Maiduguri, Nigeria, capital of the northern state of Borno, has become almost synonymous with Boko Haram. But one photojournalist is trying to change that – by taking pictures that focus on life outside the Islamist militant group’s violent acts.
Type “Maiduguri” into a search engine, and a quick scan of the results will show the words most often associated with it: “explosion”, suicide attack” and, of course, “Boko Haram”. It is a city now known mainly for its violence. But photojournalist and humanitarian aid worker Fati Abubakar has sought to change that by capturing images of everyday life there.
Laughing schoolchildren, an idle shopkeeper, a rapt classroom… Each photo transcends the violence endured by Maiduguri’s residents on an almost daily basis. Instead of focusing on the attacks, Abubakar has chosen to document development projects, international and local health initiatives, the know-how of local artisans or the hustle and bustle of the city’s streets.
Abubakar, 30, first launched the project in September 2015, posting photos of life in Maiduguri on Facebook and Instagram under the username @bitsofborno, along with descriptive captions and quotes.
“People think that there’s only death, but I want to give a different view of the city than one limited to death tolls and bombings,” Abubakar told FRANCE 24. “I look for photos that depict the strength of the people. I don’t want to focus only on the bad, I want to focus on every angle, happiness, joy, moving on. Everything that shows people are moving forward with their lives; thriving amidst the adversity.”
Looking at Abubakar’s photos, it’s almost possible to forget that Maiduguri, which lies on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, is a Boko Haram stronghold. But those born and raised in the city remember a gilded age before the Islamist militant group’s arrival.
“Life before Boko Haram was incredible. We had friends, we went to school, we had parties. We had very colourful weddings. [We were] very much a connected community,” Abubakar recalled. “[When Boko Haram arrived], it became very frightening, tense and unpredictable. [There was lots] of paranoia.”
Boko Haram was established in 2002 by Sunni preacher Mohammed Yusuf, who ordered the group’s first assaults against the police in 2003. Since then, Boko Haram has continued to terrorise the country. The situation worsened in 2010 under Abubakar Shekau, who took over the group’s leadership a year after Yusuf was publically executed by Nigerian police in the streets of Maiduguri.
In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group, carrying out further kidnappings, assaults and suicide attacks. Overall, the group’s insurrection has claimed more than 21,000 lives in Nigeria since 2009, according to the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project. At least 2,000 people are considered missing.
In some ways, Abubakar’s photos are an act of resistance.
“Too many people lost their families. It was very tragic. But we have become almost desensitised to these happenings now. We have become more resilient and are very keen to move on,” she said. “I want to show the world that we are moving on from tragedy. That it is not easy and that we are still struggling but are keen to move on, heal and rebuild.”
While Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in the northern village of Chibok in 2014 to denounce their schooling, Abubakar has boldly stated her support of girls’ education by posting photos of women attending a class in a refugee camp near Bama, just 60 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri.
Yet despite her desire to focus on more positive stories, Abubakar is unafraid of exploring the hardships of living in Maiduguri, taking pictures and collecting quotes that illustrate the economic or governmental challenges residents face. One such photo shows a young girl standing against a wall, the caption explaining that she spends time in a “brothel” because the hotel where it operates is one of the only places her father could find a job.
Abubakar’s work has not only allowed her to show a different side of Maiduguri, but it has also enabled her to raise money for local development projects.
“I believe Boko Haram is truly not as strong as it used to be. It is losing influence. The fight against [their] insurgency is in full force and we hope soon it will be totally eradicated,” she said.