The Northeast in 2017

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The outlook for the northeast remains critical going by the assessments of the international organisations helping to end the humanitarian crisis in the region. It is important that the national response to the crisis should reflect the seriousness of purpose, which the situation in the northeast certainly deserves.

Although the sound bites from the military authorities seem to reinforce the optimism that the insurgency is being tackled, yet the emergency response to the poor condition of those displaced should be squarely put in focus. President Muhammadu Buhari also recently elevated the response to the humanitarian crisis by setting up a presidential committee to coordinate things. The projections from the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs suggest that Nigeria should gird its loins for next year if the crisis is not to get worse in the northeast. Almost seven million people are targeted in the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2017. These people who would be the focus of the plan live in the three most affected states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Their condition is considered desperate in humanitarian terms. About two million are reported to be in the camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in which hundreds of thousands of children under five suffer severe malnutrition. The funding shortfall in 2016 is estimated be $292 million.

The reports and briefs of some of the international organisations working in the northeast embody some home truths. A review of these reports should readily elicit a response to the enormity of the problem at hand. For instance, one of the critical observations is contained in a September 2016 report of the Geneva-based Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS). The seven year-old ACAPS is a non-profit initiative of a consortium of three Non Governmental Organisations (Action Contre la Faim – ACF, Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children International). According to the Project, the urgent needs of those in the IDP camps are food, water, shelter, healthcare and protection. It is not good enough that in its overview, the Project also observes as follows: “The national response capacity remains weak. However there have been efforts to scale up the response, through the increase of funding from the Federal government to the state government and through attempts to improve coordination among federal, state,
Local authorities and other partners.” What the Project has to say about protection of those in the camp should also worry the authorities: “The blurring of the lines between civilian and insurgent, and between humanitarian intervention and security surveillance, has allowed abuse of civilians to go unreported.”

The point at issue is the coordination of the efforts and discipline of the process. Of course, the grim picture painted in the reports of international organisations is a true one; Nigerians living in the affected areas have more soul-depressing stories themselves to tell. In the last few months, this reporter has attempted to draw attention on this page to the sad stories from the northeast. It is worth repeating some of the observations on the crisis and the less than satisfactory handling of things by those entrusted with responsibilities. All stakeholders agree that the severe lack of access of the displaced to clean water, nourishing food, basic medical care, schools for children etc. are an immediate issue to tackle. In fact, there are reports that relief workers are still hindered from reaching some persons trapped in remote areas because of the factor of security. Some legislators are talking of a commission for the northeast. Maybe that is a long-term view of things. The region is doubtless in need of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Meanwhile, the starving children have to be saved today so that they can live to be beneficiaries of the future reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The magnitude of the crisis is hardly appreciated in some quarters. If anything at all, there appears to be a greater consciousness on the part of the outside world of the danger and hardship to which people especially children are exposed in those parts of Nigeria. Governments at all levels should henceforth focus on a better coordination of the responses to the crisis to the benefits of the victims. There have been reported opening up of territories formerly under the control of Boko Haram. This should enable aid workers to reach more people trapped in poor conditions that might have been largely underreported.

In a way, the picture is getting clearer now that more towns and villages have been opened up due to the gallant efforts of the armed forces and other security agencies. Yet, latest reports suggest that hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped and are at the risk of malnutrition. A proof has been provided by the experience in Bama where aid workers are actively providing relief to the victims has lent credence to this grim projection.

In projecting towards next year, government should heed the strident warnings of development organisations that famine may further plague a zone of Nigeria already devastated by the bestial war of Boko Haram. The charity organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has warned against the deterioration in the health conditions of the victims due to inadequate medical care. In one of the most credible estimates, the number of children facing starvation in Borno alone has been put at over 400, 000. There is also a warning that some of those poor children may die daily if relief does not come their way promptly. This piece of news should raise an alarm to all humanitarian organisations and individuals. The UN’s budget of $300m is expected to be funded by international donors as organisations and individuals.

That is why greater attention has to be drawn to the problem in order to attract help from outside the country.

External help is already coming from organisations and individuals. More donations are being made from outside. The heroic efforts of aid workers taking risks to provide relief to the victims should be better appreciated. They are indeed making all the difference. Their operational relationship with agencies of government and other bodies should be smoothened.

This positive development has imposed its own challenge. The campaign for external help should be conducted methodically so as to achieve the desired results. The donors, of course, would consider the sense of purpose here among other things. Doubtless, Nigeria needs of external help to tackle the humanitarian crisis in the northeast. The need for external help even becomes greater in the light of the prevailing financial crunch. To justify the confidence of donors, government should rethink its strategy of confronting the crisis.

It is important in this phase of emergency response there should be competent, prudent and honest coordination of efforts. It is the demonstrable seriousness here that would engender the confidence of external donors. In this respect, the presidential committee on the northeast is a welcome development. There should be an organising principle underlying the distribution of relief materials.

In proportionate terms, the state and local governments should also deploy the public resources at their disposal for the care of the people who are in this life-threatening situation.

Another immensely helpful thing is that the military is also giving a helping hand in providing humanitarian relief especially in the area of medical care. The defence and security authorities should do more ensure that liberated towns and villages are secure for relief efforts to spread to more people. It is no good news that months after the defence authorities announced that Boko Haram had been pushed back, relief workers cannot still take food to starving children in some villages.

The humanitarian conscience of Nigeria’s well-endowed organisations and individuals ought to be pricked by the grim situation in the northeast. Outside donors would be enthused by the action of Nigerian organisations and individuals to solve the problem.

In planning for the northeast next year, governments at the three tiers of governments should be reminded for the umpteenth time that the welfare of those who are displaced in the Boko Haram war is ultimately their job. No tier of government in the region should be permitted to abdicate this responsibility. The pressure should be stepped up to ensure that governments perform their duties to the poor people.

External donors in the relief efforts would certainly be discouraged by the corruption in the administration of the relief efforts for the victims. Government should categorically confront this. Those who have callously diverted the food meant for starving children should be punished according to the law. The resources available to provide succour for the victims should be judiciously managed. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure transparency in the process.

All told, will it be too ambitious to expect the Buhari administration to end the humanitarian crisis in the northeast in 2017?