The new ministry of humanitarian affairs may do well to direct its efforts toward prevention of disasters

A highlight of the recent announcement of President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet is the creation of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. It was an idea suggested by the House of Representatives, early this year, to take care of the huge humanitarian needs of those displaced by insurgency in the Northeast. A few other countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Niger and China have a similar ministry to handle their humanitarian emergencies. We therefore commend the president for this move.

But there are obvious challenges. Even before Nigeria established the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI) and similar agencies, several international non-governmental organisations, including the Red Cross have been carrying out humanitarian works, albeit with limitations. Now that the federal government has decided to dedicate a full ministry to humanitarian affairs, it will be necessary to state its duties clearly to avoid the squabbles that often assail agencies with overlapping responsibilities.

We recall that past efforts at disaster management and poverty alleviation were without synergy. For any programme to be effective, proper institution-based coordination mechanism is necessary. For the new ministry to smoothly take off, the executive may need to present bills for amendments of the acts establishing the agencies to be superintended by the ministry, so as to clearly place them under its purview.

With the downturn in the nation’s economy, can the government fund the new ministry adequately? We fear that the pioneer minister, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq, might become overwhelmed by the challenges of an enterprise that requires enormous funding as well as manpower resources. But with her pedigree as a former federal commissioner of NCFRMI, there is no doubt that she is cut out for the job. She only needs to rev up NEMA, NCFRMI and others that will now, naturally, be superintended by the new ministry. Her doors must remain open to international charities, and she should coordinate the activities of home-based NGOs interested in humanitarian and social development activities.

The new ministry would do well to direct its efforts toward prevention of disasters rather than to provision of aid. It should work with intelligence. In no distant time, for instance, several coastal towns in the country may be sacked by severe flooding, especially after the opening of some dams in neighbouring Cameroon. The havoc wrought in 2012 in at least five states has not been remedied. The relief offered to flood victims is a tiny drop in the ocean of what they need after a disaster.

Today, internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) camps dot the country, especially the northeast. And millions of people displaced by Boko Haram or so-called Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) constitute perhaps 95% of its occupants. Other refugee camps have sprung up in the northwest due to attacks on towns and villages by bandits. During a visit to President Buhari recently, the president of the International Committee on Red Cross, Mr Peter Maurer, disclosed that Nigeria was rated fifth in the global humanitarian crises. Stories of how IDPs are raped, robbed or maltreated are rife. Pictures of babies with over-bloated stomachs have arrested global attention. Corrupt activities involved in contracts for the supply of food, medicines and for grass-cutting have been reported.

Where will Hajiya Farouq and her ministry begin? The refugee crisis certainly comes first. Only recently, she visited her counterpart in Niger Republic to discuss how the two neighbouring countries could collaborate to tackle the refugee crisis on their common borders. More than 100, 000 Nigerians are currently refugees in Niger, thanks to Boko Haram in the northeast and banditry in the northwest.

The task ahead is enormous. We wish the minister success.

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