Victims of Boko Haram feel like strangers when they return home to southern Nigeria

An injured woman and her children arrive at a hospital in Maiduguri, Borno State, after a Boko Haram suicide bomb attack. Audu Marte/AFP via Getty Images

During the past ten years of Boko Haram’s campaign against the Nigerian state, over 27,000 people have been killed, hundreds kidnapped and thousands displaced.

While a lot of attention has been devoted to understanding the reasons, causes and patterns of Boko Haram’s activities, very little attention has been invested in understanding their victims. More specifically, little research has been done on the plight of people who were originally from the southern states and lived in the north for decades until they became targets of Boko Haram. Research could inform efforts to help them adjust to the changes in their lives.

We conducted a study involving a number of people who had returned to Orlu, Imo State, in southeast Nigeria, after Boko Haram had forced them to flee from the north. Most of the returnees were economic migrants who had gone north in search of work opportunities. We found that on their return home many were considered “strangers in their own land”.

Our study added to others on forced-return migration in conflict zones and post-conflict reintegration challenges and coping strategies. We found that the connection maintained with the homeland – including phone calls and sending remittances – affected their acceptance or rejection by people at home.

Most of the returnees we spoke to felt like strangers on their return. The fact that they had not been physically present led them to lose touch with certain parts of their culture. They seemed like outsiders to people at home.

The study points to the importance of maintaining relationships between diasporas and home communities.


Read more: Internally displaced people need more protection: insights from Africa


Victims’ experiences before forced return

Our interviewees experienced the violence caused by Boko Haram’s deadly attacks in northern Nigeria. They witnessed their friends and relatives being killed. One man who had lived in Kano State before escaping to Orlu told us how he had left Kano:

One day I came back from church service on Sunday (and) about to eat when I received a phone call that the church I left had been bombed by Boko Haram leaving 30 people dead. I was afraid and then I drove to my friend’s house and found him and his family dead … I could not think straight, all I managed to think was how to drive myself to Orlu … I left my shop and properties in the house but I thank God for my life.

A woman teacher stated:

There are times we went to hide inside gutter till morning … The last time we hid inside gutter was when my son died; they killed my only son before my eyes.

The experiences of others were limited to the economic effects of terrorism on their livelihoods. For example, shops sometimes had to be closed for fear of attack. People devised strategies to survive, such as reconstructing their identity to blend with host communities.

Challenges in the homeland

The people in our study didn’t experience a seamless reintegration when they got home. They came up against hurdles of identity, high cost of living and a lack of knowledge about local business conditions. These experiences varied according to sex, age and marital status.

We found that one major determinant of acceptance back home was whether they had sent remittances while in the North. Those that had done so had little difficulty being accepted and finding support. Their predicament of having to return home was viewed as a temporary set-back. They enjoyed empathy and sympathy from people who saw them as their own.

Those who did not send remittances home had little or no support.

A married woman who lived in Jos, Plateau State, told us about trying to make a living from selling “abacha,”, a salad, made with cassava:

You know if you stay away from people and suddenly come back to do business with them it will look as if you are a stranger in your own land. Some of them when they come to buy abacha they will be telling me to stop using this and that, start using this and that, even when nothing is wrong with the abacha, just because I have lived in the north. Even when you do what they asked you to do, they will not still be satisfied with the abacha.

Many displaced victims were unable to carry out their responsibilities at home. For example, they couldn’t pay their children’s tuition fees. Some also lost their relationships owing to financial incapacity. Others were alienated and poorly regarded in the community.

Many returnees expressed the view that they felt internally displaced. Even when they thought they were at home, their experiences were like those of strangers.

Governments, at various levels, should assist returnee victims of terrorism to make them stable and boost their economic and psychological re-integration into their society. This task can be handled by the victims’ local government through the registration of returnees, assessing their needs and organising programmes to meet those needs

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