Hundreds of Nigerians who fled Boko Haram terrorism to Cameroon have voluntarily returned to the country this week after close to a decade of being displaced. Nigerian authorities say they have prepared to resettle 5,000 Nigerians who have agreed to return within the next two months.
Fifty-two-year-old Hassan Abakar and his wife Kumsu say they are happy to return to their home town of Banki, in Nigeria’s Borno state, after spending seven years at the Minawao refugee camp in northern Cameroon.
Speaking over each other, the Abakars tell officials their youngest daughter is four months old. They say they had all three of their children at the Minawao refugee camp, where they lived after being chased by Boko Haram terrorists from their home in Banki.
The Abakar family, like most of the 342 Nigerians who chose to return home this week, received gifts of mattresses, blankets and buckets from Cameroon’s government.
Cameroon territorial administration minister Paul Atanga Nji says all the homeward bound Nigerians have tested negative for COVID-19 and would be socially distanced when bused over the border.
"All those who are going home have willfully accepted to go back to Borno state because from every indication, things have come back to normalcy. The Cameroonian government did everything possible so that things should come back to normalcy. President Muhammadu Buhari has done everything also in Nigeria so that Boko Haram should be eradicated," Nji said.
Nonetheless, some of the displaced Nigerians are apparently still wary of insecurity back home. Five hundred Nigerians were originally scheduled to return home this week but only 342 followed through.
Officials say only 5,000 of the 103,000 Nigerians displaced into Cameroon in the past decade chose to return to their home country in the coming months – most of them women and children.
Fifty-seven thousand of the Nigerians have been living in the Minawao refugee camp while others are with host communities.
Nji said there will be weekly transports for those choosing to return and they will be protected by Cameroon’s military.
Lawan Abba Wakilbe, a special adviser to the governor of Nigeria’s Borno state, said the former epicenter of Boko Haram has been reconstructed and is ready to receive and integrate the returning Nigerians.
"As a result of the insurgency, a bulk of the town has been destroyed, but for the last one year, [a] serious rehabilitation effort has been ongoing by the Borno state government. So, we are now ready to receive the returnees. The houses are ready to accommodate these returnees because the government took special emphasis to rehabilitate the houses. They (the returnees) are going to live in new neighborhoods," he said.
Wakilbe added that authorities will assist the returning Nigerians with farming and to open shops so they can make a living.
Some of the returnees said they were going home with cattle, goats and sheep that they had been keeping in Cameroon.
The governor of Nigeria's Borno state, Babagan Umara Zulum, welcomed the returnees Monday as they arrived in the town of Banki. He said Nigeria is ready to receive all citizens who fled Boko Haram terrorism.
"We remain eternally grateful to the people of Cameroon for the kind of love extended to the people of Nigeria while they are staying in the Republic of Cameroon. We have started the repatriation process. So far so good. We have received the first batch [of returnees] thanks to the government of Cameroon, thanks to the security personnel of Cameroon for bringing them safely to Nigeria," Zulum said.
The United Nations reports that 11 years of Boko Haram violence has displaced more than 2.7 million people, including some 210,000 Nigerians, into neighboring countries.
And nearly 30,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict.