Nigerian university digs massive trenches to impede Boko Haram attackers


The University of Maiduguri in Borno state in Nigeria has started building a trench along its eastern perimeter to thwart attacks from the jihadist group Boko Haram. The announcement followed an attack on the university by suicide bombers on Sunday, June 25, which occurred shortly before other suicide bombers detonated their explosives just outside the city. Sixteen people, including the bombers, were killed in the attacks.

Borno state governor Kashim Shettima has released 50 million naira [€135,543] to finance the building work. It is hoped that the 27km-long trench will stop militants from driving into the university campus, and will also make it more difficult for them to enter on foot.

Because it was the school holidays, there were no students on campus when the most recent attack took place. However, this isn’t the first time that the extremist group Boko Haram – whose Hausa name roughly translates to "Western education is forbidden" – has carried out violent attacks on the university.

This trenches is being dug on the eastern side of the University of Maiduguri to prevent future attacks by Boko Haram (photo by Observer Adam Bulama)

“It just makes Boko Haram look for alternatives”

Boko Haram was first formed in Maiduguri in 2002 and the city has been a frequent target of the group’s attacks. Trenches are already used in Maiduguri as one type of barrier against Boko Haram, but haven’t been built at the university, which has a perimeter wall instead. The western side of the campus, which faces towards the centre of town, is well guarded by security, but the eastern side has traditionally been easier to breach. The trench is meant to provide one more layer of protection for an institution that has been repeatedly targeted by the jihadist group.

One of our Observers in Maiduguri, who did not want to be named, is not convinced that this measure will be truly efficient:

Digging trenches here and there really doesn't end the bombings. It merely suspends it. It just makes Boko Haram look for alternatives. When you enclose a section of a town it's only a matter of time before they look for another route... So why don't we cover all possible angles, without giving them an option? Why is it so difficult to end this mayhem?

At least 20,000 people have been killed by the group since it began its full-on insurgency against the Nigerian government in 2009. Many more have been displaced. In April 2014, about 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a girls secondary school in Chibok, which is south of Maiduguri. This one incident drew international attention, but the insurgency marches on.

The trenches are being dug in the bush on the eastern side of the University of Maiduguri (Photo by Observer Adam Bulama)

“Attacks are a fact of life here”

Other locals are more confident that the trenches will help stave off terrorist attacks. Adam Bulama is the founder of a charity, Ayimaba Charity Foundation, which helps Nigerians displaced by the insurgency. He attended the University of Maiduguri and was on campus during several of the attacks launched by Boko Haram in the past.

I used to go to the school and I witnessed several attacks. I used to read there late at night, and remember the attacks. People would come through on to the campus and we would have to just drop to the ground, wherever we were.

Attacks are a fact of life here. There’s a curfew in place, starting at 10pm every day. There are checkpoints everywhere. We never know when bombs are going to go off. You just have to be cautious. You can’t even trust family.

In one of the previous attacks, fighters from Boko Haram were just throwing bombs at people’s houses. It was easy for me to imagine it was my house under attack. But I’m not scared. I accept that it is something that keeps happening here.

The trenches are meant to prevent vehicles from crossing and impede potential attackers travelling on foot (Photo by Adam Bulama)

“When the trench is finished, it will be enough”

The trench has not been finished yet – there’s more work to do. But when it’s finished, it will be enough. The eastern part is where militants from Boko Haram enter the university campus in the dead of night. Most of the attackers are women. They won’t be able to go through with their motorcycles or other vehicles, they will only be able to go through on foot, and there are soldiers stationed there. So if they try to go through at night on foot, the soldiers will see them and easily take them down.

I think the state government has done a great job.

According to the University of Maiduguri spokesperson, the rainy season means that the ground is soft and sandy, and the trenches require extra reinforcement. (Photo: Adam Bulama)

“The trenches will ensure the campus is completely secure”

Danjuma Gambo is the spokesperson for the university. He outlined several security steps that the university would be taking.

We have noticed that most of the attackers have sneaked into the university through the eastern flank. The trenches are in layers and will help impede motorised movement.

There is already a fence around the university, but the eastern side has not been covered in the way we would have wanted. The trenches will now ensure that the university is completely secure.

The trenches were originally dug by the university, but since the rise in the number of attacks, we have started receiving financial support from the Borno State government, and also from the federal government. The reinforcement of the trenches is an ongoing thing. As we are currently in the rainy season and the ground is soft and sandy, we need reinforcement more than ever as it is easier for people to force their way through.

The university has never once closed since the beginning of the insurgency in 2009. We have maintained an academic calendar. The university is stable despite [this week’s] attacks. We have resumed after the Eid holiday and everyone is back to work.