Abdu: Tackling Insurgency Will End Humanitarian Crisis

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The Outgoing Country Director, PLAN International, Hussaini Abdu, in this interview speaks about the humanitarian crisis in the north-eastern part of Nigeria, progress his organisation has made in addressing the situation among other issues. Ugo Aliogo presents the excerpt:

Malnutrition is one of the major humanitarian problems in the North-east and also PLAN International’s key intervention area. What is the situation presently?

Malnutrition is one of the major humanitarian challenges in the North-east. It has been existing before the crisis. Due to the humanitarian crisis in the region, there has been massive displacement of a lot of persons, about 70 per cent of the displaced persons are not staying in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps, but they are staying with host communities. When these displaced persons stay with the host communities, there is limited economic and farm activities, which affects feeding and nutrition. The malnutrition problem affects children under the ages of zero to five years old, lactating mothers and pregnant women, so that is the reason why we are intervening. The different levels of interventions include nutrition supplements, food distribution in collaborations with World Food Programme (WFP). It is important to state here that any child under the ages of zero to five years that is malnourished has to be well taken care of, otherwise after five years; the malnutrition can become a lifelong problem. It can also affect the child’s mental capacity.

How have you built capacity in the area of livelihood support for the unemployed in the states where you are working in the north-east?

There are two dimensions to the issue. I will like to state that even before the crisis, the north-east had the worst statistics on unemployment. The unemployment situation has been compounded by the humanitarian crisis and household income has been badly affected. The unemployment situation is a veritable means for radicalisation. Of course, we are not making excuses for anyone who got radicalized. But it is easier to recruit someone who is doing nothing into some of those extremist organisations or activities. Building capacity in the areas of livelihood support is one of our major areas of intervention. In humanitarian response, people don’t consider livelihood as an emergency, instead they see it as early recovery or development. But for us it is really very important to improve economic activities because part of the livelihood concern is that when people are able to learn trade or certain skills, they are able to earn their own income and this will help to reflate the local economy in those areas. We are training people in different vocal skills such as electrical works, repairs of phones and bricklaying, and other domestic economic activities. Before organising these trainings, we would have done a market survey to ensure that there is market for the economic activity we are training people for.

Through the market survey, we are able to profile how much these artisans can make daily.

We also work with them and provide those options on the table, then they choose the skills they want to learn and we support them. When they are through with the training, we provide them with kits and other things they need to startup their businesses. There are those who are interested in animal husbandry, so we can buy goats, sheep and cattle for them, and within a short time, it will multiple and increase household income.

What is the way out in the issue of safe schools for children in the north-east?

The government has actually signed off to the safe school declaration and it has showed commitment to ensuring that it will put all mechanism in place including policies and laws to ensure that schools are safe for children. There is already that declaration, some of the work we are doing with government is around creating the enabling policy frameworks to ensure we support that declarations and also get a good buy-in from authorities at all levels particularly state governments, because the bulk of schools are owned by state governments. Therefore, when we embark on this type of engagements with the federal government, without effective buy-in at the State and Local Government levels, it will not work. Even if you have good policy framework at national level, if you don’t have a corresponding policy framework at the state level, it is not be good enough.

At Borno State, we did a lot of work on that, but there are many states that needs to do more even if the federal government has signed it. There are many states that are not aware of it, and the federal government must bring states onboard on this. Nigeria is a federation and that is one of the dynamics of policy making that some people take lightly.

The federal government cannot make policies for the states, particularly on education which is on the concurrent list. So it is important to have the state government buy-in, primary schools are owned by state or local governments. In all, 99 per cent of secondary schools apart from federal government colleges are owned by state government or private individuals. So the role of the state government is very important because the way the country runs whether it is government or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) or Private sector or criminals, there are a lot of copycats. If someone does it and succeeds a lot of people will want to do it, it started in Chiboks, to Dapchi, to Kankara, and now it is Kagara, Niger State. We don’t know where it will happen next, because these people are learning from each other, it may not be the same group. So, there is a lot that government needs to do, for instance, we issued a statement yesterday and we said state government should do a security assessment of all their boarding schools especially those in the north-west, north-central and north-east. They should do the security assessment and check the vulnerability of their boarding facilities, the ones that are at risk locations should be converted to day schools, and relocate children from distance communities into their own communities or boarding school facilities located in safer places until we are able to address this. Government needs to be honest with itself, we don’t have the capacity to deal with the magnitude of the crises we are dealing with. The massive geography of some states in north-east cannot be covered by the armed forces and police we have. There are a lot of ungoverned spaces and they have fringes of schools around them. Kagara is on Lagos-Kaduna road, between Birnin Gwari and Mukwa, and if you know that area very well, you will just know that in the middle axis is a huge forest and therefore anybody can anything around those areas. In most places in our country, once you pass the Local Government Headquarters, you don’t see the police, even if you see them, they maybe untrained, unmotivated and under resourced. So it is a serious issue we need to tackle. There is no special curriculum for learning for children in emergency situations, they use the same curriculum with the regular school, but what we actually did was for continuous education.

This crisis has been going on for 11 years, so any child born during this crisis should naturally be in primary six at 11 years. You will also find an 11years old boy who has not seen primary school, so you cannot put that child in primary school, you need to have a special curriculum that trains the child to be able to meet up. So it is a matter of the catch up mechanisms so that they are trained within a very short time and placed back to formal school. Through our own type of education in emergency formation you are able to train them, then they pick up and you begin to find formal institutions where they can be absolved to continue with their education.

What progress did Plan International record in the area of maternal and child health under your watch?

We had a very big maternal and child health programme in Sokoto and Bauchi, it was sponsored by the Canadian government and it ran for five years. We just got an extension for the one in Bauchi for another one year. One of the major crises in the North-west and North-east of the country is the challenge of maternal and neo-natal issues; this involves unsafe pregnancy, death during child birth, infant mortality, and other issues. The programme was a success and the situation has improved in recent times and it has been overshadowed by much bigger crises. So what we did working with the State Governments of Sokoto and Bauchi is setting up structures and ensuring that we increased the number of skill birth attendants to support. We also ensured that women go to anti-natal clinic because part of the crisis is that women don’t actually to go the clinic, therefore women started going to clinics for anti-natal. They also searched for anti-natal facilities in hospitals across the State. We created support mechanisms for those states, and provided incentives for women to go for anti-natal. Some of these women created support groups where they can identify their pregnant colleagues, mobolise and prepare them for emergency. We also trained women within communities on certain kind of medications, they can administer even when there is emergency. These efforts have dropped the number of maternal mortality in the States.

Why has the humanitarian crises in the north-east remained a protracted problem; do you feel response is from government, International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are slow, What is the way out?

It is a protracted problem because what the humanitarian crisis has not been addressed.

What created the humanitarian situation is what Nigerians describe as “Boko Haram. The arms conflicts in that area between state and non-state groups in that area is what created the violence and it is still there. As the violence continues, the humanitarian situation will remain. It has nothing to do with how quick, INGOs and CSOs responsible, rather it has everything to do with how we end the violence. If we don’t end the violence, the humanitarian situation will remain because people in Internally Displaced Camp (IDPs) whether they are IDPs or refugees in other countries will not be able to go back home, and if they are not able to go back home, they will be able to face their livelihood. Most of these individuals, the bulk of their livelihood is attached to farmland, they cannot go farm and they have to depend on food ratio and distribution from NGOs for them to survive.

Many of the children and young people are dispersed across the country, they cannot go back home because it is still unsafe for them. The challenge is that government has not been able to stop the violence. Until, we stop the violence, we will not be able to handle the humanitarian crises. Government approach to the situation is a war approach. But in an insurgency of this magnitude, I feel there are other ways government can end this and from experience of other countries, wars on insurgency doesn’t end with a victory on the battle field. You can win the war, but winning the war can be very protracted and that is what we are seeing. I’m not saying should grant the insurgents amnesty, rather they should not take away the place of negotiation. Negotiation is not the same as amnesty. You could negotiate a war and apprehend the insurgents behind the humanitarian crisis. Negotiation maybe one of the ways of addressing the crisis, however I’m not saying they (government) might succeed or that the arms group will be to accept their terms and conditions.

Negotiation does not mean that they are focusing on the core issues, but it is looking at how to meaningfully engage in a manner that you terminate their source of army. The challenge doesn’t lie in killing them in their hundred, but we have to understand the area is a very vast area, if you have the large troop number in Borno state, they cannot occupy it. So if you are aware of this challenge can you begin to think of alternative, I always believe that there is an alternative to war and we need to explore that alternative to war. But we must hold people who push this country into the crisis into account.

How effective is your collaboration with local Non-Governmental Organisations?

We work with about 15 local NGOs in the country and the collaboration has been very effective. We understand our relationship and many of them are sub-grantee which implies that we have grants and give them sub grant. We try to have a strong relationship and respect each other. We appreciate our relationship to support them in terms of building capacity for them to be able to deliver well. We also appreciate our responsibility to ensure that they are able to sustain these organisations, it has been tough, but we try to not to recruit from their staff, even though a lot of people don’t like that, because of a lot think of the staff think that if their capacity has grown, they also want to grow in career. The challenge is that if we don’t recruit from those staff, other organisations will recruit from them and that is what I’m trying to explain about that circle of capacity challenge. They train, support their staff, building capacity and if they are good enough an international NGO picks them up and support them.

Does Plan international provide safe spaces for girls?

It is one of our ways of delivering the protection work I was talking about. So it is safe places in the child protection and gender based violence. So we provide pscyho-social support for victims whose rights have been violated. Also women who have been kidnapped, we provide pscyho-social support for them; there are a lot of women who have been kidnapped that the media don’t report that we have to catered for. There is hardly any of the community where we are working that we don’t have a space.

Did you receive any form of support from state and local Government in your work?

The role of the government remains very important and the sustainability of whatever we do depends on the buy-in of government. At all time, we involve government either at the point of initiation or implementation. In fact in some of cases, when we are designing the programme, we actually programme bring government officials to see what we are planning to do and when we are implementing we work with them, so they can own it, we know ultimately our project will end. But we want government to continue with it. Sustainability is always a challenge in the sector, if you don’t get government to owe what you’re doing.

How was your tenure as the Country-Director of Plan International?

My tenure was very remarkable looking at a programme you started with eight staff at the beginning, but today we have over 300 staff. We started initially with a budget of 300, 000 euros, and presently having a budget more 25 million euros. We have not just grown this organisation, but we have made impacts in communities especially saving lives, strengthening people’s voices, providing safe spaces for young girls, providing education for children and training teachers. Whether it is conditional cash transfer you are doing or building schools, clinics, providing nutrition supplements or food, seeing people happy despite the difficult situation they found themselves is very important. Everything about the growth is that we have grown bigger so that we can be able to support more, so for me it is really remarkable. Also seeing and working with colleagues in different organisations is very important too.