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Understanding Boko Haram

Thomas Mösch August 14, 2015

In Nigeria, Boko Haram's insurgency is treated as domestic politics, but that doesn't make it any more intelligible to Nigerians living outside the northeast. Blogger Saratu Abiola has the answer: tell personal stories.

Image: Reuters/A. Sotunde

DW: Saratu Abiola, could you explain briefly - what is the Testimonial Archive Project all about?

Saratu Abiola: Testimonial Archive Project is an archive that seeks to document the human cost of the violence in the northeast. What we do is to interview ordinary Nigerians who live in the region and they share their perspective on the violence, yes, but the real aim is to show how the violence is affecting them in their daily lives - from little ways to big ways - from their ability to go to the markets, go to school, conduct business, their relationships with their fellow community members. What this does is to give insights - on-the-ground insights - into how the violence is affecting the communities - perhaps even some insight into things that government is doing and how they could do it better.

Why did you think it necessary to mount such a project?

It's very important because a lot of the regular coverage locally in Nigeria is privileging the political. How is it going to affect the president? - particularly in the run-up to the election that has just happened a few months ago. It was really frustrating because when you are privileging politics you are not paying enough attention to the human stories - how it's really affecting people. When you don't do that, what you do is exhaust people who are not living in these areas - it shuts them out because they just think of it as politics. They don't think "Oh, this is happening to ordinary Nigerians like me." Places like Port Harcourt which are not experiencing violence really have no idea what is going on in those conflict-ridden areas. So what you are doing when you are focusing on the human stories is that you are letting them know "Hey, this is what's happening and it's in the same country and this why you should care - and this is why, even though you are not there, you should also pressure your government and join people in these areas pressuring their government to do the right thing."

How do you get the stories?

We work with civil society organizations that are based in the region. They connect us to people who are affected by the violence in those areas. We also work with specific subject experts - people who deal with issues that are emerging because of the violence. Things like displacement, gender-based violence, kidnapping, human rights issues. They can connect us to people who are either experts or who are suffering directly, even people who are working with the Civilian JTF [Civilian Joint Task Force - loosely organized militia formed to oust Boko Haram in certain cities]. We have a bunch of interviews with people on the security side as well. We've not interviewed any Nigerian soldiers, but we have interviewed some Civilian JTF members who talk about their experiences about how they have fled the violence, how they came to join Civilian JTF.

What do you know about the people who use your website?

A lot of people come to the site just because they want to know what is happening and that's the major reason why we started this up. We have people who tried to set up NGOs and who visit and who then ask "how can I help?" Some of our interviews have been used in human rights reports on the situation in the northeast. It's seen a lot of diverse use. I've gotten contacts from researchers who are looking for insight into what is happening, to draft policy recommendations, the Nigeria Security Network (NSN) is using it to share information on the region. These reports are gathered and then sent to key security experts as well in order to inform thinking on the violence.

How do you fund your activities?

(laughs) Fund! Unfortunately, it is not a registered organization and I have to say it is entirely self-funded. I would like this to change in the not-too-distant future, but there is as yet no assistance, it's all coming from our pockets - and our time!

If you look at the situation in the northeast at the moment - and the information you are gathering either from IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] directly or from experts - what are the most urgent issues that need to be dealt with?

The IDP situation is a crisis. Yes, you have millions displaced in country, but we also have millions displaced outside the country - in Niger, Cameroon, Chad - you have Nigerian IDPs in those places. A lot of these IDPs go from one camp to the next just to find shelter. Sometimes the camp is full and there is nowhere for them to stay so they move elsewhere - and, of course, moving on foot in very volatile places is another security risk. But equally - if not more - urgent than the IDP situation is what happens to vulnerable IDPs. During the elections IDPs were often used as political tools, they were given food to join campaigns - so there's abuse there - on both sides, the PDP and the now ruling party APC. We also see sex trafficking and other human trafficking as a result. Traffickers find IDP camps very useful because you see ready prey - people to whom you say "Hey, look, there's a job." "Oh really." Then they follow these people and they end up being trafficked for all manner of uses. You also see sex for food situations where camp directors gather food aid and would give people food - and remember a lot of IDPs are women and children. These are incredibly vulnerable situations, even before the violence they were already vulnerable. IDP camps also have a lot of externality - by externality I mean public health issues that end up radiating outwards. You may find a cholera outbreak which happens with incredible regularity in camps - we are talking about maybe five, six, ten thousand people in a cramped space and maybe only ten toilets, so we are not talking about a very sanitary situation here and these camps are in neighborhoods, they are in communities and that can't be good for the overall health of the community. These camps are in a lot of different places with very little assistance to make sure that the people in the camps are given any sort of vocational training. Some NGOs are beginning to provide vocational help - but essentially what you have is millions added on to already low income neighborhoods, who are also unemployed. It can't be good for a security situation, whether we are talking terrorism or not.

Saratu Abiola is the founder of the Testimonial Archive Project which is based in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

Interview: Thomas Mösch, head of DW's Hausa service