As I sat to reflect on the trip, even with pain in my heart, and for a moment I felt warmth well up from within. I remembered the kindness of one of the refugees who invited us into her thatched house, made tea for us and offered spaghetti made of garuba – a sweetner gotten from a tree. Amid all the suffering, the human heart still has capacity to reach out and to share.
My first visit to the Republic of Niger was in 2017 when I attended the 60th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in Niamey. I was teased by the Nigerien driver taking us around town on why I had to fly all the way to Abidjan to return to neighbouring Niamey, which took me a travel time of over 10 hours. It is the hassle of traveling within the West Africa region; but that is a story for another day. When our partner, the Centre for Democracy and Development, suggested that we travel to Diffa on a project monitoring exercise, I will admit that I made a very strong case for why a road trip made both economic and practical senses.
It was an adventure no flight experience could have given me. We left Kano about 6.30 a.m. and by 9 a.m., we had reached the border between Nigeria and Niger. We were promptly cleared on the Nigeria side, but the Nigerien side had a small issue. We were asked for the letter of invitation from our partner in Niger. At no time did my travel companions and I remember that for travel within West Africa; on the basis of the ECOWAS free movement protocol, this requirement was unnecessary. The young man at the immigration office seemed to believe it was above his pay grade to stamp our passports, due to such an overwhelming prerequisite, so we waited for almost an hour for his supervisor to come in. My French is very bad but when I heard the term “c’est grave”, I knew it didn’t mean things were looking good. The supervisor arrived after our delayed wait but did not seem to see the said ‘gravity’ or he probably knew a little more about ECOWAS travel than his subordinate did, so he asked that our passports be stamped. We were finally on our way.
We got to Zinder about 12.30 p.m., where we met with Mousa and other friends from Alternative Espaces Citoiyen. From Zinder to Diffa was a journey through history and time. Almost every village had a unique history. From a village where my travel mates said the president of Nigeria’s mother is from (Nigeria’s president is quite beloved in Niger I hear) to an absurd village where it is believed that all stolen livestock (mainly cattle) are brought to be re-sold. I was informed that if your livestock got stolen, you will have to go to the market in this village to re-purchase it. There is some form of established code that makes it impossible for buyers to know who brought what. A creepy village called Kilikam, which in Kanuri means ‘to decapitate’.
We arrived Diffa at about 7 p.m. but not before passing through a community frequently attacked by Boko Haram. I had an eerie feeling passing through this place knowing that an attack was possible, especially after dusk. A few kilometres to Diffa, several tents on both sides of the road usher you into what the Diffa region has become.
History has it that hundreds of years ago, a Jihadist waged a bloody war against the Shehus whose headquarters was Kukawa and his trademark was decapitation. He was later killed in Cameroon by the French Army. Now the even more sinister part of this village is that it is believed to have been the hideout for one of the Boko Haram factions, from where they came to Nigeria to launch attacks. There is a strong belief that the Shehus fled Kukawa to set up their headquarters in Maiduguri, where they prayed that such persecution would not be experienced for a hundred years. The story goes on to say that the hundred years ended in 2009. A prophecy which came with this story is that after a hundred years, there’ll be bloodshed for 30 years before the region will know peace again. Fact or fiction? It does make a compelling argument where theories of the interminable insurgency, which has entered it’s 11th year now, have failed to fill the mystifying gaps.
We arrived Diffa at about 7 p.m. but not before passing through a community frequently attacked by Boko Haram. I had an eerie feeling passing through this place knowing that an attack was possible, especially after dusk. A few kilometres to Diffa, several tents on both sides of the road usher you into what the Diffa region has become. Almost every structure, apart from market stalls, is a donation from one foreign government or an INGO. Schools, boreholes, electrical installations; all donations. In terms of social amenities, it seems as though the government of Niger does not exist here. If there is a signpost that reads “INGO capital of the world”, it would be found in the Diffa region – displaying almost every kind of assistance conceivable, but not nearly enough for a people barely surviving through the horrors of a ravaging insurgency. Diffa has had an 8 p.m. curfew and state of emergency in place since February 2015 – a sad reminder that life can never be normal there. The gun shots that pierce through the quiet night carry with them stories that will be heard in the morning; of attacks, abductions or suppression of impending attacks.
Nothing broke the heart more than a visit to the camps of refugees and displaced persons in Wanzam and N’Gagam – made up of people who lived along the river side of both Niger and Nigeria for whom the government could not assure safety. They were asked to move to the camp by the highway, if they were to be secured. For people there, the tag of refugees or IDPs made little sense to them, for indeed they were brothers from neighbouring villages, and speaking the same Kanuri language across Komadugu, the river that separates Nigeria from Niger on that side.
The African Union’s theme for 2019 was “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.” An honest assessment of the commitment of governments to this theme must be made. The theme for the year might have passed but the issues remain.
A deep sense of pain was evoked listening to the stories of loved ones lost. The pain of fathers sharing stories of sons who, in spite of a government ban, went fishing because there was no other way to survive in the camp, in which donations were at the will of good Samaritans. This visit was in March. The scorching heat and the sand storm were intolerable for the three hours we spent there. I went back to my hotel, to the bed where I had initially shared photos with family, for the bedsheet was half torn. The AC reverberated with such an unsettling crackling sound. I had earlier complained about this. But that night, I didn’t turn it on. I wept. The thought of the pain and suffering, the sense that there was no hope of coming out of this situation. Not for the people in Diffa. Not for the people in Bornu or the millions of refugees and displaced persons scattered across the West Africa region. The people I met welcomed humanitarian assistance but almost all spoke in one voice when asked what they wanted; just to go back home.
As I sat to reflect on the trip, even with pain in my heart, and for a moment I felt warmth well up from within. I remembered the kindness of one of the refugees who invited us into her thatched house, made tea for us and offered spaghetti made of garuba – a sweetner gotten from a tree. Amid all the suffering, the human heart still has capacity to reach out and to share. The governments in West Africa must ensure that our common humanity and shared values trump whatever interests that threaten the safety of our people. In the pain of the conflict, we still see flashes of humanity and an amazing will for survival. At this moment, that will is breaking slowly. The urgency is even more pressing. Governments across the region must prioritise the people. The African Union’s theme for 2019 was “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.” An honest assessment of the commitment of governments to this theme must be made. The theme for the year might have passed but the issues remain.
Catherine Kyenret Angai works for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
This piece is in commemoration of the world humanitarian day which held on August 19.