Nigerians Don’t Understand Boko Haram… Or Its Victims
The Testimonial Archive Project aims to change that
“So much is happening and nobody is hearing,” says Saratu, the founder and coordinator of the Testimonial Archive Project.
She’s talking about the situation in northeastern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram insurgency and government forces have killed thousands of people in recent years.
“Even within Nigeria, many people don’t know what’s going on,” Saratu points out.
That may seem hard to believe, especially after Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok—an atrocity that made headlines all over world and inspired U.S. first lady Michelle Obama to demand the girls’ return … via a selfie.
But Saratu—who asked we identify her only by her first name for security reason—is right. Even close observers poorly understand the conflict in Borno state and surrounding regions.
Media can’t freely report on the ground because of the threat to journalists. “Nobody is going to Borno and talking to the residents,” Saratu says.
Saratu, who has lived in the U.S. and only recently returned to Nigeria, wants to change that. At the beginning of the year, she started to ask friends and colleagues in her hometown Abuja, Nigeria’s capitol, for telephone numbers of people in the northeast.
Contacting possible victims or witnesses of violence is difficult, Saratu explains. People are mistrustful. “As you can imagine, in a situation like this folks don’t want to talk to somebody they just met on the phone.”
Her contacts fear that Saratu might be in fact an agent of the government or Boko Haram, covertly trying to question them.
The fear is appropriate for the circumstances. Those that agree to speak with Saratu and her volunteer colleagues of the Testimonial Archive Project tell stories of abuse from all sides in the conflict.
“After [Boko Haram] do their own operation and go, the police will come for innocent people in that area and they will start … putting them into [jail],” recounts Karu, a businesswoman from Damaturu.
The relationship between the Nigerian state and its people is difficult, Saratu says, because the state usually has little presence in conflict areas. Especially in the marginalized and poor northeast, the military surge in response to Boko Haram was, for many, their first intensive contact with the government.
And for the most part, the government only militarily engages the region, says Yusufu, another resident of Damaturu TAP has interviewed. “Our people are yet to receive any form of assistance from the authorities concerned,” Yusufu says.
“We have written to the authorities several times, but to no avail,” he continues. “Sincerely speaking, [the state of emergency] is not yielding any positive result. In fact, it is of no use to us. The emergency rule took effect about a year ago, but up to today, the insurgency is still escalating.”
But once people overcome the mistrust and open up, they tell harrowing stories of Boko Haram killing friends and relatives forcing them into cooperating.
For Saratu, the most important aspect of TAP’s work is not to bring these stories to the attention of the wider world. Instead, her audience primarily is Nigerians, who she says are often either unaware or in denial of the situation in the northeast.
“I talked to a driver and he told me he is not sure if the kidnapping of the girls in Chibok ever happened,” Saratu recalls. “He said, ‘How do I know that this is not something that the opposition cooked up to make [Pres. Goodluck] Jonathan look bad?’ There is this huge gap, even within Nigeria, which is really troubling to me.”
Peace through better understanding
Her goal is to combat these misconceptions—to help Nigerians to find a solution to the conflict. “I’m doing that because so much is happening that no one is hearing. And we need to hear it if we are going to fix the problem.”
Even for herself, the interviews offer many surprising insights, Saratu says. “People are making really rational decisions,” she claims—this despite the appearance that the conflict is merely chaos. “There is a reason why they [Boko Haram] are doing what they are doing.”
Saratu says she hopes TAP can help to educate people about the reasons behind the conflict, as well as the hardship its victims face. By fostering a better understanding, the project hopes to do its part to end the violence.