By Misha Hussain
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
More than half a million children in northern Nigeria face severe malnutrition this year in a humanitarian crisis that has largely gone unnoticed because of ongoing conflict in the region, aid agencies say. Violent clashes between insurgents and Nigeria’s security forces in 11 northern states have forced thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries in search of food, shelter and livelihoods.
Aid organisations are finding it difficult to reach the millions who remain. So far, only four international relief organisations have been able to help some of the estimated 55 million people at risk, half of whom live in poverty. “If this was happening in other African countries, the world would sit up and pay attention,” said Choice Okoro, Head of Mission in Nigeria for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).“We tend to forget that we’re talking about people, not percentages. Just five percent of the Nigerian population is equivalent to a quarter of the population of any other West African country,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Aid workers are particularly worried by high levels of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) – defined by the World Health Organisation as a very low weight for height, visible severe wasting, or the presence of nutritional fluid retention or oedema.
“To put things into perspective, Niger, which usually has the worst malnutrition in the Sahel, is expected to have 290,000 cases of SAM by the end of this year. Nigeria will have almost double that,” said Cyprien Fabre, Head of the Regional Support Office at the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO). “Only 60 percent of the children affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM) will receive treatment. A further 900,000 children will suffer from moderate acute malnutrition this year, a loose indication of the level of food security in the region,” he added.
Signs of an unfolding humanitarian crisis were already present five years ago, around the time of the 2008 Sahel Food Crisis, aid workers say. In the south of Niger, where ECHO was running malnutrition programmes, many of the children seeking treatment were coming from northern Nigeria, relief workers said. “It was clear to see that things were bad across the border, but there were no international aid agencies in northern Nigeria, so nobody could assess the situation,” said Fabre.
Aid has been slow reaching the affected populations in Nigeria due to a lack of security and for political reasons. “There is the notion that Nigeria has the capacity in terms of financial means – it’s an oil producing country. That’s true, but what is needed is technical assistance to ensure effective intervention when emergencies happen,” said UNOCHA’s Okoro.
A new ECHO delegation due to start work in September will provide part of that technical assistance and will also lobby to push malnutrition and food security higher up the national agenda. In addition, ECHO has already given $11.6 million in 2013 – more than five times the $2.25 million it gave in 2008 – directly to partner organisations on the ground to pay for ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) such as peanut paste, which are high in energy and nutrients.
However, one key organisation is sorely missed. Normally, with moderate malnutrition and food insecurity of a scale seen in northern Nigeria, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) would be the first to respond, said a senior UN official who asked to remain anonymous. “The Nigerian government is very proud and sensitive towards the involvement of WFP, as this implies that the government cannot take care of its own people,” the official told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There was talk of an all-Nigerian WFP office, but this was rejected by WFP due to concerns over corruption,” he said.
“The Nigerian Red Cross is working on the ground in these areas, but if you don’t have WFP involved in this scale of humanitarian crisis, then that’s a huge problem,” he added.
A growing insurgency and a heavy-handed response by the state have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in the three northeastern states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, said Lucy Freeman, Deputy Africa Director for Amnesty International. In mid-May, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency and launched an offensive in the northeast against Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram, which is responsible for much of the insurgency. “People are trapped in the north of the country. Their mobile phones have been cut off and there is very restricted movement in the area, so that has had a detrimental effect on people’s ability to live, eat and trade … to survive,” said Freeman in a telephone interivew.
Local people are terrified of Boko Haram, but many feel safer with them in charge than at the hands of the security forces as they know where they stand. “People are afraid of the security forces. There is no confidence that those arrested are the ones responsible for the attacks. Hundreds and hundreds of people have been detained and have effectively disappeared,” said Freeman.
“Earlier this year, there were reports of a large number of bodies deposited at the Maduiguri mortuary by the Joint Task Force [of the Nigerian military and security services]. Nobody knows who these people are, where they have come from or why they were killed,” she added. “It’s a difficult situation for the Nigerian government, but they don’t seem to be moving quickly to resolve the problem. Instead, it seems like the conflict is being displaced into other areas rather than actually being stopped,” added Freeman.