Many call them the Boko Haram widows. It is a name that many of them resent because it constantly reminds them of a group they wish they had never known; a group whose acts of terror snatched their sweethearts away and left them and their kids without a breadwinner and forcing them to return to a part of the country that though their ancestral home, their kids knew little about.
The last time Ikenna visited Adazi-Nnukwu, the community in Anambra state, southeast Nigeria where his late father was born, was when he was three. He’s 12 now and returned with his mother and younger sister to the community in January 2012 days after his father was murdered alongside eleven other Adazi-Nnukwu men during a meeting in Mubi, Adamawa state in Nigeria’s northeast. They were in a meeting when the Boko Haram fighters invaded the venue and slaughtered all of them.
“To imagine that just one community would lose over 10 people in one day is unimaginable. Look at Ezenwekwe. His father died after he was killed at Mubi and his young wife put to bed just after he was killed. And just towards the end of the same year, his elder brother died. He just completed his house in the village but never got to live there. To imagine that under six months, the family lost three people is incredible,” said a 45-year-old man also an Adazi-Nnukwu indigene.
A 40-year-old widow who simply gave her name as Mrs. Asor, told of how her husband Simeon Asor and other Adazi-Nnukwu men were killed: “My husband was shot and killed at a bar on the 5th of January, 2012 along with one other person. The incident was initially hidden from me that day but I was eventually told. The next morning, members of my town union came to commiserate with me over the loss of my husband and to make plans on how to take the remains to the village for proper burial in line with tradition.
The next day Adazi-Nnukwu indigenes living in Mubi converged in our house to plan how my husband would be buried. There were still in that meeting when the Boko Haram members invaded the scene and started shooting and before you know it 11 other people were killed.”
Asor still lives the nightmare two years after the incident. Her husband and at least 50 others were killed in January 2012 same month that Boko Haram issue ultimatum to southerners and Christians living in northern Nigeria to vacate the region. One of those killed at Asor’s residence was the Mubi branch manager of Diamond Bank, another indigene of Adazi-Nnukwu. His driver who waited in the car while the meeting held was also killed.
Life for Asor and other Boko Haram widows in the community has never been the same. Many of them are still trying to make meaning out of their predicament two years after. The state government made cash donations to them in addition to a promise of scholarship for their children but the donations only provided temporary financial relief to the women. “The money is most appreciated but it remains a relief that can do little. My husband is more than cash, he is everything to me and my kids,” said one of the widows.
Sympathy for them in Adazi-Nnukwu is palpable but Mrs. Asor dislikes the label ‘widow’ because of how it is perceived – an old, helpless woman who is perpetually in grieving and should be look upon with pity and helplessness. She also finds it self-demeaning when old friends do not consider widows worthy of continued interaction. She had struggled to take care of her children since 2012 when her husband was killed.
In Adazi-Nnukwu, like most parts of southeast Nigeria, widowhood has a brutal and often irrevocable impact on the woman and her children. Poverty may force widows to withdraw children from school, exposing them to exploitation in child labor, prostitution, early forced child marriage and trafficking.
Often illiterate, ill-equipped for gainful employment, without access to land for food security or adequate shelter, many widows in the region suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate health care or other forms of support except for those of them who are literate and well equipped for gainful employment.
The common surviving strategies of widows in the region where there is no social security are quite few. Some enter into domestic service and sex work. Withdrawing children from school, sending them to work as domestic servants or sacrificing them to other areas of exploitative child labor, giving away female children to early marriages or abandoning them to the streets, are common survival strategies which observers say may continue to be the way out.
“The Anambra state governor has done a good job in rendering financial assistance to the Adazi-Nnukwu widows but there are many other Boko Haram widows across the country that have no form of help of any kind. The best way to stop the plights of people like Asor is to end the Boko Haram killing and that’s the government’s job to do,” says John Odiete, Lagos-based rights campaigner.
Last month some police officers’ wives whose husbands were killed in the war on Boko Haram, appealed to the federal government to provide them with jobs. Some of the women say their families have been left with no source of income since their husbands died in the line of duty.
Mrs. Margaret Ishaya, the wife of one of the deceased officers said the widows were ready to accept job as cleaners. She said that it would go a long way to enable them fend for their families and appealed to the police authorities to consider members of their families during recruitment.
Another widow, whose husband – Sunday Badeh – died while defusing a bomb, appealed to the police authorities to fast track the payment of benefits and allowances of accruing to them on account of their husbands’ death to them. “We need the benefits, we also need jobs” said widow of Sgt. Yakubu Musa who was killed by Boko Haram fighters on 18 April, 2012.
Nigerians Unite Against Boko Haram (NUABH), a group campaigning for end to the Boko Haram attacks estimates that at least 1,600 women have lost their husbands to the activities of the terrorist group since 2009. “Many of the killings go unreported,” Evelyn Tagbo, a member of the group, said. “When not direct victims, women and children are the ones left to bear the brunt of the killings by this terrorist group.”
Boko Haram leaders say they kill security agents in retaliation for killings by the police of Mohammed Yusuf and Boko Haram members, as well as for other alleged police abuses, including “arbitrary arrest” and “torture,” and the “persecution” of its members.
International Christian Concern, publishers of persecution.org reports that 70 percent of all Christians killed for their faith in 2012 were killed in Nigeria by Boko Haram and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. “Nearly one thousand Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2012,” says the group.
“With 3,000 casualties affecting citizens from a dozen countries in three years, Boko Haram has earned the dubious distinction as one of the top five lethal terrorist organisations in the world,” states Emmanuel Ogebe, Washington D.C-based Nigerian attorney and human rights campaigner. “25 churches were suicide bombed in Nigeria in 2012 alone. We’ve not seen anything like this in the last 40 years,” says Ogebe.
A United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) report released last month indicate that at least 6000 people have fled northern Nigerian states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno to neighbouring Cameroon and Niger Republic since September last year. Of this number UNCHR says 4,000 fled to Cameroun in January alone.
With this new influx, he added, there are now 12,428 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, quoting statistics from the local Cameroonian authorities. In Niger alone, the report added, 1,500 new refugees who fled after the January 16 massacre in the village of Gashagar, Borno State.
Last Saturday the terrorists invaded a village in Borno and killed at least 120 people. The event happened just a month after a similar attack in another state killed over 100 and burnt down about 300 houses. “We are appalled by the extreme and indiscriminate violence which Nigeria has being witnessing in recent times, including the attacks on two villages on 11 February, which left 39 people dead, 65 injured and reportedly 2,000 homes destroyed,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In a report it released November last year, Human Rights Watch warned that Boko Haram has abducted scores of women and girls, used children as young as 12 in hostilities. “For a group that claims to be religious, Boko Haram’s tactics are the most profane acts we can imagine,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The killing and mutilation of ordinary Nigerians, the abduction and rape of women and girls, and the use of children for fighting are horrifying human rights violations.”
Joy Gabriel is a Kaduna-based journalist