Nigeria Urgently Needs Help to Avert a Famine


Views From Abroad

Aid agencies sometimes hurt their own cause by crying wolf in anticipation of dire circumstances that do not materialise. In north eastern Nigeria the opposite is the case. The wolves have long since arrived.

Not since the 1960s, when images of starving children drew attention to the plight of ethnic Igbos living under siege in the separatist enclave of Biafra, has Africa’s most populous nation faced a humanitarian crisis on this scale. Not since the famine in Somalia six years ago, when a quarter of million people succumbed to hunger and disease, has the international response been so lethally inadequate.

Boko Haram, the jihadist group that has waged a campaign of terror across northeastern Nigeria since 2009, is on the retreat. As Nigeria’s military has recaptured territory once controlled by the group, the depredations it has inflicted have become all too apparent.

Unlike in Somalia in 2011, there is no immediate threat of drought. But normally resilient farming communities, hardened to life on the fringes of the desert, have been driven from their land, and tens of thousands of children are separated from their parents.

As many as 120,000 people will be at risk of death from starvation in the coming year, according to the UN, which this week belatedly launches a campaign to raise $1bn towards relief efforts.

The prevalence of severe malnutrition in children is several times the levels considered an emergency by the World Food Programme. An estimated 7m people overall are in need of aid.

There has been a failure to mobilise sufficient resources in response. Struggling with an economic crisis brought on by the collapse in the price of oil, the Nigerian government has been far too slow to recognise that it needs help.

Meanwhile, the attention of many aid agencies has been focused on the more visible crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen at Nigeria’s expense.

Britain’s Department for International Development is right to single out the UN for criticism. The UN is expected to take the lead in providing early warnings in emergencies of this kind. Not only has it failed in that respect but its operations, according to experts on the ground, remain chaotic and poorly staffed.
But Britain too could be more imaginative in its response. Like a number of European countries, the UK is sitting on tens of millions of dollars in public funds misappropriated by corrupt former Nigerian officials.
More than $1bn looted by the former dictator Sani Abacha remains tied up in forfeiture proceedings in European and US jurisdictions 18 years after his death. A substantial proportion of this, in Switzerland, Luxembourg. Liechtenstein and the Channel Islands, could be released immediately, according to legal experts.

Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler who was swept back to power in elections last year pledging to wage war against corruption, has sought to freeze billions more misappropriated under recent governments.
He could agree to the creation of a trust fund — jointly managed by Nigerian and donor officials — to facilitate the speedy return and deployment in the north-east of some of these funds.

Two moral imperatives would be served. One, the need to scale up rapidly the medical and food aid required to avert a famine.

Two, to ensure money that is rightfully Nigeria’s is returned without further ado.
There could be no better way to use it than to save lives and begin a process of recovery that will require extraordinary resources for many years to come.

• Culled from Financial Times

Return Corrupt Cash to the Poor

A preventable, human-manufactured disaster appears to be unfolding in north-east Nigeria. While the spotlight of media attention is facing elsewhere, the spectre of starvation stalks an area staked out by jihadists as their caliphate. One small state in Nigeria has more displaced people than the entire refugee influx that arrived in Europe last year. The brutal armed conflict has sent a million children out of school. Health services have been decimated and cholera and polio, once eradicated, have returned. The violence of Boko Haram, the jihadist group that still controls parts of the region, is characterised by child killing, abductions and sexual abuse – an oppressive, murderous atmosphere hardly conducive to stable government in a part of Africa the size of Belgium.

Farmers are unable to harvest their crops and aid agencies say they are unable to reach isolated communities. The region is now entering its third season without a harvest. Where food is available, prices have soared – partly due to a decision to depreciate Nigeria’s currency, the naira.

There are clear warning signs that a famine looms while the international community stands by, watches and waits. The concern is that the world springs into action after it is too late. It’s what happened in Somalia six years ago when a quarter of a million people, half of whom were children under five, died.

Now Save the Children is warning that there is a “real and immediate” threat to the lives of 400,000 children who are malnourished and starving. The charity rightly says the crisis is being crowded out of the humanitarian agenda by the more highly visible disasters affecting Syria, Iraq and Yemen. There are concrete steps the world can take. On Monday the United Nations will convene its yearly attempt to assess needs, decide response strategies, and present plans to donors for the areas of greatest global need.

It is a good sign that the UN has doubled its humanitarian funding appeal for north-east Nigeria to $1bn. Heartening too that Britain’s Department for International Development is “scaling up investment” in the conflict-scarred part of the country. Yet it must be remembered that last year only 38% of $484m (£380m) that the UN hoped would be donated by wealthier countries for the African nation materialised.

Nigeria cannot excuse itself as a failed state. It is Africa’s second-biggest economy. However, more imaginative ways of helping the country are also needed. Save the Children suggests turning ill-gotten gains into crisis-denying cash. Since September illicit Nigerian cash laundered through Britain and seized by British police can be returned to Africa to help with development projects.

The sums are not small: recently a former Nigerian state governor pleaded guilty to a £50m fraud. In 2001, it emerged that a former Nigerian dictator laundered $1.3bn through London banks. Nigeria ranks 136 out of 167 in Transparency International’s corruption index. Its current president asked Britain to return assets held by dishonest Nigerians, shrugging off David Cameron’s suggestion that his nation was “fantastically corrupt”.
British aid needs to be spent wisely and we need sanctions, not rewards, for City institutions that aid capital flight. The proposal is a good way of returning money stolen from Africa’s poorest – and filling the gap between rhetoric and reality in the financing of humanitarian assistance.

• Culled from The Guardian, UK