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April 19, 2022

Four years tracking ‘stateless Nigerians’ through the paths of death

By Oluwamayowa Tijani. First Published in The Cable.

This journey began in January 2017, at a time when the Nigerian military said it had “accidentally” bombed a civilian camp in Rann, the capital of Kala Balge LGA in north-east Nigeria. I travelled to the region to tell the story. I met hundreds of victims of the bombing, which killed more than 120 people — fathers, mothers, and children. The details of that accident were captured in a serial titled Tears from Rann.

Over the next four years, I have attempted — with little success — to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who cannot lay claim to their identity as Nigerians.

Not because they do not want to, but simply because the state and its actors collaborate — consciously and unconsciously — with Boko Haram to make it impossible for them. They are victims of porous borders, ailing security, and weak state infrastructure for citizens’ identification. The biggest victims of this loss of statehood are those living in north-eastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is ‘king’.

Boko Haram insurgency became a decade old in July 2019. Over 30,000 people have been killed in that period, and over three million people have been displaced.

A sea of reportage has been done on Boko Haram’s impact on people living in Borno, but many pieces of the complete story are still missing.

I may not succeed in telling all the stories I want to tell, but I’d attempt this one before I stop trying. This particular story has lived in my drafts for so long because I wanted to tell a perfect story, without any sort of risk to my life and existence.

But I have no such needs anymore; no more craving to be perfect, and while there’s still fear for my life, I believe I’d manage.

Within that decade of Boko Haram’s onslaught, the world has taken leaps and bounds in digital advancements; many breakthrough technologies have evolved and shaped the world differently.

For a region struggling with the most basic human needs, these advancements leave them behind. One of those advancements includes multiple digital identification systems for citizens. 

Problem for soldiers, death for civilians

In 2017, when I met Mustapha Amami, one of the victims of the accidental bombing in Rann, he identified himself with an ID card issued by the Civilian Joint Task Force (CNJTF) fighting Boko Haram in Borno state. I asked him about his time with CNJTF, but he told me he was never really a part of them. He got the ID card to move across military posts without trouble.

According to him, that was the only form of identification he could show soldiers that he was not a member of Boko Haram. Men of his age and stature were easily taken as members of Boko Haram and illegally detained or killed.

Soldiers fighting the Boko Haram war in the north-east often treat young men and women coming from Cameroon or leaving Nigeria with no form of identity as threats — who knows, they could members of Boko Haram. For the soldiers, these people cannot be trusted as not being a part of the insurgency. Four years on, that story has not changed.

In 2019, the Nigerian military insisted — against the wishes of members of the national assembly — that operation Positive Identification, which required citizens to show their ID cards at military checkpoints, must go on. It took a court order to halt the process. But soldiers in the north-east still conduct ID checks, and you cannot blame them. They claim the exercise is for identifying terrorists.

During my time in one of the few border towns I visited in the north-east, I had long conversations with soldiers on the frontline. More than one of them confirmed they had killed at least one person who “strayed” into their territory and could not identify themselves.

One of the soldiers, who asked not to be named, told me that a young man strayed into his territory along one of the border towns in the region. “I asked him to identify himself and he could not. I told the boys to tie him up, and we flogged him under his feet until we knew he could no longer walk,” the soldier told me.

“Then we told him to run away, and we shot at him. We killed him. We couldn’t let him go — for our own safety. We believe he was ‘Boko Haram’.”

This story is not an exception. It is the day-to-day challenge soldiers and civilians face. While identity cards would not solve the Boko Haram problem, it would save some lives lost in this civillian-soldiers trust challenge. How does a man without any means of identity prove that he’s not a member of the insurgency? How do you get a soldier, who is defending his nation, to trust a stranger who strays into his territory? This challenge persists till date.

Meeting people who lost their national identity

I met up with these men, who fled Borno for Cameroon after Boko Haram strikes
— and have nothing to prove they are Nigerians

Only one question breaks a smile here and that question is: “How was life before Boko Haram?” Aminu fiddles with his small feature phone, which not only makes calls, but connects him to his next meal. And if he’s lucky, that piece of metal and plastic may provide reunion with his long-lost family.

He fiddles with that Chinese mobile creation as he replies, breaking a smile for the first time since our engagement started. “Life before Boko Haram was good. I had a business. I had a house, and I had two cars…,” he said as he reminisced over his past and wished half of it lay somewhere in his future. He is not alone. Many who have been displaced felt the same way. But today, they do not even know if they are Nigerians anymore. If they do not get revalidated as Nigerians, they are all on the verge of statelessness.

They are not alone. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least one million stateless people in West Africa, and a vast majority of them are suspected to be from Nigeria. But as the UNHCR itself admits, the numbers could be more.

The number grows by the day; Sadiya Farouq, minister of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development had said stateless people include “children born in displaced settings, and children of abducted girls and women”.

He fiddles with that Chinese mobile creation as he replies, breaking a smile for the first time since our engagement started. “Life before Boko Haram was good.

I had a business. I had a house, and I had two cars…,” he said as he reminisced over his past and wished half of it lay somewhere in his future. He is not alone. Many who have been displaced felt the same way. But today, they do not even know if they are Nigerians anymore. If they do not get revalidated as Nigerians, they are all on the verge of statelessness.

They are not alone. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least one million stateless people in West Africa, and a vast majority of them are suspected to be from Nigeria. But as the UNHCR itself admits, the numbers could be more.

The number grows by the day; Sadiya Farouq, minister of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development had said stateless people include “children born in displaced settings, and children of abducted girls and women”.

‘I get paid N100 per day but they want me to pay for NIN’

Tabitha is at the risk of statelessness

For Tabitha, she fled Gwoza with her family of seven after Boko Haram hit her home. After travelling long distances on foot and bikes, they found their way to Minawao camp in Cameroon. This camp hosts tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees, many of them at risk of statelessness.

Tabitha’s family got to Minawao as Nigerians, but had nothing to prove their ties to the country. Fortunately for her, she was registered in the camp by the UNHCR. After the registration, her husband was handed a piece of paper, which served as their ID card, and the only document they have to prove they were Nigerians.

While speaking to me, she untied her wrapper, loosened a big knot made at the edge, and brought out a small purse. She opened the purse and brought out a neatly-folded laminated A4 paper. The paper was the only evidence she could show anyone she was Nigerian — she said it was her most prized asset.

Looking at the document, I found that it had expired, and she needed a new means of identification. But she said that was how she used it to get herself and her family past many military posts on their way back to Nigeria. Despite the expiration, it is the only thread connecting her to Nigeria.

Tabitha’s husband was still at Minawao when we last spoke, but she was looking to make ends meet for her family in Maidguri. “I work on a farm, where I help clear and plant. I get paid N100 (US$0.24) per day,” she said.

Asked if she was making attempts to get re-registered as a Nigerian, Tabitha said yes, but that she has been asked to bring “money for fuel” at the NIN registration centres in Maiduguri. She adds that she cannot afford it. “The whole place is dry now, so, I have not been working on the farm. I help people wash clothes and they pay me with food,” she said. Tabitha cannot afford registration.

‘I may not write jamb if I can't pay'

Men favoured at registration centres, including the federal secretariat

I visited the National Identity Number (NIN) registration centres across the city, and the first thing I noticed was that men were given preference when it came to registration. At the federal secretariat, the story was no different — while there were women in the building, only men were allowed to register.

The staff on the ground said women were not coming forward as much as men. However, the women said they were being asked for money, which they do not have. Jamilat Gana, a 16-year-old girl who was looking to write the Joint Admissions Matriculations Board (JAMB) examination, said she was told to register for NIN before she can write the exam — a popular challenge across the country. She was told to pay N1,500 (US$0.36) to register. “I won’t pay that money,” she said at the time.

I visited the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) office in the state to ask questions about all I had observed within the state.

On arrival, I met Zaman Mshepala, the NIMC state coordinator, who said he was not permitted to speak on the situation without approval from the headquarters. He asked that I send a letter to him requesting that he speak about the situation, which he would forward to Abuja for consent. I did all he asked, but he refused to speak about the challenges in the state. 

Meanwhile, Gana informed me a few weeks later that she had to pay to register for NIN so she could write the JAMB exam — which is mandatory for getting into a university in Nigeria.

Threat to life

Enrolment centre within the camp

During my interviews in Maiduguri, I was informed that about 1,000 refugees who fled Boko Haram to Cameroon had recently returned, and were being held in Bama, a border town about 72 kilometres away from the Borno capital. I decided to go to Bama, but my fixer refused. Understandably so. I reached out to contacts within the military, and I was assured I could go to Bama and get help from the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) and military command on the ground.

However, there was a problem. No driver was willing to take me there. After a few days of searching through the city, I found someone willing to go — just for a really high price. I eventually got to Bama, and reported to the military authorities, where I disclosed my mission in the town. I was told I could not speak to any of the subjects until the next day.

I spent the night in the town in one of the numerous NGO tents. As the day broke, I got my team together and went to the camp where the refugees were being held. The story was the same; they were being asked to pay to get registered for the NIN.

Fortunately, I got some of them willing to speak on camera. I immediately set up and as we began the first interview, a military order was sent to get me out of the camp immediately — despite getting permission from the army earlier. I was asked to leave the town in five minutes or be detained indefinitely.

I was also asked to never speak or report this. I insisted I wanted to stay and watch the worst happen, because I believed this story was important. But a friendly military source asked me to leave. “You don’t want to end your life as a line in a military press statement,” he said.

I may not be able to tell all the stories, but consider for a moment that the country you were born suddenly does not consider you as one of its own, simply because you do not have any piece of paper or plastic prove it; that no digital database can confirm your existence; that you belong nowhere. This is the reality which tens of thousands of people face in north-east Nigeria. This is one more silent consequence of the Boko Haram war.

Nigeria has set up dozens of enrolment centres in CanadaUS, and the UK but not a single functional and accessible one to cater to the camps in Cameroon and Chad, where the largest surge of people affected by Boko Haram find themselves.

For instance, the only registration point in Cameroon, according to NIMC, is in Douala — at least 1,500 kilometres away from the Minawao refugee camp, where most Nigerians flee to. This needs to change.

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