Nigerian officials grow rich on the hunger of the poor

Nigerian IDPs arrive at camp

Women and children rescued from Boko Haram by the Nigerian military arrive at an internally displaced people's camp in Yola, Adamawa State, Nigeria. © REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Five weeks ago, when pictures surfaced in the media of severely malnourished internally displaced people (IDPs) in Bama, Borno State, the level of shock expressed by Nigerians could almost make one believe it was ‘news’, even though this problem has been with us for years.

What may have made it newsworthy this time is that the pictures came from Bama, about 70 kilometres from Maiduguri, the state capital. Access to Bama is difficult, especially for journalists. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR, only got access because its reporter was embedded with the military for four days – access rarely given to a Nigerian journalist.

The second-largest town in Borno, Bama is the place that has been worst hit in the seven years of Boko Haram insurgency. In 2006 it had a population of over 260,000 people, according to census figures; now, it is virtually a ghost town, save for soldiers and the 26,000 IDPs camped on a hospital compound. The Bama camp has existed for about a year.

IDPs are suffering not due to shortages of food and other relief items, but because of endemic corruption

The reason for the lack of access is that the Maiduguri-Bama road is closed to civilians, due to occasional attacks by pockets of insurgents. In April they attacked a top army commander, killing one of his security guards and wounding two others. Access to the road is only possible with security clearance and a military escort.

The ICIR journalist discovered that at least 18 people are dying each day at the Bama camp. In May, a local non-governmental organization, the Bama Community Peace Initiative, wrote of its concerns to the Protection Sector Working Group under the UNHCR, saying that the food being cooked in the six designated kitchens was of poor quality and that the low rations meant the camp’s 4,000 inhabitants could only eat once a day. The report, which was signed by Ibrahim Mohammed and concerned the period from October to March, added that around 11 children aged 0 to 15 were being buried daily.

The high death toll was also caused by thirst, and by lack of sanitation facilities. There were only three functioning water boreholes, and people were having to relieve themselves in the open, due to lack of toilets or bathrooms.

As more Boko Haram hostages were rescued from surrounding towns like Banki and brought to Bama, the number of people living in the camp steadily increased, stretching scarce resources.

But since the release of the ICIR report, the level of response has been impressive. Doctors Without Borders, the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, Oxfam and the UNHCR have all visited the camp. The federal government ordered that medical and food items be taken in, and critical cases have been evacuated to the state capital for treatment.

Relief diverted

Though Bama is in the news today, there are thousands of other people in government-owned camps across the state where conditions are just as critical. The Dalori camp, which used to be the largest IDP camp in the state, was once in the news because of similar cases of malnutrition.

The present situation in camps in the state capital is not too different from what was discovered in Bama. However, access to these camps by journalists is highly restricted following critical media reports (especially from ICIR Nigeria), which exposed how relief items are diverted by camp officials. According to these reports, IDPs are suffering not due to shortages of food and other relief items, but because of endemic corruption in the National Emergency Management Agency and the state emergency agency which receive and distribute donations.

In 2015, I visited camps in Borno and Adamawa states and saw relief items in the stores, donated by wealthy individuals and organizations, including several types of grain, mattresses, noodles, detergents, bottled water, tomato puree and fish. But when I talked to the IDPs, they claimed they were not given these items and only ate once a day.

There are several organizations working in northeastern Nigeria, but there is no co-ordination of their activities. This leads to turf wars between them. For example, the most prominent rift is between two government agencies, NEMA and SEMA. In Borno, federal government agency NEMA delivers foodstuff to its state counterpart, SEMA, whose responsibility it is to get the food to the IDPs.

There also seems to be an arrangement, even if not official, whereby the government takes care of feeding the IDPs, while international NGOs take care of hygiene, education and healthcare.

Another problem is that the state government prefers to work with UN agencies rather than international NGOs, because it feels the UN agencies bring more money. NGOs, meanwhile, prefer to work directly with IDP camps, and this has not gone down well with state government officials, who create unnecessary bottlenecks for these organizations.

The cold war between the Borno state government and NGOs came to the fore recently, when Governor Kashim Shettima accused some of them of taking advantage of the IDPs to enrich themselves.

‘In the midst of credible organizations trying to help us, we have seen occasional instances of some “business groups” masquerading as NGOs, smiling to the bank on the agony of our people,’ Shettima said during a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in the state.

But while the governor is quick to attack NGOs, nothing is done about his officials, who are pretending to help IDPs but in reality are robbing them.

Government officials are happy for the IDPs to remain in the camps rather than returning to their homes: the longer they stay, the longer relief will keep coming. The governor is also aware that relief items are being diverted by officials, but little is done to rein them in.

Beyond the setting up of committees to investigate the allegations, nothing is heard. Government officials pre-empt the outcome of such investigations by talking up the innocence of suspects.

Little wonder there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel for the IDPs.

Country profile: Nigeria

Young woman from animist community

A young woman from an animist community listens to a visiting Christian preacher in Maiduguri. © Seamus Murphy/Panos Pictures

Flag of Nigeria

There is a joke sometimes told about the self-styled ‘Giant of Africa’. It is said that when other countries complained to God about the many blessings bequeathed to Nigeria in the form of natural resources, he replied: ‘Wait till you see the people I put there.’

Over 55 years after it gained independence from Britain, Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation – still grapples with basic problems such as unsafe drinking water, inadequate healthcare and bad roads. These are problems the country should have been able to solve, given the plethora of resources – notably, abundant oil reserves – at its disposal. Instead, when it was recently revealed that Nigeria still imports toothpicks and pencils, and spends about two billion naira a day on importing rice, there was no sense of popular surprise. Nor was it exactly a revelation when the World Bank reported recently that the country’s private sector is constrained by unreliable electricity supplies, poor access to finance, and corruption.

Corruption, in particular, has been endemic. Many link this to the oil resources that should have enabled Nigeria to leap over the hurdles facing the more impoverished nations of West Africa. Oil exports began in 1958, just before independence, but it was the 1970s boom in oil prices that led the country effectively to put all its economic eggs in one basket. Over the years, this ‘black gold’ has arguably been a curse rather than a blessing. Many consider that it has led to the brazen theft of government revenues and fostered a culture of laziness. The ongoing trial of former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki for mis­appropriating $2.1 billion has revealed that people from all parts of the country took a cut out of this corrupt deal.

The tripartite problems of ethnicity, religion and corruption have played a key role in the country’s underdevelopment. There have been six successful coups d’état since 1960, each using one or all of these as their justification.

The current phase of democratic government, the Fourth Republic – instituted in 1999 following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha – is by far the longest there has been since independence. There has been a reasonably orderly transition of power involving four presidents – though the current incumbent, Mohammadu Buhari, himself once led the military coup of 1983.

A market scene in Lagos.

Seamus Murphy/Panos Pictures

Recent elections have not, however, been without problems, many of them connected to ethnic affiliations. In the 2011 election, Goodluck Jonathan was mostly supported by the Christian-dominated south while in 2015 Buhari won largely thanks to the backing of the mainly Muslim north. Many people fled their homes before last year’s election, particularly in the north, for fear of a recurrence of the violence following the 2011 event, which left more than 800 dead.

The aftermath of the electoral victory for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress has not exactly been unproblematic. ‘When you campaign, you say you will do A, B, C, but when you win the election, you prioritize,’ said information minister Lai Mohammed. This was in response to popular displeasure at President Buhari’s statement that, instead of paying unemployed youths 5,000-naira ($25) monthly stipends, as promised, he would use the money to build infrastructure that would create employment.

Buhari claims that his administration will mark an end to ‘business as usual’. In particular, the government says it is determined to rid the country of corruption while diversifying the economy. It stresses that this will mean taking tough and unpopular decisions. A case in point are new restrictions on foreign-exchange transactions imposed in January.

Nigerians will be sceptical about Buhari’s claims given that countless betrayed promises by past leaders have brought the country to its present state, where the general perception is that nothing is working as it should.

Innocents detained in Nigeria

For a year, Ayuba Ijai feared he might never see his family again. First, he was held hostage for months by the dreaded Boko Haram terrorists, and then government soldiers detained him for nearly a year, on suspicion of being a Boko Haram member.

The 30-year-old was abducted in 2014 after returning to his village Mildu in Adamawa State, to help his parents with farming. He was sick when the group attacked and could not flee. Captured along with 24 others, he was forced to convert to Islam or be killed. They were all locked up in a room, with guards stationed outside.

Three months later, he escaped when government forces liberated the town. However, a few hours after getting home to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, soldiers stormed his neighbourhood and whisked Ayuba away. They said he was a Boko Haram member, and for 10 months he was detained and denied contact with the outside world.

Insurgents Boko Haram are responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 people and displacement of two million others in northeastern Nigeria. But since the Boko Haram war intensified in 2011, the Nigerian military has also been caught up in a web of serious human rights violations. An Amnesty International report last June detailed 7,000 deaths in detention and over 1,000 extrajudicial killings – reports denied by then-President Goodluck Jonathan.

Despite current President Muhammadu Buhari’s stated resolve to clamp down on human rights abuses by soldiers, problems continue. After an attack, soldiers go into a neighbourhood and arbitrarily arrest people, mostly youths. Also, anyone who refuses to be part of Civilian JTF, the youth vigilante group assisting the military, are treated as Boko Haram members.

This has led to an upsurge in the number of innocent people detained.

‘These cases fit a pattern of human rights violations,’ says Amnesty’s Netsanet Belay. ‘The military have routinely arbitrarily arrested people, and detained them without access to their families and lawyers or without them ever being brought before a court.’

Ayuba was finally released in December 2015 along with 129 others, after their detention was exposed by investigative news agency He says he was treated better by the military than by Boko Haram, but he was never happy as all he wanted was to go home.

He is now still trying to settle back into the community and deal with the stigma that the soldiers foisted on him.

Samuel Malik

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