YOLA — A few hours after the electoral commission decided to postpone the presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 14, the air here in the northern Nigerian state of Adamawa starting feeling even heavier. Thanks to a tip, intelligence services discovered that Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram had been planning an attack in the city of Yola that could have been capable of destroying a ten-story building.
Traveling towards the north of the country, approaching the Boko Haram strongholds you can only see yello marwa (local motorcycle taxis) and young girls in veils — who, on several occasions, have been used as human bombs to sow death and panic in the region.
After barren miles of roadway, where the only sign of life is dry trees struggling to survive the savannah heat, the first Nigerian army checkpoints appear. Many accuse the military of being in collusion with the terrorist group, especially after Amnesty International revealed that they had prior knowledge about the atrocious attack last month in the town of Baga that some believe left 2,000 civilians dead.
Few here wear bullet-proof vests, but for the most part everyone is armed with AK-47s. We got past the checkpoint, though not without difficulty, and approached the village of Mumbi — which was razed by the Islamists a few months ago — and began to view the first tangible signs of the offensive. Torched cars, abandoned houses still smoldering, cut electrical wires. On some of the walls of the houses was black writing in Arabic: "We fight for Islam" — an indelible mark that says Boko Haram was here.
Some people are walking slowly through the deserted streets. "We came back to get some clothes and see if some of our relatives are still alive before we go back to the mountains to hide," one person tells us, "Boko Haram haven't reached there yet."
Most people fled, crossing the border into Cameroon and then coming back into Nigeria through the southern border before finding shelter in Yola, where they were welcomed into camps organized by the government and local community. There are about 120,000 displaced people here, although if you include those in the neighboring states of Yobe and Borno the figure reaches over a million.
Machetes and rifles
At the entrance to the city of Hong, 150 kilometers from Yola, we began to see the first vigilantes — local Fulani men with scant resources available trying to fight the incredibly well-equipped militants. A small army of about 200 men wearing ragged green uniforms stand around; some wield machetes, others basic rifles. At first glance they seem like not much more than a ragtag army, but in reality they're part of a bigger group whose name is printed on their uniforms: Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force).
After we're thoroughly searched, some shouts arise, "Sarkin Baka, Sarkin Baka." In the local language, this means general. The general's name is Ade and fatigue is all over his 38-year-old face. He invites us to come and sit in his office — an unprotected tin hut. "Have you seen my boys?" he asks. "They're strong."
He spares few details, hoping the words will reach ears that matter beyond Nigeria. "Before the arrival of Boko Haram, we were hunters. We went into the forest to gather food but now our people are going there to escape," says the general of the vigilantes. "Until a few years ago, some of our guys were fascinated by the idea of an Islamic State, but then we realized they were slitting our throats like goats. And when the army wouldn't help us, we decided to arm ourselves against them."
Does the government support them? "They have never given us anything: not weapons, not cars, not money, not food," says Ade. "Those who remained in the villages collected food for us to eat, and others provided us with means of transport."
Is it true that they tried to use magical charms to try and stop Boko Haram? He rolls up the sleeve of his uniform, points out a layer of leather embedded underneath. "The leather has a special effect and thanks to a mixture on it we can repel bullets," he says. "It's the same mixture we put on our eyes before fighting so we can recognize Boko Haram fighters — you know they wear the same uniforms as the army?"
The uniform trick is why some believe so many people were brutally killed in the January attack at Baga, since locals believed the military had come to free them, but instead met the Islamist insurgents.
We hear screaming — Ade's vigilantes have recognized an affiliate of the terrorist group who has come into the village, probably to gather food stocks. He lets us know that it's time to go, but after one last question. Did he know that the elections have been postponed? "We'll do everything we can to protect our people, and let them go and vote freely."