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As the Nigerian military regained of control of territory once held by Boko Haram, the government began to encourage displaced residents to return home. The New York Times published a story about these efforts both to rebuild and encourage its former residents to return Bama, which was the site of horrific attacks by Boko Haram in 2013 and 2014. Boko Haram then used the city as a headquarters until it was recaptured by the Nigerian security forces in 2015. The city essentially was destroyed and its residents either were killed or fled. There are reports that Boko Haram massacred those who were too elderly to flee. Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) reported in 2016 very high death rates from malnutrition in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp not far from Bama, which presumably housed many of its residents.
In 2006 (the last year statistics are available), Bama had a population of just under three hundred thousand. A border town, Bama lived on trade, especially that of smoked fish from Lake Chad but it also acted as a transit point from which petroleum was exported to Sahelian states.
Since its recapture, the federal government has cited Bama as evidence of the success of its campaign against Boko Haram and the resettlement of IDPs. Earlier this year, the federal government told IDPs that it was safe to return and promised a new city would await them—complete with hospitals, schools, and housing. Success against Boko Haram, or the lack thereof, has become a political issue in the upcoming elections, scheduled for February 2019. The government regularly claims credit for defeating Boko Haram, while critics question just how successful it has been.
The New York Times story is a sad litany of unmet expectations, from unfinished housing to inadequately staffed and unfinished hospitals and schools. Boko Haram attacks have continued, though the group does not appear to have tried to recapture the city. The Times reports that residents have been threatened by the security forces should they complain to the media.
The government-sponsored return of IDPs to Bama would appear to be premature. It is worth noting, however, that unfinished schools, medical facilities, and housing likely reflect the shortcomings in the government’s administrative and bureaucratic capacity, rather than a lack of political will or malicious intent. This problem is long standing. During the late colonial and early independence period, the Nigerian civil service was of very high quality, so much so that it is deservedly credited with carrying government administration through the 1967–70 civil war. However, the efficiency of the civil service was systematically destroyed by the generation of military rulers that were deeply suspicious of any other center of power in government. Rebuilding a civil service takes a long time, and the process is not yet complete, as the saga of Bama illustrates.
For more on Nigeria, Matthew Page and I provide an overview of its politics, history, and culture, including the threat of Boko Haram and religious conflicts in our new book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, which was published by Oxford University Press in July.