Instruments of Pain (IV): The Food Crisis in North East Nigeria, Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°126
The humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria is at risk of growing worse. Almost five million people in the region (8.5 million across the wider Lake Chad basin) are facing severe food insecurity. This primarily is a result of a seven-year-old insurgency by Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group, which provoked forced displacement as well as massive infrastructure destruction. But the Nigerian military’s forceful counterinsurgency strategy also was a precipitating factor. Amid this situation, aid agencies are unable to access many of those in need due to security constraints and lack sufficient funding for 2017. They warn that emergency food rations may be cut in weeks, just as the lean season approaches for the vulnerable millions.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “more than 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and north-east Nigeria are going hungry, and facing devastating levels of food insecurity”. As Crisis Group has argued in its three prior briefings in this series, preventing communities from tipping into famine clearly requires donors to immediately increase their contributions; in Nigeria’s case this means both honouring previous pledges and committing more to fill the 2017 funding gap. But politics lies at the core of any serious response.
As a priority, Nigeria’s government will have to step up and demonstrate greater commitment to providing relief to its own citizens, managing the provision of food and other humanitarian aid more judiciously and with greater accountability, and phasing out military restrictions on some economic activities in Borno state, crucial to resuscitating the region’s agriculture and overall economy. Securing access could require breaking a taboo and negotiating directly with Boko Haram. “Longer term, of course, the answer lies in a more comprehensive strategy for ending the insurgency: the army cannot on its own guarantee security and failure to provide other basic public goods and visible socio-economic dividends to affected areas risks derailing recent progress against Boko Haram. Moreover, as this crisis is directly the result of a man-made conflict, the Nigerian government must now explore all options for ending the conflict, including negotiating peace with the insurgents.
II. Conflict, Displacement and Food Crisis
The food crisis in northeast Nigeria (and across neighbouring Lake Chad basin countries, Cameroon, Chad and Niger), currently Africa’s largest humanitarian emergency, has its roots in the conflict with Boko Haram that began in 2010. Over the last seven years, fighting has caused the deaths of more than 20,000 people and displaced almost two million, with another 200,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries. Since 2015, a rejuvenated Nigerian military and a four-nation Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – including the armies of Cameroon, Chad and Niger operating around the Lake Chad basin – have pushed Boko Haram to the eastern fringes of Borno state, along the mountainous border with Cameroon, and around Lake Chad. But the insurgency is resilient and much of the region remains insecure.
Three main factors aggravated the crisis. Foremost was Boko Haram’s attacks on rural communities that forced many to flee. Second was massive destruction of eco nomic infrastructure in Borno state and other parts of the north east caused by the fighting. The government’s response to Boko Haram also played a part: the Nigerian military often forced civilians to flee areas where it conducted counter-insurgency operations, either to minimise civilian casualties or prevent locals from collaborating with insurgents. It, and neighbouring regional militaries, also banned or restricted trade in goods and services in an attempt to deny Boko Haram supplies and revenue, a practice that further decimated the region’s economy. Combined, these factors led to a situation in which a huge population simply became unable to feed itself.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that 4.7 million Nigerians in the north east now urgently need food assistance, in cluding 1.4 million facing an “emergency” and 38,000 famine-like conditions. All told, in the north-eastern Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, an estimated 5.2 million people could face severe food insecurity by mid-2017, with 450,000 children under the age of five suffering severe acute malnutrition.