunities to make a living here,” he adds resignedly.
Most people in the camp live in abject poverty, dependent on humanitarian aid. Hajja Abatcha, 39, is a widow. She also hails from Antul. She fled to Dikwa with her four children after her husband was killed in an attack on the village. With no source of income, like everyone here, she relies upon monthly food rations provided by the World Food Programme (WFP).
Her shelter is devoid of possessions apart from a cooking pot, a knife, some sleeping mats and a couple of 25 litre water containers. Everyone here is living on the edge. When food runs short, friends and neighbours share what little they have so that no-one goes hungry.
With no income, Hajja sometimes trades beans from her food ration to get essential items such as salt and tomato paste. It is a barter economy in the camp.
Hajja is resigned to the monotony of camp life. “I get up, make food, fetch water and sleep. What else is there to do here,” she says gazing blankly at her 5-year-old son asleep in her lap.
In her village Hajja was also poor, but she had farmland and used to earn a little cash selling biscuits made from groundnuts. Here, she lacks the few dollars in capital needed to restart her business.
Her 11-year-old son Baba Grema was 5 when he arrived in the camp. He attends koranic classes held in the open air in the camp. Dikwa’s only secondary school is only open to children from the town.
Since government forces regained control of Dikwa in 2014, thousands have sought refuge here from the surrounding villages. Over the years, 16 camps have grown up housing over 35,000 people.
Ande Al Hadji watches as her 18-year-old daughter swings an ax to split a heavy log outside her shelter. They bought the log on credit from a local firewood supplier and will re-sell individual sticks cut from it for 5 cents apiece.
Ande’s husband has been missing since she fled their village and she struggles to look after two daughters and seven grandchildren. Almost 70 per cent of the displaced population in Dikwa’s camps are women and children.
Ande yearns for the time when her family cultivated maize, millet and rice in their village.
“Life was good then. We lived off the food that we grew. Any extra, we sold. The most important thing in life is to be able to fill the stomachs of my family,” Ande reminisces.
WFP has been working in Dikwa since 2016 and now provides monthly food rations, via its partners Christian Aid and CARE International, to over 73,000 people including 38,000 from the host community.
Some Dikwa residents who have access to farming land and whose general circumstances are better than those in the camps are now being transitioned into initiatives designed to boost their livelihoods.
In the Shuwari community, a group of men are digging a five-metre squared pit. The lack of any organised waste management poses a health hazard and the pit will serve the community as a dump site for their household garbage. It is one the projects in a livelihoods programme run by CARE International with support from WFP.
Community members give 15 days of their time each month, working on projects that develop or rehabilitate community infrastructure, such as schools, irrigation pumps and drainage ditches. In turn, they receive a one-month food ration from WFP. In the coming months, 15,500 local residents in Dikwa will benefit from the livelihoods programme.
Like many young men in Dikwa, Mallam Issah is keen to be financially independent. He has been enrolled into the livelihoods programme and is hoping to receive some goats to start a small livestock business.
“When someone is giving you food you become dependent on them, but if you have your own business you can take care of your family,” he says.
Since the conflict began, the local economy in Dikwa has been severely depressed. While food and other commodities are increasingly available in the market, prices have sky-rocketed and few people have money to spend.
Twenty-one-year-old Mohammed Al Hadji used to have a thriving business buying eggs direct from a wholesaler in the Borno State capital, Maiduguri. Before the conflict he would buy 500 eggs daily and re-sell them at his roadside stall in the market. Now he can only buy 90 on credit from a local merchant and struggles to sell them all.
“People just don’t have the money to spend anymore,” he says. “I could make 10 US$ in a day and now I’m lucky if I make two. It’s not a living wage to support my family.” Mohammed plans to use his cash grant from the livelihoods programme to invest into his egg business allowing him to buy stock outright, ending his reliance on credit from his supplier.
Amina Abatcha scoops a ladle of steaming black-eyed beans from a vast cooking pot. For the past three years, Amina has run the ‘wet’ kitchen at the reception centre in Dikwa, serving cooked meals to new arrivals who have fled the conflict. Most have travelled for days.
At Amina’s kitchen, families receive three meals a day — made with food provided by WFP — until they have been moved to a shelter in one of the camps. There, they are switched to monthly dry food rations including rice, sorghum and beans.
“There are so many households headed by single women. They have been neglected and need greater protection. There is a growing problem of promiscuity in the camps. Women must be empowered and given opportunities to make a decent living,” says Amina.
In nearby Masarmari Camp, Buhari Al Kallu, the camp chairman — who is partly responsible for the welfare the camp’s 5,000-strong population, hopes that things could be better.
Buhari Al Kallu was clearly once a wealthy man. Despite his upright bearing, his gaze is distant. With his four wives and 17 children, he has been in Masarmari camp for two years after fleeing his village, Abbari, 30 km from Dikwa. Home now is a spartan one-room shelter made from mud bricks and roofed with corrugated iron.
“I had 90 cows, 40 sheep and 30 goats. I also had one horse and 10 donkeys. The fighters took everything and I came to Dikwa with only four donkeys,” says Buhari Al Kallu.
“We put the little ones on the donkeys and left the village at night. We had no money when we arrived here. At the time, I didn’t know how we were going to survive but we did. You learn to adapt, however bad your situation is. You have no choice.”