It was a quiet, slow Wednesday evening in early June 2017 in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno State, Nigeria. Schoolchildren and civil servants had long retired home after the day’s duties. Only a handful of yellow tuk-tuks cruised up and down the thoroughfare in the heart of the city. Some Nigerian military officers and members of a civilian joint task force drove along the dusty track in a Toyota Hilux van, their eyes scanning the streets. A few meters away from Government House, a loudspeaker broadcast the mosque cleric’s call to prayer.
Then it happened: A gunshot punctured the silence. Then another one. Before long, the noise of gunfire overwhelmed all other sounds. A dozen children scurried towards Government House – their feet bare, some crying, while others urged them not to panic. Across the street, a middle-aged man doing his ablutions dropped everything and ran into his high-walled apartment in panic.
I was stunned, and for a few minutes I didn’t believe this was happening. Nobody had had any premonition that Boko Haram would attack the city that morning. The group was supposed to be on the brink of collapse, with Nigerian security forces retaking territories formerly occupied by it. In fact, Maiduguri had been the group’s headquarters until it was driven out by security forces in 2013. Now, there was an attack in the Polo area of the city, just 4km from where I was standing, one that took the military more than two hours to contain. Another attack near Muna Garage left more than 10 dead and injured more than a dozen people, according to the local police. This showed that the terrorist group was far from having been destroyed.
Given the events ofthe night, and the apprehension that clouded most of my sleep, I was hoping to wake to silence and less traffic the next morning. But not in Maiduguri.
I woke up to the shuffle of hurrying feet, the honking of tuk-tuks and taxis, and the ear-splitting thundering of military helicopters. People were going about their normal duties like nothing had happened.
Welcome to Maiduguri, the city of resilience and hope, laughter and cheerfulness, hustle and bustle.
Welcome to Maiduguri, the city of resilience and hope, laughter and cheerfulness, hustle and bustle – all amid a brutal Islamist insurgency that has ravaged most of the North-East.
“This is Maiduguri for you,” 40-year-old local taxi driver Inusa Ali told me with a smile. “The bombs don’t scare us. I grew up in this city before Boko Haram was formed, and nothing will make me leave.”
This sounded improbable to me, given that this was a city in an area where millions were in dire need of humanitarian intervention for them to access food, water, sanitation, protection, education, shelter and health services. Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency has killed more than 20 000 people, causing 2,1 million people to flee their homes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Most of the people who fled their homes migrated to urban centres, especially to Maiduguri, which saw its population double to 2 million.
OCHA has stressed that almost 7 million people need humanitarian assistance in the three most affected states, which are Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. With violence forcing farmers off their land for the fourth year in a row, some 5,2 million people are teetering on the edge of food insecurity.
Despite the devastation and the agony of lost livelihoods and relatives, there is still hope. This hope is the resilience of the people; of a spirit that seems impossible to dampen.
Some minutes after sunset, I met a local security guard at the entrance to a hotel. Mohammad Usman, 24, has worked at the hotel for eight months. He is happy to be making a little money to fend for himself and his three siblings.
“Nothing, just nothing, can make me leave Maiduguri.” – Mohammad Usman, 24
“I am a native of this state and I’ve seen all the suffering and pain our people have faced here,” Usman told me. “I hear of an explosion in the next neighbourhood, but it’s normal. Nothing, just nothing, can make me leave Maiduguri.”
A young man in a red Honda Accord honked the horn twice, and motioned Usman to open the gate of the hotel, which he quickly did. He returned to the entrance, his face full of mirth: “This is Maiduguri, the best city in Nigeria,” he said in Hausa, the lingua franca of northern Nigeria. “If you believe what you hear on radio, you won’t visit here.”