As refugee camps close, Nigerian Christians fear being left to the mercy of Boko Haram

Displaced Christians in north east Nigeria have expressed fears about being told to go home to vote despite the continuing crisis caused by the operation of Islamist militia Boko Haram.

The insurgency has seen more than 20,000 people killed, more than 4,000 women and girls abducted and more than 2 million people forced to leave their homes.

Women displaced by Boko Haram's attacks waiting for food at St Theresa Catholic Church, Yola.World Watch Monitor

According to World Watch Monitor, thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) are facing pressure to return to their villages from government officials who claim it is now safe to do so.

However, aid workers and Western diplomats have criticisedthe move and say it is geared towards the Nigerian elections, with the aim of having as many as possible return to vote in the parties' primary rounds. These started in August, ahead of the presidential elections in February 2019.

Fr Maurice Kwairanga, in charge of St Theresa's Church IDP Camp, in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, said the policy was political propaganda. He told World Watch Monitor: 'The authorities want to show they are winning the war, though at local levels where people mostly live in remote areas, the situation is not safe enough. In some parts of Michika, Madagali, and Gwoza, there are still pockets of militants moving in small numbers – 15 to 20 insurgents carrying guns – but large enough to ransack a village of 500 inhabitants. Some IDPs in St Theresa come from southern Borno state, notably from Gwoza, which was the "capital" of Boko Haram.'

President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking a second term in office but has faced criticism for failing to end the Boko Haram insurgency or to control attacks by Fulani militants on Christians.

Fr Kwairanga said he had opposed attempts in June to relocate IDPs from St Theresa camp. According to World Watch Monitor he said on two occasions, the governor of Borno state, with the army, brought trucks to relocate them, but they refused to go. 'So we told them to leave these people alone; there's no need to force them if they don't want to go back,' he said.

Some IDPs had returned to their communities on the border with Cameroon, but had been killed. Others had returned to the camp. Other IDPs, forcibly sent home, now live in camps around Gwoza town. They said militants hide in the bushes and on the mountains. They come overnight to attack and kill, and to abduct young women – and there is no army or police presence in such locations.

Some camps have been shut and IDPs who refuse to go back to their villages face food shortages.

'Unfortunately, we don't have enough resources to meet the demands,' said Fr Kwairanga. 'The Catholic Church provides food and relief for over 700 IDPs at St. Theresa, but we also take responsibility for food distribution elsewhere when resources enable us to do so.'

He said current insecurity is also fuelled by attacks carried out by Fulani herdsmen. 'Most of these communities are farming ones. But for security reasons, they are no longer able to farm.'

He said the herdsmen come in great numbers, some from neighboring countries, armed with dangerous weapons, to invade the communities, destroy the crops and kill.

'During the last rainy season (June-October), some returnees managed to farm. But in November, when crops were about to be harvested, herdsmen came with their cattle and destroyed everything. Any attempt by villagers to stop the herdsmen is suicidal as they are heavily armed.'

A donor conference has pledged $2.7 million to the Lake Chad regions affected by Boko Haram, Reuters reported on Monday.

According to UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, millions of people in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon are still in dire need. He said: 'The crisis is not over. There are still 10 million people who need lifesaving assistance. A quarter of the people we are trying to reach are displaced from their homes and the only means of staying alive they have is what is provided by humanitarian organisations.'