By Jamila Shehu
The word “refugee” used to be understood in Nigeria to mean an individual or individuals who had fled ethnic, religious or some other form of conflict in their countries of origin or residence to seek asylum or refuge in another country. During the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars of the 1990’s, Nigeria saw an influx of refugees who had escaped the civil war in both countries. Nowadays however, the word refugee has become commonplace in Nigeria. Nigeria has 3.3 million persons displaced by conflict – the highest in Africa.
This information is contained in a report titled ‘Global Overview 2014: People Internally displaced by conflict and violence’ released by the Internal Displaced Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “Violence, abuses and forced evictions all add to the conflict mix in many of these situations, while in places such as Nigeria we see how challenging life becomes for those already displaced by severe floods and storms,” said Alfred Zamudio, Director of IDMC.
According to the report there are 3.3 million IDPs in Nigeria and 475,000 individuals were displaced in 2013 alone. On a global scale, Nigeria is only ranked behind Syria with 6.5 million IDPs. The unprecedented rise in IDPs in Nigeria last year is as a result of the increased number of Boko Haram attacks, counter insurgency operations and ongoing inter communal violence. After Boko Haram insurgents were pushed out of major towns in the north east after the declaration of a state of emergency In Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in May 2013, they focused their attacks with increased brutality on towns and villages close to Nigeria’s borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The increasing deadly attacks on border communities and the destruction of properties, businesses and farmlands have forced many inhabitants to flee to nearby towns and villages as well as into neighboring Cameroon and Niger.
In 2014 the Islamist sect killed about 2,000 people and half of those killed were civilians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOHCA), 300,000 people in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – 70% of them women and children – have fled their homes since early 2013. In March, residents of Mafa village in Borno fled their homes after receiving letters from Boko Haram warning them of impending attacks. When the attack eventually occurred, only the weak and aged were left in the village.
With the recent capture of Damboa, Gamboru and Gwoza towns, there will no doubt be an exponential increase in the number of IDPs. The Federal Government has tried to contain the displacement of individuals by setting up camps to accommodate them. However, considering the continuous and worsening vicious attacks of Boko Haram, the camps are filling up faster than the government can set up new ones.
Communal clashes are another factor contributing to the high number of displaced persons in Nigeria. Clashes between farmers and herdsmen over grazing lands in states such as Benue, Taraba, Zamfara and parts of Kaduna have left more than 1,000 people dead since last December, Human Rights Watch said. In April, NEMA set up 11 camps for over 100,000 people in Benue State. More than 300 people were killed in the last 20 months in attacks on villages in Zamfara State, as reported by the state government. Also, many of the victims of the 2012 flooding caused by heavy torrential rains are yet to be provided with a permanent place of residence. According to NEMA, the natural disasters in that year alone displaced over two million people.
The Federal Government recently set up the Victims Support Fund with the sole aim of providing assistance to the people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. While this is a laudable effort, I personally feel there are certain issues that the government hasn’t taken into consideration:
It doesn’t seem equitable that only people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency should be compensated while there are other individuals displaced by other crises and disasters.
With the culture of corruption and diversion of funds, there are fears that the victims to whom the funds are to be disbursed to may not reach them.
There are certain losses that money cannot compensate for and some individuals’ losses are not equal. For example, one who loses a few personal belongings cannot be equated with one who has lost a lot of business and investments. Therefore, the question that comes to mind is will the funds be disbursed to the victims based on individual losses or on equal terms?
Apart from the government’s assistance, some philanthropists and well-meaning Nigerians have come to the aid of IDPs in an unprecedented show of brotherhood and support by providing them with clothing, food and shelter.
There is the urgent need to come up with a lasting solution to forestall and prevent the ethnic and religious clashes that displace people. Aside from the human and humanitarian toll such displacements take on the lives of people, it also impacts heavily on the country’s economy.
There has been palpable tension in the country in recent times especially as a result of the current insurgency in the North East and ethnic and religious crises. With the 2015 elections just around the corner, there are fears that there may be clashes that could boost the number of IDPs in the country. It is left to be seen what plans if any at all, the government has to prevent this from happening.
Jamila Shehu is a 400 Level student at the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano (BUK).