Bala Geidam, 41, is one of the most popular realtors in Borno State, north-east Nigeria, the hotbed of a seven-year insurgency crisis masterminded by Boko Haram. Since 2009, he has watched Maiduguri, the city where he was born and bred, serve as the cradle for a wave of killings by Boko Haram and then descend into chaos. Many of his neighbours, friends, clients and fellow residents fled for their lives. Bombs went off regularly, and houses and business were torched in what eventually led to more than 20 000 deaths and an estimated 2,2 million people becoming displaced.
“At the peak of the insurgency crisis in 2013 and 2014, we had so much business coming in that we had no time to eat,” Geidam tells This Is Africa in his poorly lit office on the city’s popular Damboa Road.
“People were selling their houses left, right and centre. Some would come and drop their keys here in this office,” he says, tapping his table. “We would sell from here and transfer the money to them. I even sold a house on Pompomari Road worth N15m for just N3.5m because the owner was desperate.”
Before a recent upsurge in suicide bombings by Boko Haram, the group’s strength had been severely depleted. Many of the towns and cities across the region had been recaptured by the Nigerian military, acting in tandem with the local vigilante group, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).
At the peak of the insurgency crisis we had so much business coming in that we had no time to eat
The Real Resurgence
But what no one had bargained on is the resurgence of the real estate sector in Maiduguri, the epicentre of the crisis and home for many years to many of the militant sect’s members. This includes Mohammed Yusuf, the radical cleric who founded it and died in police custody in 2009.
Many public utility buildings – post offices, police stations, council halls and more – across the state were damaged or completely razed by Boko Haram in the wake of their killing spree. Some of these buildings are already under construction. A few months ago, Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno State, temporarily relocated his office to Bama, one of the towns where the bedlam was overwhelming, to oversee the ongoing construction and to convince residents of the town to return to their homes.
“No fewer than 10 000 houses were destroyed, in addition to over 86 public buildings, comprising schools and hospitals, among others”, Dr Babagana Umara Zulum, the state commissioner for the newly created Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, told the News Agency of Nigeria in September.
Back in Maiduguri, returnees are finding it hard to get their property back. Abba Musa, a former businessman sold his two-bedroom bungalow and escaped the city in 2014, is one of them. With his wife and two children, he fled to Abuja, 12 hours away by road.
“I sold my house because my wife was pressuring me to leave. We thought Boko Haram would overrun this city and kill everyone, so we took only our clothes and escaped to Abuja. We stayed with a distant relative.” The buyer of his house has refused to accept even double the price, so Musa and his family have been squatting temporarily with another relative. “Many of those who were brave enough to stay behind and buy up properties are now enjoying their gains.”
Samaila Magaji bought a few of these properties from the traders, many of them Igbos, whose shops at Budum market were burnt. They fled back home, to the South of the country. He is now reselling these houses to the few who are trudging back to pick up the pieces of their lives. “We bought some of these houses for as low as one-tenth of the original market value and now we are reselling them at three to five times that amount,” he says.
Those in Baga Road, Pompomari and State Low Cost Housing Estate, areas of the city that were previously under siege in 2014, are trooping back gradually, says Geidam. “Some of them come here and ask for their keys, leave their new houses here in the centre of town with up to six months’ rent remaining and say, ‘Help me find someone to rent it’.”
We bought some of these houses for as low as one-tenth of the original market value
Maiduguri’s dusty landscape is dotted with various buildings that are under construction. These buildings are being erected by investors and property developers, including those who stayed behind. Hotels, high-end supermarkets, residential buildings and government-funded camping settlements are some of the structures that are going up.
Because of the humanitarian situation, Maiduguri is also crawling with journalists and NGOs who need accommodation. The realtors are only too happy to help. “They have come to help my people and I make things easier for them,” Geidam grins. “I make money, they get room and everybody is happy.”
“Business is back,” Magaji concurs. “Allah be praised.”