Boko Haram says it is building an Islamic state that will revive the glory days of northern Nigeria’s medieval Muslim empires, but for those in its territory life is a litany of killings, kidnappings, hunger and economic collapse.
The Islamist group’s five-year-old campaign has become one of the deadliest in the world, with around 10 000 people killed last year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Hundreds, mostly women and children, have been kidnapped.
It remains the biggest threat to the stability of Africa’s biggest economy ahead of an election on February 14 in which President Goodluck Jonathan will seek re-election.
But while it has matched Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in its brutality – it beheads its enemies on camera – it has seriously lagged in the more mundane business of state building.
“The Islamic state is a figment of their imagination. They are just going into your house and saying they have taken over,” said Phineas Elisha, government spokesman for Adamawa state, one of three states under emergency rule to fight the insurgency.
Unlike its Middle East counterparts wooing locals with a semblance of administration, villagers trapped by Boko Haram face food shortages, slavery, killing and a lock down on economic activity, those who escaped say.
“(They) have no form of government,” Elisha, who saw the devastation caused by Boko Haram after government forces recaptured the town of Mubi in November.
Boko Haram, which never talks to media except to deliver jihadist videos to local journalists, could not be reached for comment.
Boko Haram’s leaders talk about reviving one of the West African Islamic empires that for centuries prospered off the Saharan trade in slaves, ivory and gold, but they demonstrate little evidence of state building.
In August a man saying he was Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau – the military says it killed Shekau – issued a video declaring a “Muslim territory” in Gwoza, by the Cameroon border.
There were echoes of Islamic State’s proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria two months earlier. Boko Haram controls an area just over 30 000 square km of territory, about the size of Belgium, according to a Reuters calculation based on security sources and government data.
But while in Syria, after initially brutal takeovers, Islamic State has tried to win over communities, those who escaped Boko Haram say the rebels do little for them beyond forcing them to adopt their brand of Islam on pain of death.
“They provide raw rice to cook, the rice that they stole from the shops. They provide a kettle and … scarves to cover up the women,” said Maryam Peter from Pambla village.
“People are going hungry. They are only feeding on corn and squash. No meat, nothing like that. The insurgents are not providing anything else,” she added.
Maryam said most daily interactions with the militants involved them questioning villagers on their movements and forbidding them from trying to escape – a rule she managed to flout when she fled a week ago.
A government-run camp in a former school is now her home, along with 1 000 others, where mothers cook on outdoor fires while children run around. Some 1.5 million people have been rendered homeless by the war, Oxfam says.
And those the militants kill, they often fail to bury. The first thing the Nigerian Red Cross has to do when a town falls back into government hands is clear the corpses, Aliyu Maikano, a Red Cross official, told Reuters.
After the army recaptured Mubi in November, Maikano had to cover his nose to avoid the stench of rotting corpses.
Those still alive “were starved for food, water, almost everything there. There’s no drinking water because (in) most of the wells there you’ll find dead bodies,” Maikano said.
Many residents looked tattered and malnourished, and some were unable to speak.
“They are heartless. ISIS (Islamic State) is a kind of organised group, it’s a business. These guys are not.”
A former resident of Mubi said the rebels had renamed the town “Madinatul Islam” or “City of Islam”.
But when government spokesman Phineas Elisha walked into the Emir’s palace after its recapture, everything had been looted, even the windows and doors.
“Mubi was a ghost town … Virtually all the shops were looted.” he said. It took him hours to find a bottle of water.
Sometimes the rebels simply loot the unprotected villages and hide out in bush camps, security sources say. Murna Philip, who escaped the occupied town of Michika five months ago, said a few dozen fighters had occupied an abattoir, a school and a lodge, but little else.
To survive under their watch you have to pretend to support them, said Andrew Miyanda, who escaped the rebels last week, walking for days to the Benue river.
“They would write Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (Boko Haram’s full name) on their trouser legs in marker or the back of their shirts,” he said. “You had to turn up your trousers with the marker on to show that you are a member.”
Buildings were torched and boys were abducted for “training”, he said, a practice reminiscent of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
Slowly, with the help of traditional hunters armed with home made guns and a reputation for magic powers, government forces have pushed Boko Haram out of some of its southern possessions.
Morris Enoch, a leader of the hunters, says they found an arsenal of military weapons: rocket launchers, machine guns, dynamite, anti-aircraft guns and grenades.
The rebels rarely leave behind much else.