Harrowing tale of survival reflects how climate change fuelled Boko Haram terror

Victoria Filibus and her nine children have suffered the terrorism of Boko Haram and seen their lives upended as displaced persons living in a camp.

It may not be immediately obvious, but they are, a very real way, victims of climate change.

Filibus and her children live in a displaced persons’ camp near Maduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeast Nigeria. They’ve been there six years. Filibus vividly recalls how she and her family ended up virtual refugees, dependent on the mercy of international aid organizations, including the Canadian arm of Caritas International.

When Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group, arrived in her village of Gowza in June of 2014, villagers were unsure who these armed men were. Boko Haram and the army all looked the same to them.

“They gathered us, as if they were going to say something good,” Filibus said in an interview at Development and Peace’s Toronto offices. “They started shooting people. Everybody was running. Some fled to Cameroon, because we are near the border. Some fled to the mountain. Some climbed trees. Myself, I climbed the mountain.”

Boko Haram went wild in the town.

“The ones on motorcycle — one holding the gun and the other person is driving — then they start shooting people,” Filibus said. “They would just park the car on your door and they would pack everything from your house. After they have packed everything, those with petrol and matches they would just enter your house and put fire to it.”

After two days of wandering on the mountain, Filibus and her children ended up back in Gowza.

“There were dead bodies everywhere,” she said. “We, the women there, said, ‘What can we do now?’ We found a wheelbarrow and gathered all these men who were killed and we dug a hole and buried them. We, the women, we buried the dead.”

People walk amid rubble after a January 2017 bombing at a camp for displaced people in Rann, Nigeria. A Nigerian fighter jet searching for Boko Haram members accidentally bombed the camp for displaced people who had fled the militants, killing dozens of camp residents and at least six humanitarian workers, and wounding numerous others. Catholic News Service file photo

There was no way Filibus was staying with her daughters in Boko Haram-controlled territory. She headed for Maiduguri, capital of Borno. Parts of Boko Haram would align themselves with the Islamic State and all the Boko Haram factions together would come to control 50,000 square kilometres.

“I lost my husband, my mother, my grandmother. They burned my house. I lost everything,” said Filibus. “But thank God I and my children are alive. We have been staying in the camp until now, six years.”

If that doesn’t sound like climate change, there’s some Nigerian history few people have been paying attention to. A new report from Development and Peace-Caritas Canada — jointly published with their Nigerian partner on the ground, Social Action — lays out how unprecedented drought and disastrous policies fuelled the creation of Africa’s most violent, extreme and destructive terrorist organization. It’s called Boiling Over: Global Warming, Hunger and Violence in the Lake Chad Basin.

“We need to look beyond the Islamist rhetoric. That is how it is presented, but there is a background to it,” said Social Action co-founder Isaac Asume Osuoka. “There are underlying conditions that created this crisis. One of them is climate change, which is real.”

A city boy from southern Nigeria who went on to complete a PhD at Toronto’s York University, Osuoka spent most of his life blithely assuming Lake Chad, Africa’s biggest lake, was sitting right where it had always been, where the borders of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon meet.

“School children in Nigeria were shown pictures of a map of Nigeria that still shows a prominent Lake Chad. So we didn’t realize that by the ’90s the lake was gone,” he said.

Twenty years prior to that, the region around the giant lake was suffering severe drought as the Sahara pushed south into the Sahel region. It was a permanent change in response to the massive amounts of carbon and other aerosols in the atmosphere above Europe. The new atmosphere above Europe pushed the prevailing, dry winds of the Sahara south.

In response to the drought, international agencies urged Nigeria to dam its rivers and create irrigation infrastructure to support agriculture. Nigerian officials liked this plan, in part because it involved expropriation of land which could then be redistributed to various out-of-work generals with close ties to the government.

Between the dams and the generals, the flow of water into Lake Chad dried up and hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers and goat herders were forced into the slums of various towns, where they languished — unemployed and unemployable in the city.

Then there arose in the late 1970s a Muslim preacher, Maitatsine or “the one who damns.” He spoke to the frustration and anger of slum dwellers who could no longer farm and could no longer fish in Lake Chad.

An uprising of Maitatsine’s followers was crushed by Nigeria’s army in 1980. The frustration only grew among people with no education, cut off from their villages and their farms. All of that had been lost when climate change took away Lake Chad and corruption took away their ancestral homes. In the slums, conditions were perfect for Boko Haram to use terror to push Islamic fundamentalism.

“The question now is, ‘What next?’ ” said Osuoka. “Our own contribution to that debate, that discussion is that we have to look into climate change adaptation. Because climate change is real. The impact is real. I went to Maiduguri to follow up with this situation and I didn’t realize the enormity of the ecological crisis in the Sahel. I didn’t realize.”

The problem is too vast for a small agency such as Development and Peace to solve. There are two million Boko Haram-climate change refugees in northern Nigeria. But Filibus and her children, now between the ages of seven and 25, are still waiting for somebody to do something.

“If I had the money, I would buy a field. I would buy a small portion and build a house and stay with my children. And I will move out of the camp.”