Horror At The Front Line Of The Boko Haram Caliphate

A reporter witnesses a city fall to the hands of Boko Haram, as locals recount the brutality they've witnessed. Meanwhile, slim hopes for a negotiated solution.

Security guards watching over refugees fleeing from Boko Haram in Diffa, Niger
Security guards watching over refugees fleeing from Boko Haram in Diffa, Niger
Jean-Philippe Rémy

UBA — With the milling crowds of people, this could pass for a small country market. But the people walking or sitting on the ground, some buying and selling tiny quantities of vegetables or petty domestic objects — a farming tool, a loincloth — have traveled much too far for that.

Instead, they have reached this small town of Uba, in northern Nigeria, as part of the steady tide of men, women and children who have fled the horror of the area controlled by Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist organization.

Just a few hundred meters from this shuffling crowd begins the zone in the northern state of Adamawa that is considered under the group's control. Those who have crossed out of the area have lost almost everything, too often even their loved ones. The only satisfaction they have is to be alive, though the fear remains that the rebels could catch up with them in this chase across a state that is as big as Switzerland and, in this rainy season, almost as green.

Nearby, on this day in late October, at Uba’s secondary school, more than 5,000 people are sleeping on the ground and are trying to find essential products — soap, a mattress. Women are boiling beans given out by the local authorities. Children are playing. Fathers are exchanging bad news.

Suddenly, four men arrive, dripping with sweat, their jackets filthy, their shoes torn. Before even sitting down or seeking water, they start to tell their story. They left Gwoza five, no, seven days ago. They need to count again to be certain. Seven days walking from that town, about a hundred kilometers as the crow flies, more to the north, and now “capital” of the caliphate proclaimed by Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader whose death is regularly (and falsely) announced by the Nigerian army.

The men first broke out of this fake caliphate which is actually nothing more than an open-air prison. They snuck away in the night, following a path in the Sambisa forest. That’s where Boko Haram hid some of its camps and where the schoolgirls from Chibok, abducted on April 14, were believed to have been held for a time. But the forest is huge. To cross through it, the escapees had to use byways, in the middle of the vegetation, where other dangers lurk. One evening, these men saw their friend Hammassaleh Eliyah getting bitten by a black snake — and watched him die.

Abandoned cities, public executions

Their words come tumbling out. They talk of Gwoza, where the “kingmakers” had named a new emir in June, after his predecessor was killed by Boko Haram. They recount how the town was taken after three days of fighting, then the hell that followed. More than 70 executions. Men's throats slit, men shot like hunted animals. The growing number of Islamist insurgents, some of whom come from Chad, Niger, Cameroon, have taken firm control. The frenzied flight of part of the population to the Mandara mountains, on the border with Cameroon. And the bleakness of life in this mockery of a caliphate.

“In the city, there’s nobody left but accomplices of Boko Haram and some elderly people," recounts Mohammed Bello Guduf, one of the four new escapees." He says that the fields in the surrounding countryside have been abandoned as the women and children fled to the mountains to escape Boko Haram patrols.

"They want the girls to serve as wives, and they force the boys to fight for them,” he says. "There are families who’ve been stuck in the mountains for three months, without medicine, without food.” He speaks in long bursts, and at certain moments seems about to pass out, or to start crying.

Then there is Nuhu Gajere, who had secretly gone to bring back his dying father in Michika, another city held by Boko Haram. Gajere is pushing the old man, whose eyes are rolled upwards, in a wheelbarrow.

As much as they would like to believe it, none of these people are in the clear. The area controlled by Boko Haram hasn’t stopped expanding since June, especially in the wide corridor between the Sambisa and the Cameroonian border.

In Uba, on Tuesday, this insurgent zone was supposed to start, in theory, on the other side of the bridge, just outside the town. But some are more skeptical, like this soldier in charge at the entrance of Uba. For him, Boko Haram members are already inside the town, invisible — and he’s prepared for the worst.

The sound of mortar fire in the distance confuses the soldier. “These are our forces, right? We are pushing the insurgents to the other side of the bridge, outside the town.”

But right before our eyes, the government forces’ defense is falling to pieces. In just a few hours, everything is blown away. Boko Haram men enter Uba and raise their black flag. They continue driving in their Hilux pickup trucks until the next town, find no resistance there, and so continues until the next one, Mubi.

Hours later, our friend, the soldier, answers his phone one last time from his speeding car, as he drives away from the front. He shouts that “there are dead people everywhere along the road,” then hangs up.

Mixed signals

In the hours that follow, Mubi falls. The battalion that used to defend the second biggest town in Adamawa vanished into thin air. Some of its men went as far as Cameroon. Boko Haram fighters no doubt simply walked into deserted barracks and loaded their pickups with weapons, ammunition and freed prisoners.

Leaving Mubi — Photo: cyclo_ne via Instagram

In the Nigerian capita of Abuja, nobody seems to grasp the importance of the demonstration of force that just took place. Boko Haram can seize a city of 200,000 inhabitants with a state university, and withdraw undisturbed after stocking up on ammunition, even though the forces posted there have armored vehicles and the backing of warplanes from Yola, the capital of the Adamawa state.

One local Christian leader is reached later by phone. “They could have massacred as many people as they liked, if they had wanted to,” he says, having spent the last few hours trembling with fear that they might murder him in his home.

Despite the battles raging on the ground, talks between the insurgents and the Nigerian government have been held in Chad. A ceasefire was even announced on Oct. 17 by Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, whose hometown is located just outside Mubi. A second round of negotiations is ongoing. The agreement, which was not validated by Boko Haram’s leaders, also plans the liberation of part or all of the 219 schoolgirls abducted in Chibok, 40 kilometers from Uba.

These negotiations have however been made possible thanks to the connections of a Nigerian politician, the former head of the Borno state, Ali Mody Sheriff. In exchange for the return of the “Chibok girls,” Boko Haram’s delegation demanded an important liberation of their own troops held prisoner. With some security officials in Nigeria opposed to this principle, the talks remain blocked — and meanwhile, Boko Haram marches on.

Villages around Mubi have been under continuous attack over the past few weeks. Foreign Minister Aminu Wali assures that these assaults are the work of “dissidents” inside Boko Haram.

“Negotiations are still ongoing and we’re still waiting on major progress,” he says. “And we are also trying hard to bring back those who have been abducted.” But exactly which factions of Boko Haram the negotiators represent is impossible to say.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!