Emergency water transported to a spontaneous displacement site, Diffa, 2016. Emergency water transported to a spontaneous displacement site, Diffa, 2016. Photo credit: Matias Meier/IRC Nigeria
A square peg in a round hole: the politics of disaster management in north-eastern Nigeria
by Virginie Roiron October 2017

The ongoing conflict in north-eastern Nigeria has resulted in widespread displacement, violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and a deepening humanitarian crisis. Since the start of the conflict in 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and up to 2.1 million have fled their homes. The vast majority – 1.9 million – are internally displaced and over 200,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries. In the three most affected states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, almost 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Against the backdrop of this complex humanitarian crisis, until mid-2016 the Nigerian government was reluctant to call for international assistance, despite the fact that its disaster management (DM) framework was not fit for purpose. The government did not want to call attention to the crisis or encourage international humanitarian actors to access the north-east, where it was waging a counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram.

Nigeria’s disaster management framework

The current DM framework was established in 1999 following massive floods in Niger State. It is framed very broadly to cover electoral violence, simple emergencies, disease outbreaks and natural disasters. The framework was efficient enough to contain an outbreak of Ebola in Lagos in 2014, but the country does not have institutionalised response mechanisms to manage large-scale, complex emergencies.

The federal National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), established in 1999, is responsible for formulating DM policies and coordinating all disaster preparedness and response plans nationally. A national response plan was adopted in 2001, and a national response framework established in 2009. At the state level, State Emergency Management Authorities (SEMAs) are responsible for emergency management and coordination, under the authority of the Deputy Governor or the Secretary of State Government, who is tasked with coordination between line ministries. Only 31 of Nigeria’s 36 states have legally established SEMAs, and a large number of these are non-functional. There is also no functional coordination mechanism between the state and federal level in a country where states enjoy a very high degree of autonomy. SEMAs are funded by state governments, resulting in inequalities between wealthier and poorer states and different levels of interest and commitment. Southern states have received far more funding and investment in infrastructure than states in the north. For example, the Lagos SEMA, one of the few effective ones, established a call centre and successfully traced Ebola cases in 2014. In contrast, SEMAs in the north-eastern states have no capacity to respond and lack staff, financial and logistical resources and disaster response plans. The Adamawa SEMA is an exception with 2-3 staff but no specific budget or staff dedicated to the response. Politics also plays a role. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration downplayed the magnitude of the crisis in the north-east and only initiated a small-scale response in 2014 to bolster his campaign ahead of presidential elections in March 2015. Several food distributions in IDP camps in Maiduguri were openly politicised, with food sacks carrying Jonathan’s stickers and the campaign posters of his rival, Buhari, displayed in the camps.

Managing the narrative: Buhari’s normalisation agenda

Following Jonathan’s defeat in the June elections, the Buhari administration made a few major commitments, one of them being to resolve or ‘normalise’ the crisis by defeating Boko Haram by December 2015, restoring pre-conflict conditions and thereby allowing IDPs to return home. Acknowledging the existence of a humanitarian crisis and calling for international assistance to meet it did not initially fit with this agenda. Meanwhile, as opportunities to capture resources greatly determine the involvement of national institutions in humanitarian responses in Nigeria, the government was increasingly concerned with international assistance being channelled outside of government institutions. This led the Borno State governor to accuse some NGOs of using the crisis to ‘enrich themselves’.+Samuel Malik, ‘Nigerian Officials Grow Rich on the Hunger of the Poor’, New Internationalist, 18 July 2016, https://newint.org/features/webexclusive/2016/07/18/nigerian-corruption-idp-camps. Although pushing for returns, the government did not fully embrace the concept of recovery; did not support returns to Northern Adamawa in 2015, which were then assimilated into secondary displacements; and missed an opportunity to begin early reconstruction programming in ‘stabilised’ areas. The humanitarian response was mainly limited to IDP camps in Maiduguri where, until 2016, only 10–15% of IDPs were being hosted. Meanwhile, most of Borno State remained inaccessible due to the presence of Boko Haram and counter-insurgency operations by the Nigerian army. The humanitarian response became increasingly militarised, with the army controlling not only the whole of Borno State, but also NEMA, SEMA and international actors’ movements outside Maiduguri. Despite accusations that the army was perpetrating human rights abuses and causing mass displacement, Buhari intensified counter-insurgency operations from late 2015 onwards.

The international humanitarian response

For its part, the international community was slow to raise the profile of the humanitarian crisis and scale up the funding and the response. UN agencies took time to shift from a development focus to emergency mode, and to start lobbying the government to acknowledge the situation and improve access. The UN faced problems identifying committed interlocutors within the government at state and federal level and consequently lacked comprehensive and tangible information to analyse needs and plan the response. As a result, the 2015 and 2016 Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) called for only $100m and $484m respectively to supplement government assistance.

In April 2016, photos showing international food aid on sale in local shops in Borno were posted on social media, pointing towards aid diversion by SEMA and NEMA.+Adam Alqali, ‘Nigeria: When Aid Goes Missing’, reliefweb, 5 September 2016, http://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/nigeria-when-aid-goes-missing. The following June, MSF published a report on the humanitarian situation in Bama, Borno State’s second largest city, which had been recaptured by the Nigerian army in March 2015 and was under military control. Twenty-four thousand people, mostly women and children, were living in appalling conditions, with 19% of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.+MSF, ‘Nigeria: At Least 24,000 Displaced People in Dire Health Situation in Bama’, 22 June 2016, http://www.msf.org/en/article/nigeria-least-24000-displaced-people-dire-health-situation-bama. Food rations were provided once a day, but they mainly comprised rice, which people did not have the means to cook. While the Borno SEMA chairman rejected criticism of the assistance, arguing that SEMA and NEMA had reached 150,000 people with food assistance in IDP camps in Maiduguri, he also admitted that the crisis now exceeded Nigeria’s ability to respond alone.+‘UN Accused of Failing as North-east Nigeria at Risk of Famine’, The Guardian, 14 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/14/un-accused-of-failing-as-nigerian-food-crisis-threatens-hundreds-ofthousands.

These events led the government to declare a ‘nutritional emergency’ in Borno State, and the Borno Governor asked the World Food Programme (WFP) – until then confined to building NEMA’s and SEMA’s capacities in data collection, needs analysis and food distributions – to scale up food assistance. Labelling this a ‘nutritional’ crisis diverted attention away from the wider humanitarian needs created by the counter-insurgency operation against Boko Haram, including the forced displacement of rural populations and restrictions on the movement of civilians in camps with limited access to basic services, leading to disease outbreaks and other public health issues and acute food insecurity. The UN system lobbied for the declaration of a Level 3 Emergency, but had to backtrack following objections from the government. Even so, WFP assistance increased by 700% between October and November 2016, when more than a million people were receiving general food assistance. Finally, following pressure from the UN in New York and the three largest donors to the response, the 2017 HRP increased to over $1bn covering more than 20 Local Government Authorities in Borno State, up from just four in the two previous HRPs. The 2017 HRP finally acknowledges north-eastern Nigeria as one of the world’s major humanitarian crises. The document was instrumental in allowing the UN system and the Nigerian government to push for the February 2017 Oslo conference, where $672 million was pledged to avert famine in the north-east.

The 2016 events also led the federal government to strengthen its involvement in response planning. The government sidelined NEMA and SEMA in mid-2016, and relevant line ministries were tasked with coordinating the response in their sectors. The federal government also created ad hoc institutions under its authority. The Inter-Ministerial Task Force (IMTF), chaired by the State Minister of Budget and Planning, was established to coordinate ministries’ contributions to the HRP and ensure that it was in line with the government’s priorities, and a Chief Humanitarian Coordinator (CHC) was appointed to lead the Emergency Coordination Center. The IMTF brings together sector leads and international humanitarian partners, and the CHC has been instrumental in promoting critical links between institutional and non-state actors through a Humanitarian Coordination Working Group.

Challenges remaining

Crucial progress has been made, but challenges remain. While these new arrangements facilitated stronger political links between the international community and senior government officials, they did not address the disconnect between federal and state levels at a time when the centre of gravity of the response was shifting to Borno State. The CHC is a standalone function with links mainly with the UN humanitarian coordination structure, and has never been fully acknowledged and supported by the federal government, which opted instead for empowering the federal Presidential Committee for the North East Initiative (PCNI). The government’s new disaster management arrangements have also not resolved the bureaucratic challenges which hamper the scaling up of the humanitarian response. These include cumbersome registration processes that currently leave 14 international NGOs without permanent registration, with some asked to register at the federal and state level, a very limited number of working visas for internationals, increasing travel costs in and out of the country, and long and complicated processes to import food and medicines.

Since 2016, the government has shown greater interest in recovery, which is attracting huge amounts of funding (more than $1 billion through the World Bank and African and Islamic Development Banks), and is more in line with the ‘normalisation’ agenda and the government’s focus on large-scale infrastructure programming. Supported by the World Bank, the European Union (EU) and the UN, the federal government has formulated the Buhari Plan, which provides a framework for reconstruction in the north-east. The PCNI and the Borno State Ministry of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Resettlement (M3R) have been established to roll out and coordinate the plan. The PCNI, an advisory committee to the president, is the key federal government coordination body for recovery, has also taken over the coordination of humanitarian assistance. The M3R has been tasked with coordinating the recovery phase in Borno, and has gradually become the key interlocutor for most actors involved. As seen previously, when new needs arise or critical situations develop, rather than strengthen existing institutions the Nigerian government tends to establish new ones, whose legitimacy and efficiency is questionable.

The government has rather reluctantly accepted that humanitarian needs are a priority, due to pressure from its international donors to contribute to the humanitarian response they are funding. Its primary focus is to map a path back to a development context that will bring a return of donor support for infrastructure and agricultural development projects. The progressive liberation of new areas of Borno State keeps increasing the number of people in need and there is significant pressure on all humanitarian stakeholders to scale up their interventions. The increasing UN and World Bank focus on building links between humanitarian and development programming to promote reconstruction and development in remote and neglected areas of the country thus provides a powerful incentive for the government.

The challenge for the future humanitarian response will be to ensure that the government maintains this level of political interest, and that new institutions keep up their level of engagement in the absence of prospects for political and financial gain. The government’s DM and recovery frameworks have been modified over time in response to the changing reality, and this complex set of institutions will probably compete with each other for resources and legitimacy. Politics will continue to influence and shape the nature and scope of the government’s engagement in current and future humanitarian responses, which will probably lose some of the current focus and interest as the recovery agenda progresses. It remains unclear how far the evolution of this crisis will influence the government’s disaster response thinking in the longer term.

Coherence, transparency and real-time reporting on resources available and actual aid delivery across all levels of the government’s intervention is required to allow humanitarian programming to fill the gaps in the response. The creation of ad hoc executive entities is neither necessary, nor an efficient way to fix the problems facing the NEMA and SEMA systems. The role and engagement of state governors, and the impact they have on the efficiency of SEMAs, also needs to be clarified. Finally, the international community needs to continue to lobby for the demilitarisation of the humanitarian response in a large and complex emergency, where the military is part of the conflict.

Virginie Roiron is a humanitarian and development professional and consultant.