ABUJA/MAIDUGURI (Reuters) - Nigerian government officials have ordered thousands of displaced people to return to an unsafe area as pressure mounts to show progress in the war against Islamist groups ahead of a presidential election, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Those who have gone back say they only did so because the officials told them they would get no more aid if they remained in refugee camps. Returnees say their home area of Guzamala in the northeast is not safe and they cannot earn a living there.
At issue is the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general who won power in 2015 on a promise to restore security to the northeast and end the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency, now in its tenth year.
Western diplomats and aid officials have expressed concern that sending displaced people back to their home regions is part of Buhari's political agenda, and that of the ruling party as local elections are also being held.
"Pushing these people back just to make a point when the security situation remains tenuous is a terrible idea," one diplomat told Reuters.
The government and the election commission have met to discuss how to expedite returns as the election early next year nears, according to a person with direct knowledge of those talks.
Officials have told people their home areas are safe and they can go back to their livelihoods. That is a tempting proposition for people who have lived in camps for years, dependent on handouts.
In June, government officials told some 2,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Bakasi camp in the city of Maiduguri to go back to a town in the Guzamala region, according to interviews with returnees, a government official and others with knowledge of the matter.
"They said, 'If you refuse to return, you are on your own, the government will not help you anymore'," said Hassan, who, like other returnees, asked to be identified by his first name for fear of reprisals.
Guzamala is viewed by the United Nations and aid organisations as inaccessible or hard to reach. They do not deliver aid to a region under the sway of Islamic State West Africa. ISWA split from Boko Haram in 2016 and is now the bigger threat in Nigeria's northeast, security experts believe.
Earlier this month, Islamist militants killed at least 19 people, and possibly as many as 63, in an attack on a village in Guzamala.
Foreign governments, which provide aid and military support in the northeast, successfully lobbied Nigerian officials to pause the returns to dangerous areas like Guzamala, though the programme is expected to resume after an assessment, said four people familiar with the matter.
FORCED TO LEAVE
Four returnees who spoke with Reuters said government officials ordered them to Guzamala. Three said those officials threatened to cut off their aid if they refused - a threat that was carried out, so even those who wanted to stay had to leave.
Interviewees identified Sugun Mai Meleh, the commissioner of land and survey for Borno state, and Lawan Umara Zanna, the chairman for Guzamala, as the officials who made the threats. They said Borno State House of Assembly Speaker Abdulkarim Lawan was also present.
Borno is at the centre of the fight against Boko Haram and ISWA. Maiduguri and Guzamala both lie within the state.
Lawan told Reuters that he was at the gathering returnees had described, but he was not aware of any forced returns and no threats were made. "That is not true," he said.
The Nigerian presidency, military and Mai Meleh did not respond to requests for comment. Zanna declined to comment.
Bashir Garga Idris, northeast Nigeria coordinator for the National Emergency Management Agency, said people were not being coerced to return, although he did not know about the reported threats because he was outside Nigeria at the time.
In meetings, the government has discussed how to return as many people as possible to their home regions in Borno in the run-up to the election, said a person with knowledge of those discussions.
Aid officials and Western diplomats also say the government's return programme is geared towards elections.
The aim is to have as many people returned as possible so they can vote in primaries, which run from August to October, the person with knowledge of talks added.
In Nigeria, people can only vote in regions where they are registered, potentially making hundreds of thousands of people displaced to Maiduguri ineligible unless special arrangements are made for them.
Mikah Lakumna, an official with the Independent National Electoral Commission in Borno, said that the government was trying to close some IDP camps, and INEC was exploring ways to ensure those people's voting rights.
INEC is assessing security to see how it can send election officials into dangerous areas, and is also looking into instances where voters had been coerced into returning to regions they were registered, Lakumna said.
"WE WERE DECEIVED"
The roughly 2,000 Guzamala returnees are part of more than 7.7 million people in Nigeria's northeast who need aid to survive in one of the world's biggest humanitarian crises.
When they reached Guzamala, they found a wasteland.
Their town was in ruins. Many buildings were burned or collapsed, returnees told Reuters. There were so few houses that people took shelter in a school where rain had caved in the roof.
Pictures of the town, seen by Reuters, showed shattered structures and blackened streets littered with burnt-out debris.
There, some food and supplies - enough to feed a family of 10 for a day, according to one man - were distributed. Since then, the returnees have been left for weeks at a time to fend for themselves. Some soldiers took pity on them and handed over their own water rations.
"We were deceived," said Modu, a returnee. "There is nothing in Guzamala other than suffering."
Some in authority also had reservations.
"The place was not ready for the survival of people because there is no food, water is scarce," said a soldier in Guzamala, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It is not only Guzamala that is in terrible state, but the whole of northern Borno - Boko Haram ruined the place and they are still there. Ordinarily, IDPs are not supposed to return now, but because our ogas (bosses) just want to make it look as if things are okay there."
Officials had promised Guzamala's returnees they could farm, but there was nothing to farm, nor anything to farm with, the returnees said. Much of the suitable land lies in the bush, where ISWA roams.
"They forced us to return and they did not keep their promises," said Mohammed, another returnee.
Of those who went to Guzamala, dozens have tried to return to the relative safety of Maiduguri. The city is guarded, and aid agencies provide food, shelter and medicine.
"We expected the government to provide us with food, but nothing was done. It is better to return back to Maiduguri than to die of hunger," said Kadai, another Guzamala returnee. "The government lied to us."
In Maiduguri, returnees found government officials had denied them access to aid, according to two people familiar with the camp management. Left with no choice, they returned to Guzamala.
(Reporting by Paul Carsten in Abuja and Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; Additional reporting by Ola Lanre in Maiduguri; Editing by Giles Elgood)