Numbers matter. The governor of Borno state in northeast Nigeria, Keshim Shettima, estimates that 100,000 residents of his state alone have been killed during the insurgency launched by Boko Haram in its effort to create an Islamic caliphate within the borders of Nigeria and the region surrounding the Lake Chad basin. The official number of dead provided by the Nigerian federal government has been 15,000-20,000. This is a figure that inexplicably stood unchanged over the last several years. I applaud the governor’s courage in going public with a more accurate assessment of the damage caused by the insurgency. His is a figure based on credible reports from residents living within the 27 affected Local Government Areas (LGA) of his state.
Of the thousands upon thousands that have been killed, many have been federal, state, and local government employees. In a war waged by separatists in opposition to the Nigerian state and its relationship to the West, these workers have been targeted and executed at a rate that is beyond alarming. The Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Borno State Wing has lost over 500 members. The Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), Borno State counts losses in the hundreds. The Borno state branch of the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU), largely based in only two of the state’s LGAs, counts over 70 killed by gunshots and bomb blasts alone.
Despite these attacks, the trade union movement stands united. The NUT converted its state headquarters into a housing facility providing shelter and aid to close to 200 members and their families displaced during the height of the crisis. The public sector unions in Borno dug deep into their coffers to provide workers with funds for emergency medical services, rehabilitation of the severely injured, and trauma counseling. For these trade unions, ensuring the survival of their membership has been a top priority.
The Nigerian government should also be commended for launching an offensive against Boko Haram that has by most accounts resulted in the state becoming safer. With that being said, the tactics of that campaign must be studied closely. Critics argue that the often heavy-handed methods employed by the Nigerian government not only in response to insurgency but to almost any grievance from its citizenry is as much a threat to its democracy as any terror campaign by non-state actors.
What must be pursued just as vigorously as battlefield victories by the Nigerian federal government is compensation to the victims of the crisis whose only transgression in the eyes of the insurgents was being a state employee. In recent years hundreds and more likely thousands of public employees in Borno have been killed for simply doing their job. Teaching young people. Providing medical services. Ensuring that the state itself can function. Performing the core duties in their job descriptions have led to workers leaving home for their jobs never to return or to return forever changed by injury.
In my discussions with workers in Borno since 2015 there have been a few consistent takeaways. Very few have been afraid to voice their disgust at the excesses of an apocalyptic death cult such as Boko Haram. They’ve stood up to the worst on offer by them and survived. However, many more are terrified to question or criticize their own government for an absence of an appropriate response to their plight.
I’ve met with public sector workers still suffering from life changing injuries who have never been contacted by any official from any level of government in an effort to assist them in adjusting to life as a person with disabilities. In a country notorious for a lack of basic service delivery that in and of itself is no surprise. What is alarming is the utter fear of criticizing the government even on this, a subject which is far from controversial.
Government employees are afforded a death benefit to be delivered to their surviving family members. Government employees are provided disability benefits. If injured or worse in the carrying out of official government duties, there is an expectation of aid. There is something deeply wrong at the foundation of the Nigerian state when demanding what is yours from the government generates more fear of the response, than what would seem a far more dangerous act--facing the deadliest terrorist organization in the world.
As problematic as it may be to attempt to quantify suffering, Borno and the other regions affected by the insurgency still face what is a humanitarian crisis greater than almost any other globally. But as rebuilding affected regions begins to enter the national policy conversation, the state must not forget those that represent it at the most important level. Those that directly and on a daily basis serve its citizens. How can the region recover if the workers tasked with implementing that campaign remain broken and afraid to voice their concerns?
Despite what may seem accurate in the popular imagination, Nigeria is far from a poor country. A great debt is owed to those who sacrificed everything for this nation. It can afford to pay. For those damaged but still here, ensuring that they can freely and without fear be full participants in a project of renewal in Borno and the greater region is important. Their contribution to that necessary conversation will likely reveal hard truths.
Again, I respect what Governor Shettima has stated in the past month. It is a step in the right direction. My sincere hope is that his words lead to the widening of democratic space in northeast Nigeria allowing for other public servants in different, less visible and celebrated positions to also be heard.
Christopher Keith Johnson works for an international NGO and is based in Abuja, Nigeria. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own and in no way should be taken to reflect the official policy or positions of his employer.