By John Campbell
The ongoing insurgency in northern Nigeria, called “Boko Haram,” and the government’s often brutal attempts to suppress it, have produced a tide of refugees and internally displaced in one of the world’s poorest regions. With the “fog of war,” government restrictions on news agencies, and a poor communications infrastructure, it is difficult to survey needs with precision. IRIN published yesterday that an estimated 350,000 people have been displaced since 2013. Of that number, 290,000 are internally displaced and the rest have fled to Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a higher estimate of internally displaced persons, at 470,000. Local Nigerian officials are telling me that the real number is dramatically higher than these estimates; in Bauchi, according to one official, internally displaced persons number more than a million. They come, he said, from the ethnic conflict in Plateau state as well as from further north where “Boko Haram” is active. According to IRIN, there are no official camps for the internally displaced. They shelter with family and friends where they can find them. That reality also disguises how large the internally displaced numbers are likely to be.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that there are perhaps a dozen international non-governmental organizations still operating in northeast Nigeria, but only the Norwegian Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the UN Population Fund are working with the displaced. In addition, two agencies of the Nigerian government are also involved, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). The pervasive insecurity throughout the region precludes a greater humanitarian effort, both by Nigeria and international organizations.
The displacement of farmers means that land is not being cultivated for the growing season. NEMA estimates that more than 60 percent of the farmers in the food basket near Lake Chad have fled. Accordingly, there are concerns about food security. There are reports of villagers now eating their seed corn, having shared what they had stored with the displaced.
To forestall an even greater humanitarian disaster in a region that even in the best of times is extremely poor requires greater involvement by international organizations, perhaps supported by governments. It is to be hoped that the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States might step up to the plate to lead the delivery of humanitarian assistance, even if a multinational force is required.
John Campbell is a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, now a blogger.