from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Nigeria on the Brink

Notes From Yobe State on Living With ISWA

A girl walks past a bull stall on the street in Dapchi, Yobe state, Nigeria February 27, 2018. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

August 1, 2019

A girl walks past a bull stall on the street in Dapchi, Yobe state, Nigeria February 27, 2018. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
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From far away it is difficult to know what daily life is really like in an area controlled or occupied by Boko Haram. Chitra Nagarajan, a journalist and author who has written for the Guardian (UK), among other publications, recently spent time in Yobe State doing research on gender. She has gathered into a Twitter thread a summary of her conversations about life under Boko Haram, specifically, the Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) faction. Chitra is a feminist who writes on women’s and queer issues around the world. She at present lives in Maiduguri, the city where Boko Haram began. Her reportage is anecdotal, but provides insights into daily life. 

There are at least two factions of Boko Haram, one led by Abubakar Shekau and one by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, the latter referred to as ISWA. They operate in the area around northeast Nigeria, though some of the factions are reportedly further afield

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Those Chitra spoke with in Yobe State said that ISWA targeted the military and the police rather than civilians, matching what she has heard from residents of Borno State. Still, the group threatened rich men and demanded protection money, which was often paid to avoid relocation. Farmers who crossed paths with ISWA members in the countryside were told they would not be hurt and to continue to go about their work, but some thought ISWA fighters, and by extension, such promises, were “unreliable.”

While the Nigerian military sometimes closed down markets and banned fishing, hoping to rob ISWA of resources, ISWA apparently would come to preach in villages and offer financial incentives. According to Chitra, waging economic warfare on ISWA seemed only to generate more sympathy and support for it.

Her interlocutors confirmed that banditry is widespread and takes advantage of the general lack of government in the area to rustle cattle. Some posited that some of the bandits were members of ISWA, but seemed to imply that rustling was not sanctioned by ISWA leadership, and that the bandits in question were punished. Should a man leave ISWA (or, presumably, Shekau’s faction) and then go through government rehabilitation (women do not apparently have the same access to such programs) they would often not be welcomed back to their communities and would be forced to relocate. 

Chitra’s tweets are congruent with other reports that ISWA does not kill civilians to the same extent as the Shekau faction does, and ISWA’s apparent effort to win over the local population and provide a modicum of governance. She also highlights the relationship between cattle rustling and other criminality with Boko Haram factions. In at least some areas—in this case, where ISWA is predominantly active—Chitra’s tweets seem to imply that daily life goes on much as it did before Boko Haram arrived.

More on:

Nigeria

Islamic State

Boko Haram

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

State and Local Governments

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