Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Devastated northeast looms large as Nigeria’s Buhari takes office

Analysis: Boko Haram has torn the notheast apart, but incoming president will have to tread lightly in rebuilding

LAGOS, Nigeria — Six years of Boko Haram violence has left parts of Nigeria’s northeast a land of broken bridges, burned markets and body-strewn fields.

When he takes office on Friday, Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari will face pressure both from his political backers across Nigeria and from neighboring countries tired of violence spilling over their borders to come up with a plan to undo the damage in the region.

All that must be done while continuing the military campaign against Boko Haram, which is no spent force despite being routed from towns and villages by a military offensive earlier this year.

The administration of the former military ruler turned democrat will be kept busy balancing the demands of the different regions, ethnic groups and power blocs that make up Africa’s most populous country

But perhaps no other region will be more vital to this equilibrium than the southern Niger Delta, a region that remains impoverished and underdeveloped even though it is home to the oil industry, which underpins Nigeria’s standing as Africa’s largest economy.

Oil from the delta brings in 90 percent of the government’s revenue, and Buhari will undoubtedly rely on that money to repair the northeast.

But experts say if he ignores the delta’s needs, it will be at his peril. Local armed groups fought a long insurgency for better development in the region that ended only when the government started paying them off in 2009. But many of these ex-fighters are suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, Buhari’s politics.

Activists and political analysts say if Buhari focuses on repairing the northeast without coming up with a similar plan to help the underdeveloped delta, he risks reigniting conflict in the heart of Nigeria’s economic engine.

“He has to find ways to use resources to address all these issues simultaneously,” said Adigun Agbaje, a political commentator and a professor at the University of Ibadan. “There is a national consensus that the northeast requires a special focus but not to the determent of other issues.”

Before his election victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan — a son of the Niger Delta — former armed group leaders in the region threatened to disrupt Nigeria’s vital oil industry if Buhari won. Their bombings and kidnappings had cut Nigeria’s oil production by about third before the 2009 amnesty.

Their threats didn’t stop voters from sweeping Jonathan out in March’s vote, which was in effect a referendum on the incumbent’s handling of the Boko Haram crisis.

After a 2009 crackdown against the group ended with hundreds dead in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri and its founder killed in police custody, Boko Haram stepped up its campaign for its strict interpretation of Shariah in the northeast. It eventually spread its campaign of massacres, bombings and kidnappings across much of Nigeria’s north, hitting the northeast hardest.

Last year the group started taking over entire towns, routing the demoralized and underequipped military from parts of Borno and neighboring Yobe and Adamawa states, controlling an area about the size of Belgium.

Nigeria’s military reclaimed most of that territory earlier this year, with the help of new weapons, foreign mercenaries and troops from neighboring countries. But in many places, there’s little left to reclaim.

No one has returned to Bama, Borno’s second city, which fell to Boko Haram in September, because there’s nowhere to live. The fighters burned down about 90 percent of the houses, according to a financial services worker who has traveled to Borno and spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation by the group.

Maiduguri is barely accessible. The city’s airport is closed to commercial flights, and cars and buses on the only road considered safe enough to reach it have to run a gauntlet of villages where Boko Haram fighters are known to lurk, the worker said.

The rainy season is coming, and parts of the northeast will soon be cut off. In Adamawa, Boko Haram blew up bridges connecting the towns of Michika and Madagali to the rest of the state. The same is true of bridges on major roads in parts of Borno and Yobe, said Alhaji Muhammed Kanar, the northeast coordinator for the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency.

Farmers spend the rainy season planting seeds, but many fields will lie fallow this year, he said. The region’s agricultural workers undoubtedly make up a chunk of the more than 1 million people who have fled the chaos in the northeast. Others won’t be able to till their fields because they’re littered with corpses or unexploded bombs, Kanar said.

“In Borno state, agriculture will be seriously affected,” he added.

The violence in the northeast has diminished, but it’s not over. Last week Boko Haram hit a village in Adamawa so remote that it took days for news to reach the outside world; there, fighters reportedly hacked 10 people to death with machetes.

As Buhari’s inauguration approaches, northern leaders have been signaling their hope for help from his administration.

The Borno government last week said it would need $20 million to resettle displaced people who fled the state. Earlier this month, senators-elect from the northeast said they would craft a bill to create a commission to coordinate the region’s rebuilding.

Further calls for aid are likely to come. And Buhari is unlikely to ignore where they’re coming from: He’s a northerner, and Borno, Yobe and Adamawa all voted for him in the election.

But whatever he does in the northeast will be followed closely by the politicians and former armed group leaders in the Niger Delta.

Discontent in that region led to the armed uprising there that ended in 2009. But the pre-election vows by some former militants that they would return to the creeks and start attacking oil installations once again should Buhari win have become muted since his victory.

Anyakwee Nsirimovu, the executive director of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the oil production hub Port Harcourt said many former armed fighters, particularly lower-ranking ones, don’t feel they benefited much from the amnesty or Jonathan administration in general.

“A lot of people have stolen under this government,” he said. “I hope that Buhari will put his foot down.”

People in the south recognize the need for rebuilding in the northeast, said Annkio Briggs, a rights activist in the Niger Delta. But she likened it to the catastrophic spills over the years that have choked the Delta’s creeks with oil. In a part of the region known as Ogoniland, for example, the United Nations Environmental Program estimates it will take up to 30 years to clean up all the oil spilled there. That, too, is going to require money to fix.

“If you ignore already existing problems and circumstances and you get up and you start taking money out of the Niger Delta to go rebuild the northeast, I do not believe there is anybody in the Niger Delta that will not feel that is unacceptable, that is unfair,” Briggs said. “I do not envy Buhari. He has his work cut out for him.”

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