Changing Fronts of the Conflict in Nigeria

People play soccer around a Nigerian flag at Bakassi internally displaced persons camps in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in Nigeria. October 19, 2016.

Residents of Michika, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, wait for a food distribution. February 20, 2016.

A woman walks by an abandoned tank left by Boko Haram on the road to Michika, a town formerly occupied by the insurgents in the northern state of Adamawa. February 20, 2016.

A family at an IDP camp in Monguno, Nigeria. Their youngest child us currently being treated for malnutrition. October 22, 2016.

Inside an internally Displaced Persons camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria. October 14, 2016.

The Boko Haram insurgency damaged a bridge on the road to the village of Michika in Northern Nigeria. February 20, 2016.

Medical workers weigh a child at a UNICEF-run clinic in Dikwa, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram. October 18, 2016.

Fatima Ibrahim prays near the bedside of her 2-year-old child, who is being treated for severe acute malnutrition at an International Rescue Committee stabilization center in Umaru Shehu Hospital in Maiduguri, Nigeria. October 10, 2016.

A woman is treated at a clinic in the Fufore IDP camp in Tola, Nigeria. October 7, 2016.

Women peer through windows as men haul food out of storage and the kitchen at the Fufore IDP camp in Yola, Nigeria. October 7, 2016.

Men recite both Islamic and Christian prayers before reconciliation meetings in Michika, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. February 20, 2016.

Student at a school in Maiduguri, Nigeria, for orphaned children. Many had a parent who Boro Haram killed. October 21, 2016.

Women from Bama, Nigeria, sew hats sew hats in the National Youth Service Corps IDP camp in Maiduguri where they had been living for 1 year and 7 months. February 27, 2016.

Women wait in line with their children during a community outreach drive sponsored by the International Rescue Committee to target severe acute malnutrition in Maiduguri, Nigeria. October 12, 2016.

Structures built by the International Rescue Committee that internally displaced people will eventually move into in Monguno, Nigeria. October 22, 2016.

A woman and her children living in an internally displaced persons camp in Monguno, Nigeria. October 22. 2016

When Amina was 13, she was forced to marry a man who she later found out was a member of Boko Haram. She divorced him and later married another man who also turned out to be a Boko Haram insurgent. He kidnapped her and held her captive for seven weeks. She escaped and trekked on foot for days. She says that she has peace in the Safe House, that they’re secure, they can sleep well, and they’ve been fed well. For her future she hopes to go to school and to have a happy marriage. October 21, 2016.

People walk towards the location of the food distribution in Michika, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram. February 20, 2016.

Men haul the remains of a car destroyed by a bomb in Maiduguri, Nigeria. According to the National Emergency Management Agency, a female suicide bomber detonated the blast that killed 8 people and injured 15. October 12, 2016.

A girl runs through an internally displaced persons camp in Dikwa, Nigeria, a town formerly occupied by Boko Haram. October 18, 2016.

Children play on a swing set at Maiduguri, in Nigeria’s Bakassi internally displaced persons camps. October 19, 2016.

Young girls read and write at the Fufore IDP camp in Yola, Nigeria. October 7, 2016.

Students at a school for orphan children where many have a parent who was killed by Boko Haram. October 21, 2016.

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Changing Fronts of the Conflict in Nigeria


The insurgent group Boko Haram has grown steadily from an organization focused in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, to the rest of Borno State, to surrounding states, and surrounding countries throughout the Chad Basin. What is driving this expansion? Danielle Villasana’s images do not give us answers but they do direct our attention to a key dimension of the conflict, environmental conditions, such as questions of population density and the willingness to attack non-state targets, especially those that are more exposed in rural areas.

As the Islamic insurgency moves through the region, it blows up bridges and zips through arid landscapes on motorcycle expanding its control by operating with agility in sparsely populated areas, attacking soft-targets such as schools (Boko Haram translates imperfectly as “western education is forbidden,”) and instilling fear through heinous attacks that often include kidnapping, such as the spectacular mass abduction of young girls. By building its networks and connecting to other militant networks in the region, Boko Haram has burgeoned to become a regional powerhouse that has allied with transnational terror networks.

Villasana’s images document the suffering caused by the growing insecurity in the region, from hospitals, to schools, to places of worship. Her image of a crumpled bridge in the middle of an arid landscape gives a sense of how a mobile force that does not distinguish between military and civilian targets can divide a theater of operations through guerrilla tactics. As the insurgency has spread through Nigeria’s northern countryside, IDPs have sought shelter in cities that have invested in security. Villasana documents this shifting social configuration that can be quite dire, however, she also features glimmers of hope amidst the widening war, such as an interfaith prayer for reconciliation, a mobilized international humanitarian apparatus, and the resilience of children. Yet, the conflict continues to spread and larger questions about how environmental conditions are abetting that expansion loom.

— Alexander L. Fattal
Department of Communication
University of California, San Diego

Copyright information: Photos are copyright ©Danielle Villasana.