It was shortly after the outbreak of violence that Professor Tanko, who was previously working in Dakar, Senegal, was compelled to return to her homeland in northeast Nigeria to support her country at its time of need. She recalls that when the VSF was first established, the situation on the ground was dire: “The immediate need that people had in these communities was loss of livelihood. The trauma they had experienced was a need, but not as critical as having food to eat … in the process of implementation, you give them the basics and they can take care of themselves. You then can deal with trauma and social cohesion.”
Women’s empowerment was identified as an early priority. Professor Tanko realized that the insurgency was placing a major burden on women: “They lost the heads of their households. Women were left with children to take care of them for the very first time in their lives.”
To meet this need, the VSF provided cash grants and skills training to support women to start their own businesses and enable them to provide for their families. Getting children back into school, a once frequent target of Boko Haram’s attacks, was also seen as vital to restoring trust in the education system - even when it meant undertaking ambitious new projects.
“We didn’t want to go into infrastructure at the start,” explains Professor Tanko, “but it became clear that you can’t support children in a school that is practically broken down. You can give them books, but there is no place for them to sit.”
The VSF’s work soon expanded to physical and psychological recovery. The Fund entered into partnerships with teaching hospitals to open up access to specialist care. It is here that Habiba, who risked succumbing to her injuries, was a fortunate beneficiary of VSF. Through providing funding for surgery and prosthetics, as well as wider wraparound care, Habiba learned to walk again.
For Professor Tanko, it is these stories that provide encouragement: “We had someone whose life would’ve been gone … but by the support we have given, and working through the support with her family, we have brought back a life she can live again.”
But for every positive outcome, there are thousands of untold stories for whom the physical or psychological trauma goes untreated. Professor Tanko identifies the lack of resources as one of the biggest challenges, with victims of terrorism often falling through the cracks: “No matter how much work the VSF does, we are not able to cover a good percentage of the victims that are affected … even if you take the most vulnerable.”
Moreover, a significant proportion of the VSF’s resources are spent building the capacity of community-based organisations to deliver the vital, yet often unsung, work of trauma healing. In Professor Tanko’s view, too much victim support is driven by a desire “to be seen to be doing”, with funding geared towards programmes that produce quick, high-visibility results. Instead, greater recognition is needed of the longer-term aspects of the recovery process.
Reintegrating victims who were once co-opted by Boko Haram, often under duress, also poses its own set of unique challenges. Professor Tanko notes: “You are coming back into your community where people have good memory of the atrocities you have committed. Accepting them is very difficult.”
There are many children who are at risk of becoming a forgotten generation. Those born out of rape and sexual slavery are often shunned by their ancestral homes, leaving the mother with no choice but to return to the very terrorists she previously chose to leave. As Professor Tanko warns, it is a crisis in the making: “If you isolate or discriminate against them, they will react by being violent and aggressive against the very system that has rejected them … it’s another terrorism waiting to happen.”
To meet these needs, a multi-dimensional approach is required. The 2022 Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act recently filled a void in the government’s response to victims of terrorism through the creation of a Victims Trust Fund. Whilst not yet operational, the Fund, amongst other aims, will provide compensation, restitution and damages.
“It is a meaningful act,” says Professor Tanko, but her civil society experience has also given her a realistic appreciation of the challenges involved, and she adds, “the major challenge will be the commitment of government to see its implementation”. In her view, success will depend upon ensuring ordinary victims can access the Fund, without discrimination, as well as on carving out a key role for civil society in assessing victims’ needs. Promises too, will need to be met by serious financial commitments.
After more than a decade of brutal war in northeast Nigeria, there is hope that conflict is slowly coming to its end state. In Borno, the epicentre of terrorist activity, the recent mass exits from previously Boko Haram-controlled territory are seen as evidence that the tide is changing. Professor Tanko calls this a “tremendous opportunity that can be exploited” and envisages key role for the state’s leadership in bringing people together “for communal healing, forgiveness and reconciliation”.
But to succeed, public expectations must be managed, and the rhetoric must match the reality. While the VSF has deployed its own resources in Borno to help rebuild the lives of those affected by the insurgency, she warns that much more support will be needed to make a sustainable and lasting difference: “If we don’t provide the resources … we could go back.”
This is a worry that hits close to home. After almost eight years of delivering vital support to victims of terrorism, VSF’s funding is now running out. As a result, VSF will wind down its operations at the end of 2025.
Professor Tanko’s plea is that support for victims of terrorism will continue, for there is too much at stake to lose: “The victims need us to build their lives again, we should not give up. I really would encourage people to sustain the support so that we don’t have a disintegrated generation moving forward.”
* Name changed to protect privacy
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in partnership with the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism/United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNOCT-UNCCT) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) have developed Model Legislative Provisions to assist Member States in protecting the rights and supporting the needs of victims of terrorism. The Model Legislative Provisions are intended to serve as a guide for the review of existing national laws and procedures related to victims of terrorism, including the development of national legislation where applicable, as well as promoting the exchange of best practices among Member States.
The Model Legislative Provisions can be accessed here.