Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija is the CEO of AOA Global, an international non-profit group with high level global contacts on humanitarian intervention. Olatunbosun-Alakija who has often visited Borno State, shares her thoughts on the humanitarian crisis at IDP camps Borno State, when she hosted a group of journalists in Abuja. Excerpts:
Nigeria has the third largest population of IDPs in the world, after Syria and Iraq. Can this report be true?
Yes, that’s correct. When it comes to internally displaced persons as result of conflict and violence, as at December 2015, Nigeria ranked sixth after Syria, Colombia, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan (IDMC,2016). The seven-year Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east accounts for a majority of the IDPs, 95 per cent of whom are in Borno State. As of May 2016, 2.4m people were estimated to be internally displaced persons in Nigeria; of these 1.6m are in Borno State (IOm,2016)
The Boko Haram insurgency has precipitated a large scale humanitarian crisis in the North-east and in Borno State in particular. Around 15 million people have been directly affected, of whom seven million are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.
So, what is the current situation with IDPs?
The Nigerian military’s recent campaign against Boko Haram has been very successful and for that we commend them. No Local Government Area remains under Boko Haram control, however, some local government areas liberated from Boko Haram control remain heavily militarised because of the threat of guerrilla warfare by insurgents. Like the last thrashing throes of dying beast, Boko Haram has resorted to guerrilla warfare and suicide bombs.
The military has very effectively cut off supply lines to enemy strong holds. However, that has also affected civilian populations trapped behind enemy lines inaccessible by aid agencies due to security limitations. As a result, recently liberated people are emerging in severe states of malnutrition that have only recently become apparent. A number of agencies have now gained access to around 750,000 of the previously hard-to-reach with about 500,000 still behind enemy lines, and, in all likelihood, suffering malnourishment. Currently, an estimated 1.95 million people in Borno are in need of food aid. Among the IDPs, about 260,000 of these are in urgent need of specialised nutritional support. The response needs to be swift if we are to forestall an Ethiopia like famine.
You have been to Borno State, what did you see and what is your assessment with regards to feeding of the IDPs in the light of cases of malnutrition?
For years, the state government has been feeding IDPs in camps to the best of their ability. Depending on what is largely subsistence farming to feed IDPs has been very challenging indeed – in addition to the fact that some farms are still plagued by Boko Haram landmines.
There have been some donations and my understanding is that all food aid has been distributed to IDPs. Given that approximately 2m IDPs need food, if you do the calculation the three metric tons of food donated, will last less than one month for that number of people.
Also, remember, that with many people recently liberated from Boko Haram strongholds emerging in third stage of malnutrition, specialised nutritional support is required in addition to provision of staples. I have personally interviewed some of those recently liberated from Boko Haram captivity in Sambisa. They indicated that many people have been hiding out in the bush in fear, having been told by Boko Haram fighters that Nigeria no longer exists and that the last remnants of the country were stragglers of the national army around Maiduguri. Of course this is untrue, but stuck behind enemy lines for more than three years with no access to news reports, the internet or television how were they to know differently?
Now the army is making incursions, these people are starting to appear. Amid the victims of war those bearing the brunt of the crisis were women and children with specific nutritional needs. The Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) figures are alarming and soon five children will die every hour if there is a delay to specialised support.
The rate of malnutrition in Dikwa IDP camp, where team AOA visited in May and expressed the alarm at the conditions there, is actually double that of Bama which has been in the news recently. With rains coming and the lean season upon us, people’s plight has worsened still. A concerted effort is being made but still more needs to be done. The response must be Nigeria “owned and led” and the world will rally round.
But what of allegations of theft and rebagging of food which are being smuggled out?
As someone who has been on the ground and witnessed the distribution of the food aid first hand, I can tell you that allegations of large scale misappropriation are ludicrous at this current time. There have been instances of rebagging reported in the past and offenders were removed.
At the recent high level dialogue in Abuja, the chairman of SEMA gave us an in-depth analysis of the nutritional status of IDPs in the camps. Those receiving local government food support for sometime are not the ones showing severe rates of malnutrition. Starvation is not as a result of mismanagement within camps but an influx of recently liberated captives.
There are many misconceptions about this crisis with arm-chair commentators spewing spurious allegations. From what I know, feeding IDPs isn’t handled exclusively by the Borno State Government. There are five sectors in the humanitarian response, education, health, water-hygiene and sanitation; food security and social protection and all these sectors have local and international partners involved in them depending on their specialty. The UN OCHA is involved with the Borno Government in coordinating the five sectors.
The sector of food security which deals with feeding has the NEMA, SEMA, the ICRC, the WFP, the Norwegian Refugee Council, security agencies and recently, the Dangote Foundation involved. The ICRC, Norwegian Refugee Council and Dangote Foundation reach IDPs themselves, sourcing and distributing food independently with the state government only coordinating what they do. The state government also reaches IDPs directly. All donors have clearly marked points based on their capacity and the time line they give for their interventions in particular areas.
In my opinion, Governor Kashim Shettima and team have shown great commitment to containing the crisis. I cannot think of another Nigerian leader who has had to face such a serious and ongoing crisis in recent times. I have had the opportunity to work with them in a voluntary, humanitarian capacity and they are deeply concerned by the plight of their people. Members of the team have remained resolute despite being subjected to unimaginable horror, tending to survivors and cleaning up the carnage after suicide bomb attacks. This is our 9/11. Without a doubt the worst crisis this country has seen since the civil war of 1967. It is a national emergency, that, in my view, has not been taken seriously enough.
So why did you get involve in addressing this large scale humanitarian crisis?
I returned to Nigeria because I wanted to play my part as a responsible citizen. One of most bizarre things I noted on my return, is the number of people asking me why I am assisting in Borno as I don’t come from there.In the words of Martin Luther King Jr “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” You don’t have to be within the government, a leader of industry, a billionaire or a celebrity to make a difference.
Anecdotally, we are told that success of a humanitarian intervention is reaching 65 per cent of an affected population. 95 per cent of Nigeria’s IDPs are currently in Borno State. If we solve the situation in Borno, we solve a Nigerian problem. In the words of the Vice-President, “We need a new tribe of Nigerians,” transcending ethic, religious and regional divides. The idea that we only do things for our own tribe needs to change.
Would you suggest other Nigerians do likewise?
I would encourage all Nigerian’s to assist those in need wherever they might find them. In Borno, at this point in the rebuilding process, it is critical that the response is co-ordinated and proceeds in a strategic and organised manner. Whilst offers of assistance are always welcome, an influx of well-meaning individuals could potentially be counter-productive.
As a medical doctor and a humanitarian, if Borno was considered your patient, what would your prognosis be?
I am very optimistic about Borno’s future. The people of Borno have shown tremendous resilience in the face of terrible hardship. As first responders to the crisis, communities have been incredible, taking displaced families into their homes despite their own limited resources with many living on less than a dollar a day. With leadership of His Excellency, Governor Shettima and team, support from the Federal Government and the international community, rebuilding progresses as peace returns to the Home of Peace. I am confident that Borno is well on the road to recovery. Let us rebuild Borno together.