How cell phones are helping displaced people in Nigeria

Conflicts and disasters around the world have forced millions of people from their homes. At the end of 2020, an estimated 11.1 million people were internally displaced in sub-Saharan Africa.

Displaced people are excluded in many ways from the social, economic, cultural and political life of their new communities. Mobile technologies are one way to overcome this exclusion. Cell phones have been described as being as important as food and water for the displaced.

In studying how displaced people use mobile technologies to reinforce social exclusion, most researchers have focused on refugees in developed countries. Little is known about the context of sub-Saharan Africa.

Rather, my study focused on internally displaced people forced to flee the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria. I have discovered that cell phones offer them four key opportunities: income generation, social support, education and political participation. The results show that governments, non-governmental organizations and donor agencies should do more to provide displaced people with mobile connectivity.

This will help displaced people meet their needs and better integrate into their new communities.

A camp in Abuja

As of February 2021, more than 2.1 million internally displaced people were living in camps and communities across Nigeria.

My study focused on people who had fled Boko Haram in Gwoza and Bama communities in Borno State and were living in a camp in Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria.

The camp is a private camp that was founded by a group of internally displaced people in 2014. About 3,000 people live there. The camp is overcrowded and lacks basic sanitation, hygiene, education, food, shelter and electricity. Internet connectivity is unreliable. About 80% of the 500 households earn less than 20,000 naira ($ 25) per month. Participants in my study said that the government does not care about their situation.

I collected data from 21 displaced people in this camp in June 2019 and May 2020. Their demographic profiles were diverse. Most of the participants had cell phones – some were basic and some were smartphones.

Forms of inclusion

Internally displaced people used their phones to earn income, gain emotional and psychological support from family and friends, study online, follow political news, and participate in discussions. They were also able to apply for financial assistance from the public via social media.

One of the attendees, who owned a small makeshift shop selling items like groceries and phone cards, said:

I was a painter in Bama and hoped to find a job in Abuja. There are thousands of painters like me here, unemployed… I always have customers gathered around my shop talking since I always have my generator in charge of their phone. I also play our local music to keep a good mood.

People said the violence and traumatic events they experienced affected their mental and emotional health. Finding and keeping in touch with family and friends was very important to many. One stressed the importance of a WhatsApp Bible study group.

Every Sunday, I know there are people around me who will be around me to cheer me up and remind me that I am not alone.

Boko Haram insurgents have disrupted access to education. The camp did not have formal educational facilities in place. Those who had completed high school were able to enroll in the distance learning program with the National Open University in Nigeria. They could get the learning materials using their cell phones, as described by one of the participants:

I work full time as a motorcycle driver, but because I want to continue my studies, my friends advised me to open university. … Now I am in the second year of studying psychology and I hope to be a psychologist soon. With my smartphone, I can access all of my course content online and interact with other classmates… some have become close friends.

Some respondents pointed out the importance of their cell phones for political participation. On election days, some who were unable to return to Borno state to vote said they were monitoring the election using Facebook and WhatsApp on their mobile phones.

After the vote, many of us made sure to take pictures of the results at our polling stations and share them on Facebook and WhatsApp and, when collating the results, we went to Facebook live so that we could ‘others can see the result live collation. When we did this, it was difficult for any agent to manipulate the result in favor of their candidate.

The participating women said that cellphones gave them opportunities they would not have had before, when their gender roles were more prescribed. They mentioned using phones to market their products, access commercial government loans, and listen to women’s radio programs.

I can send messages and call my sister and my neighbors. I also listen to… BBC Hausa and sometimes I also use this phone to call my daughter’s teacher to find out what she has learned in school.

Self-help and connection

Our results showed that internally displaced people used phones for both individual and collective purposes. A mobile phone is a self-help tool not only to overcome disconnection from the home community, but also to function better in the host community.

The high cost of maintaining cell phones, infrastructure and theft in the camp, however, were challenges.

The efforts of humanitarian actors to improve the social inclusion of internally displaced people must understand the opportunities and factors that limit their freedom to use mobile phones effectively.

About Anne Wurtsbach

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