Nigeria + 3 more

Lake Chad: building walls or bridges?

by Toby Lanzer | @tobylanzer
Friday, 24 February 2017 09:13 GMT

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Nigeria and the Lake Chad region today, unbeknownst to the world, some 11 million people need emergency relief

Today in many more places than one walls are being erected between peoples, and mutually beneficial partnerships and agreements are being overturned. What once seemed to be an inevitable move towards a global village marked by solidarity between peoples is being replaced by fearful voices calling for more self-centred societies that seem to want to live on desert islands.

I still believe that the road to a safer and more prosperous future is not based on isolation and fear but paved with tar that binds and connects people, which spans bridges uniting people wherever they are and no matter the distance between them.

We can all think of walls that separate or bridges that unite and in my line of work – crisis response – the most current example comes from a theatre that might seem like a million miles away yet is so close to home. In Nigeria and the Lake Chad region today, unbeknownst to the world, some 11 million people need emergency relief.

Many will remember the devastating story in 2014 of the 276 girls who were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram- the world’s deadliest terror group. This was just one of the many tragic episodes of the violence raging across Nigeria’s north-east, Cameroon’s north, Chad’s west and Niger’s south-east. All told, as of today, 11 million people – approximately the population of Belgium or the State of Ohio – desperately need relief. Two of every three people languish on the edge of survival with access to just one meal a day. In a region the size of Ireland, lives have been wrecked and trade has stopped.

Well over two million people have been forced to flee from their homes. They have sought help in areas that are still deemed safe, from communities which are among the poorest in the world. Yet how long can these doors stay open; how long before the poor can no longer care for their neighbours who might then take it upon themselves to seek safety further afield? Already in 2016, the largest number of people seeking a safer and more prosperous future – things that all of us want – and arriving on the shores of Italy came from Nigeria.

As Nigeria’s once abundant oil production has plummeted and prices have crashed, the nation’s treasury struggles to pay civil servants’ salaries let alone protect and care for citizens at the mercy of Boko Haram. Other countries in the region – namely Cameroon, Chad and Niger – face a similar and enormous challenge.

We have a choice. We can stand back and hope that the problem goes away. This is the short-term ‘easy way out’ but likely to bite back in the medium-term as the combination of abject poverty, environmental degradation and violent extremism could fuel further violence and insecurity in the Lake Chad region. Given the vast number of youth at risk there, the ground is ripe for extremist groups who prey on the poor and vulnerable thereby gaining growing numbers of supporters who seek not only social recognition but also survival for themselves and their families.

Instead we must reinvigorate our resolve and commitment to a better future for all by investing in those who need it today. The point is to build bridges that send a clear signal to the people and the authorities of Nigeria’s northeast and the Lake Chad region: a signal that we will provide the emergency relief that millions require to stay alive; that we can support the governments’ investments in security and development; that we can help foster trade; that we can work with local communities to protect the environment; and, that we can help people uphold their rights. This bridge, called engagement, is the right path to pursue and, at the same time, is in our self-interest. Indeed, in my twenty years of work in ‘fragile states’ I have rarely seen people more resilient and governments more energized to work for a more stable and prosperous future. But they need help from the international community. What are we waiting for?

This week’s ‘Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region’ brings together concerned countries from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America and is the perfect opportunity to strengthen our ties with Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. In the short-term a significant injection of humanitarian aid can help half a million children survive acute malnutrition. Together with the authorities of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria we can prevent a famine. And we can do much more to give people a hand-out and a hand up. This is the bridge to a brighter future and a better solution than any wall could ever offer.

Toby Lanzer is the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel. In this capacity he supports humanitarian work in nine countries across the Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal).