Guzamala is certainly not the only local government area in Borno state that is completely off-limit for both the military and the civilian population. Borno state is dotted with other smaller locations where insurgents are in full control.
These locations, according to HumAngle investigations, are not necessarily remote border regions; they are areas right within the state and even surrounded by other ‘liberated’ communities where civil authorities are in place.
It is common knowledge that there are major routes in Borno state today that are not safe for commuting, not because the military declared them closed, but because they are under the control of insurgents.
There are still known communities where insurgents live freely, operating unchallenged and cohabiting with locals who have sworn to remain loyal to their imposed authorities.
These ungoverned highways and isolated communities are under Nigerian sovereignty but seem to have been relinquished to the outlaws.
It has been established that the terrorists, either JAS or ISWAP faction of Boko Haram, usually perfect their plans and take off for attacks from these ungoverned spaces. And when “repelled” by government troops, or succeeding in their mission, they return to those locations.
The Borno state government targets the end of May 2021 as the deadline for the return of IDPs to their ancestral communities. It is however a checkable fact that the returnee IDPs can only go as far as the local government headquarters. Anything beyond the local government headquarters is off-limits. Insurgents are still believed to be occupying these hundreds of villages and hamlets.
On these routes and around the no-go area communities, the insurgents would mount roadblocks and conduct stop and search operations, the way Nigeria police and military would do.
The road leading to Monguno from Maiduguri is dotted with checkpoints manned by ISWAP fighters. Their routine is to check vehicles for any government officials, INGO workers or security personnel.
The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, had in June 2020 while condemning an attack by non-state actors in Gubio that led to the death of over 80 civilians, expressed concern over “the widespread practice by non-state armed groups of setting up illegal checkpoints along main supply routes, which heighten risks for civilians to be abducted, killed or injured.”
He said that the establishment of illegal checkpoints has directly impacted the humanitarian community, adding that a camp manager from the Borno State Emergency Management Agency working in the northern Borno town of Monguno was abducted at one of those checkpoints.
A local commercial driver who passes the Maiduguri-Monguno highway informed HumAngle that being accosted at the Boko Haram illegal checkpoints has become customary.
“Just as one is certain that the sun would rise in the morning and set at dusk, so do we expect to be accosted by Boko Haram gunmen at their check when travelling between Maiduguri,” said a local driver whose identity is being concealed for his safety.
“The checkpoints are permanently located at strategic points of the road, and when they stop you they look out for any NGO worker or security personnel. If they found any, they’d usually take the person away and ask the driver and other passengers to continue their journey. And if they found none of them, they would ask for money from the driver just like the way police and soldiers do.”
HumAngle learnt that the insurgents usually operate “calmly” as though they fear no confrontation from the government troops.
The road to Biu
The 175 kilometres highway that connects Maiduguri with Damboa and Biu towns in southern Borno was closed by the military some years ago due to insecurity. The highway traverses through locations that share borders with the Sambisa forest.
Until recently, it was believed that Boko Haram had carried out more attacks on communities and travellers in that route than any other place else in Borno state.
In 2016 and 2017, the military opened the highway for commuting after claiming to have cleared the area of all insurgent activities. But travellers had to travel in long convoys escorted by the military.
On both sides, the military escorts take off in the morning around 9 a.m. WAT to meet up at Damboa where the soldiers from Maiduguri and Biu would swap the escort service for the convoys. The escort team from Maiduguri would take over the convoy of travellers from Biu and return with them, while the team from Biu would do the same.
Despite these military escorts, travellers were still ambushed and killed alongside the soldiers escorting them. In 2018, travelling to Biu from Maiduguri became a nightmare as insurgents took over the highway from Damboa to Biu. The road later became only safe for travellers going or coming from Damboa with a military escort.
Anything concerning movement beyond Damboa is considered a suicide mission because the Boko Haram insurgents have completely taken over the 100-kilometre distance between Dambo, Sabon-gari, Wajiroko up to Mandaragirau towns that lead to Biu.
For about three years or more now, the terrorists and insurgents have mounted roadblocks and checkpoints where they hunt for security personnel.
“If you are not afraid as a civilian, you could travel from Damboa to Biu, but it is 100 per cent certain that you would be stopped in at least two checkpoints manned by armed Boko Haram fighters,” said another commercial driver.
The driver said the insurgents have assured the civilian travellers that no harm would come to them as long as they don’t have NGO or security personnel in their vehicle.
“They are always there manning the checkpoints at Wajiroko village,” he said.
“They are well armed but pretend to be friendly to us. Sometimes the drivers coming from Damboa would drop the passengers at Sabon Gari or Wajiroko who would walk past the checkpoint under the watch of the insurgents to take another vehicle on the other side to Biu.”
The driver said the Boko Haram fighters have been there and no one has challenged them. “The Nigeria military has a base in Damboa and Biu. But we all wonder why no one is doing anything about the growing presence of Boko Haram fighters in between.”
HumAngle gathered that travellers from Maiduguri to Biu—a trip of 175 kilometres—have to make a long detour of about 700 kilometres through Yobe, part of Bauchi, then link Gombe state, before reaching Biu. While those who could stand the risk would cut the detour by taking the Maiduguri-Damaturu, then Damaturu-Gujba road before getting to Biu through Buratai village—a trip of 300 kilometres.
Testimony of a lucky driver
A local driver, Maidugu Mustapha, who frequents the Maiduguri-Monguno route, supplying logistics for NGOs, told HumAngle how he was abducted and held for 14 days by the armed non-state actors.
Mustapha, who is in his mid-30s, said he was transporting diesel for an international NGO in Monguno when he ran into a checkpoint mounted by some uniformed Boko Haram members, whom he earlier thought were soldiers.
“I got a military clearance to transport the diesel to Monguno for an NGO. On the way, I had to conceal the tanks of fuel by carrying some local traders going to Monguno.”
“Halfway into our journey, we sighted some uniformed men mounting a checkpoint, we quickly realised that they were not soldiers but Boko Haram. So we had to make a hasty U-turn and headed back. We later used a sneak route that could take us beyond the checkpoint. As we sneaked back to the highway, we never knew there was another checkpoint mounted by yet another group of Boko Haram. It was too late for me to run. The passengers in my truck were asked to go down.”
“After searching and stealing all our possessions, they asked the other vehicles to continue their trip, while I was asked to remain and drive the truck and diesel with them into the bush.”
“They hauled everything they stole from us into my truck and we drove far into the bush. On the way, my truck broke down. And that was how they made a few phone calls and a bigger truck came to us after some few hours. They evacuated the stolen items and the diesel from my truck into theirs and the driver drove off to an unknown destination.”
“For no clear reasons we remained at that location for over ten days, and in-between, some of them would go to the highway to carry out attacks and return to where we were camping. The armed insurgents were always worried about not being able to gather more food and related things to the Amir.
“On the 14th day, the terrorists, having been unable to get food the previous days, had to let me go. But my vehicle had broken down and I needed an oil filter to be able to start the vehicle. They asked me to wait if I could, that they would bring me a spare oil filter. I had to wait for them until about four hours later when one of them returned on a bike and handed me a new oil filter. That was how I fixed my vehicle and returned him.”
Mustafa said as he drove to Maiduguri, he counted four other checkpoints manned by them.
The driver worried why Boko Haram, a group outlawed and being hunted by federal troops, enjoys such freedom on a highway that links a state capital and one of the most fortified local government headquarters in the state.
“Between Monguno and Maiduguri it is a trip of about 133 kilometres and there are a couple of military checkpoints in between. But we still get harassed by Boko Haram at illegal checkpoints. This is unthinkable,” he said.