Nigerian refugees reduced to onlookers as election approaches

Banditry, criminality and murder force many Nigerians to flee to Niger where as a diaspora they lose their vote

Baraka Alio was at home with her husband when the bandits came. They threatened to rape her in front of him, the 28 year old recalls, as she struggles to explain the level of “wickedness” she witnessed. Her husband objected. If he continued to argue, the armed men countered, they would kill him and rape her anyway. He objected again.

Alio was then forced to watch as her husband was killed in front of her. Speaking through tears, she does not explain how it was done, but says the bandits then put his body in a hut and burned it.

Alio’s father, brother and sister were all killed by bandits within the same week. One of her four children is missing. “I can’t say if he is alive or not. Some people in the village were burnt alive in huts,” she says.

Alio fled her home in Gangara, northwest Nigeria, to a camp in southern Niger, where she lives among more than 5,400 Nigerian refugees. She took one daughter with her – a 12 year old suffering from psychological problems after being hit with a motorbike while escaping. Her other children remain in another town with an aunt. Alio is speaking in the shelter where she has lived for the past few months. There is sand on the ground, some clothing strung up to dry from the ceiling, and a small mat for Alio and her daughter to sleep on.


She describes a brutal attack in which bandits massacred civilians, robbed houses and then waited nearby in the days afterwards, ready to kill anyone who tried to return home. “Some survived the initial attack and then went back to get their things,” she says. “My father was one of them.”

In the aftermath, Alio walked all the way to Niger. “I was looking for help and people told me about it. I heard there’s a refugee camp where people were here.” Her legs swelled up from the trek. “When I came I didn’t know anybody.”

“Life is good here,” she says, though with a sad expression. “It’s better than there, there’s security, the only problem is there’s nothing to do. Just sitting and eating when we can get food. I’m not fully satisfied but it’s acceptable.”

Armed gangs

In Nigeria’s northwest, the term “bandits” is a catchall word for the estimated 30,000 members of more than 100 armed gangs, many of whom are abducting people and pillaging for profit.

Last year, there were nearly 2,000 recorded kidnappings and more than 1,559 murders between Kaduna and Katsina states; Alio’s hometown lies on the border between them. There were another 1,797 murders and nearly 1,000 kidnappings in neighbouring Zamfara, and 122 killed and 436 kidnapped in Sokoto – all states in Nigeria’s northwest. But analysts say many kidnappings – which often happen in conjunction with ransom demands – go unreported, and deaths are likely going unrecorded. Poor Nigerians are forced to sell their animals and farms and enter into debt to pay the money requested, with no guarantee that their loved ones will survive.

With Nigerian elections coming up on February 25th, all eyes will be watching to see who takes over the presidency of Africa’s most populous country. Muhammadu Buhari, an 80-year-old former military ruler, came to power in 2015 vowing to bring peace and stability. Instead, he is ending his two terms amid a nationwide security crisis that threatens to derail the election completely. In October, speaking at a passing-out parade at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Buhari said that although they had recorded successes in inherited conflicts, “the security challenges in the country have evolved and assumed other dimensions”.

Nigeria’s southeast is experiencing what Africa-focused think tank the Institute for Security Studies describes as “separatist agitation and associated repressive state responses”, while millions of people in northeast Nigeria have been displaced by a lengthy Islamist insurgency. Islamist militant group Boko Haram in particular became infamous for attacking villages, cutting the throats of men, abducting women and murdering anyone perceived as their enemy, while on their quest to create an Islamic caliphate. But the stories of those who have fled Nigeria’s northwest today seem equally horrific.

A raging banditry and criminality problem in northwest and north-central Nigeria has forced more than 1.1 million people from their homes, UN figures show.

This comes on top of longstanding problems between various linguistic and ethnic groups, and tensions between pastoralists and farmers, which the UN says have been exacerbated by climate change fuelling tensions over land and resources. There have been revenge attacks, and protests against the government. Today, gangs appear to be pillaging and murdering with impunity.

The Irish Times travelled to southern Niger to meet Nigerians forced from their homes, who will be unable to have their voices heard in the upcoming election. Niger – a francophone country with a population of roughly 25 million – is sheltering more than 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers, of whom more than 200,000 are Nigerian.

Some questioned whether the election could or should go ahead, while others feel completely disengaged from a political system they believe did nothing to protect them. They made allegations about politicians supporting armed groups and prolonging the crisis, with their comments repeatedly emphasising that they have lost faith in Nigeria’s government.

“I’m not sure if the election will take place because there is so much insecurity. People cannot vote in those areas, and how can the election be valid if people cannot vote?” says Alio.

Diaspora vote

Dan Daji Makaou, a so-called “opportunity village”, or refugee camp, about 60km from Maradi in Niger’s south, was set up upon the arrival of thousands of northwest Nigerians in 2019.

“The conflict has not stopped,” says Anas Habibou, who acts as the camp’s leader. “I plan to go back to Nigeria if the security is guaranteed. I can’t say when things will get better. We’ve learnt that the bandits are still operating.”

Habibou was the son of the chief in his former village. He says a change of leadership as a result of the election might herald some positive changes, but he does not sound optimistic. Habibou would like to be able to cast a vote from Niger, but he knows it is impossible. Nigeria does not allow a “diaspora” vote, and, when it comes to elections, refugees are classified as diaspora.

Habibou describes the Sunday four years ago when bandits came to his village, Dankadan, in Sokoto State. It was harvest time, shortly after rainy season. About 5,000 cows were stolen from the area and at least 27 people killed, he says.

“Thieves came in my house with the intention of killing me but they didn’t get me. Me and my family escaped, went into the bush,” Habibou recalls. “We walked many days, we suffered. We were trying to flee and then could no longer continue to walk. The children were very thirsty.”

‘Fell down dead’

Aicha Mahaman, who is in her 50s, sits in a friend’s shelter as she describes crossing the border to Niger less than a year ago. With her were her son and two grandchildren – aged six and seven. Dan Koudan in Sokoto State and the bandits had come twice to her village.

On the second occasion, they entered her home in the night. Her husband, the local imam, asked them to identify themselves. “They shot him and he fell down dead,” she says.

The next day, Mahaman escaped to another village, where she says there was “peace” but no “security”. She heard about the refugee camp in Niger and decided to make the journey. Now she sleeps in a shelter with eight other people.

The rest of her family are missing. “They scattered. We’re just being patient here. We’re not fully satisfied but it’s a matter of being patient.”

Mahaman says that, a decade ago, northwest Nigeria was a nice place to live. “This is recent. In the last five-six years things have gone very bad but before then it was a peaceful place… Insecurity is new to us.”

“There was poverty before insecurity but likewise there were rich people. Nowadays even the rich people are poor. These kidnappers, bandits, thieves have taken everything from people. Many young people who have been kidnapped, they force them to become part of them, train them.

“I can’t say if things will improve with the election, but I hope so. We’re not willing to go back to Nigeria to vote but if they let us vote here that’s okay. They need to bring voters’ ballots.”

When asked how peace might be achievable in Nigeria’s northwest, she says: “This is beyond my competence, I’m a poor person and I’m a woman, I have nothing to say. This belongs to politicians and leaders, how to solve this problem.”

But she expects more Nigerians to turn up at the camp. “When newcomers come we have to respect them and welcome them because people did that for us,” she says.

Alio, who arrived in the camp only three months ago, agrees that she can’t go home any time soon.

“The situation is ongoing,” she says. “It’s only the government that can solve this problem but it seems they’re not willing. These thieves come to a village and operate for hours, taking their time, killing people, robbing people, and the next day they go to the next village and the government do nothing.”