Only last week two suicide bombers killed 30 people in northeastern Nigeria, but the governor of Borno state, the country’s jihadist heartland, told AFP in an interview that Boko Haram has been defeated.
Kashim Shettima said the war against the Islamist militants was “over” and predicted that hundreds of thousands of displaced people would have returned to their homes by May.
Though the UN last month said Boko Haram was blocking aid supplies from reaching refugees, leaving thousands at risk of starvation, Shettima said the jihadists no longer posed a threat.
The Islamic State group-linked militants came close to overrunning much of northeastern Nigeria, he said, during the now seven-year-old insurrection.
“Two years ago, Maiduguri was on the edge of falling to the Boko Haram,” he said referring to the state capital.
“Boko Haram was controlling 20 out of 27 local government areas in Borno. You couldn’t dare to go 15 kilometres (nine miles) out of Maiduguri (and) you are in Boko Haram territory.
“But now Boko Haram have been defeated, they are being chased out of all our communities, they do not have the capacity to hold on to any territory in Nigeria any longer.”
– ‘The war is over’ –
The governor acknowledged however that Boko Haram still posed a threat to life.
“Yes, they are launching suicide bombings and so on once in a while. But to me, even suicide bombing is a sign of weakness, not of strength,” he said.
“I believe the war is over.”
The United Nations has warned of an impending humanitarian disaster and charity Save the Children says 4.7 million people in the northeast need food assistance.
It warns that 400,000 children are in danger of starving.
But Shettima said such figures were gross exaggerations.
“Within the city of Maiduguri definitely, resources are overstretched, especially with regards to water and sanitation, with regards to hospital facilities, with regards to even food security issues,” he said.
“We have huge humanitarian challenges but it’s also very difficult for you to convince me… that 100,000 people are dying,” he said.
And he remained confident that the camps of displaced people — some 2.6 million have fled their homes — will soon be a thing of the past.
“My objective is to close down all the camps by May 2017,” he said.
“Where people have shown the willingness to go back, we’ll support them to go back and rebuild their lives.”
– ‘Frankenstein Monsters’ –
With no more Boko Haram, Shettima believes the impoverished northeast can prosper, despite its troubles.
“The crisis has adversely affected the fortunes of our people. The unemployment situation is quite high… it can be as high as 35 percent or more.
“We have a lot of unskilled youth who need to be trained in some skills: plumbing, carpentry, bricklaying.
“This is why our reconstruction and rehabilitation programme is quite active and we are employing local resources, local hands to reconstruct villages and communities destroyed by Boko Haram.
“We want to invest massively, aggressively, into agriculture.”
But the war has cost the lives of 20,000 people, leaving many children in the northeast without parents and Shettima acknowledged that could pose problems further down the line.
“We have about 49,000 orphans. If we fail to take care of these orphans, 15 years down the line… they will be the Frankenstein Monsters that will consume all of us.”