Boko Haram’s deadly seven-year insurgency across north eastern Nigeria has hit the country with one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Yet even as the crisis worsens, southwards, among Nigeria’s political class and press, this stark reality is as distant as a foreign country.
While the group was at one stage in control of swathes of territory, a sustained operation by the Nigerian military has largely rendered them a declining force. But in their wake, the scale of the impact that the insurgency has had continues to emerge. The degree of malnutrition, hunger and displacement in north eastern Nigeria is desperately grim.
There are roughly 2.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Nigeria, 85 per cent of which have been displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. According to UNICEF, 244,000 children are severely malnourished, with over a million children unreachable, in areas still occupied by Boko Haram or too dangerous to access.
According to the International Rescue Committee, up to 2.5 million people in Nigeria are at risk of starvation, with a population the size of New Zealand in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF has also warned that nearly 50,000 children at risk of severe acute malnutrition could die this year if aid does not reach them soon.
The food crisis in north eastern Nigeria is one part of a broader one in the Lake Chad Basin region, spanning across Chad, Niger and Cameroon, which the UN has described as the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis. In the UN General Assembly yesterday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appealed to the international community to do more to help.
Yet it remains the case that the chorus of alarm from international aid organisations and the UN is in contrast to the relative apathy within Nigeria, outside of Boko Haram affected areas.
Online this week, #saveBornoIDPs was trending in Nigeria, helping to raise roughly N640,000 (£1,550). It was sparked partly in response to the lack of attention to internally displaced people in Borno, the most affected north eastern state.
The domestic press, based predominantly in southern cities like Lagos and in the capital Abuja, have treated what should be a national emergency with only a cursory focus. The press has a greater demographic focus on the south, with little reach and genuine reporting in northern areas often leading to a depiction of the north that is both generalised and detached.
In Nigeria’s ethnically diverse populous of over 180 million people, generalisations of north and south seem bland. For the large part, Nigeria’s weak state splits more so into six geopolitical zones than just two. Within those zones, the ethnic and cultural diversity is still remarkably wide.
But Nigeria’s press and political class still often cater to the division of north versus south, as is reflected in the unofficial but still continuing arrangement that Nigerian presidents alternate between those who come from the north and south.
Consequently, the lack of coverage of this crisis has led to lack of political accountability. Nigerian politicians ought to face tough questions over the lack of aid and supplies over the last several months to IDP camps in the north east of the country, but scarcely do. If anything, the tragedy has been depressingly politicised.
Irish singer Bono and Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote visited an IDP camp in Borno state last month. The Associated Press reported that a truckload of food arrived and then turned back a day before their visit. A camp official explained that the supplies could not be delivered before Bono and Dangote arrived. Allegations of corruption by camp officials accused of stealing food supplies have made the crisis even worse.
Nigeria’s recent recession has come at possibly the worst time for IDPs still living with the consequences of the Boko Haram insurgency, even as it wanes. But that Africa’s second biggest economy can be struggling to feed its most desperately in need is not purely down to hard times. From an initial complacency, the Nigerian government has done and provided more to help its IDPs.
But the lack of accountability to the political class on dealing with the numerous challenges has been costly. Any significant awareness and outrage at the scale of the crisis, beyond social media, has not materialised. After the UNGA meeting this week, the international community may indeed commit more resources to the humanitarian crisis, but the conditions that have allowed it to go unaddressed in Nigeria will not easily be eradicated.