• Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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BusinessDay

The looming famine in Nigeria’s North East

Nigeria returnees and people displaced by Boko Haram insurgence eat and drink at a registration centre in Geidam stadium

The release, last week, of reports by Medecins Sans Frontieres that the North Eastern part of Nigeria faces severe famine as a result of the devastation of food production in Nigeria due to the activities of the Boko Haram terrorist sect does not come as a surprise. In fact, according to the US-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), around three million people in the northeast have been identified as urgently needing food and other humanitarian aid, but the situation could be far more severe.

Toby Lanzer, UN assistant secretary general and OCHA’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, captured the situation more starkly: “This is about as bad as it gets. There’s only one step worse and I’ve not come across that situation in 20 yearsof doing this work and that’s a famine.” “We have to step in and quickly or we are going to have hundreds of thousands at risk of dying in the north-east of Nigeria.” On another occasion, Mr Lanzer estimated that there are as many as 250, 000 children in the northeast who are severely acutely malnourished and more than 500, 000 children could die before the end of the year if nothing is done to arrest the situation.

But as FEWS NET’s spokesperson, Bruce Isaacson, avers, it is even difficult to judge the level of hunger in Nigeria’s northeast and in the Internally Displaced People’s camps due to a lack of access and data. Indeed, various international aid agencies have directly accused the Nigerian authorities of maintaining a tight control over humanitarian and media access to the region. Worse of all, these groups also accused the Nigerian authorities of deliberate negligence and attempting to conceal the scale of the crisis. The few media reports that managed to come out of the many Internally Displaced Persons camps dotting the northeast attests to the squalid living conditions in the camps with many inmates describing their situations as akin to living in purgatory, As an inmate famously describes their living condition, ‘We are like corpses living on borrowed time’.

According to many local sources, the government is quite aware of the extent of the hunger situation and the evolving famine, but it has failed to deliver a plan to tackle it and often attempts to prevent media coverage of the situation to avoid embarrassment.  According to a UK Guardian source, “The IDPs are kept under lock and key because they don’t want them to communicate with the outside world.”

A certain civil servant that spoke to the UK Guardian on condition of anonymity said “he had seen people die every day in the camp as a result of hunger and poor sanitation.” He said “food rations were delivered once a day by civilian militia and distributed by local community heads. This was often raw rice, which there was no means to cook. Complaints about hunger and deaths were ignored.”

He also attests that the army never allows them to use mobile phones within and around the camps. “…when we were in Banki, the army confiscated all our mobile phones. If the army saw you making a telephone call, wow would they give you a beating.”

The attitude of the Nigerian government is condemnable. It could not take care of its citizens displaced by conflict and it is not willing to allow international agencies that are willing to minister to their needs. It shows how much value the Nigerian government places on Nigerian lives. Just like it happened in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the government is willing to allow famine to ravage and kill hundreds of thousands of its citizens while shielding international aid agencies from the scenes of the crisis just to maintain a positive image.

We urge the government to come down from its high horse and be more truthful and transparent with conditions in the various IDP camps in the northeast and all over the country. It should be able to account for the billions of dollars purportedly raised in 2014 for the purpose of alleviating the sufferings of, and resettling the various victims of Boko Haram. At the very least, it must allow full and unhindered access to aid agencies and the United Nations who are willing to do all it takes to prevent famine in the region.