Internally displaced children wait for the distribution of ready-to-use supplementary food in Banki IDP camp, Borno state, northeast Nigeria. Internally displaced children wait for the distribution of ready-to-use supplementary food in Banki IDP camp, Borno state, northeast Nigeria. Photo credit: UNICEF Norway
State governance and coordination of the humanitarian response in north-east Nigeria
by Zainab Murtala and Bashir Abubakar October 2017

In Nigeria, even at the best of times, coordination between federal and state authorities is challenging. Although federal and state ministries and agencies are meant to have a complementary relationship, everyday governance is marked by weak and limited inter-governmental coordination. Both federal and state governments enjoy constitutional powers to create, merge, separate and rename ministries under their control at will. This means that structures vary between state and federal levels, and state agencies do not always directly correspond to or interact with federal counterparts. Combined with political tensions between the two levels of government, these governance weaknesses had a significant impact on the government’s ability to respond to the Boko Haram crisis unfolding in north-east Nigeria.

State and federal emergency management structures

State authorities were unprepared for the Boko Haram crisis. State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMAs) in the northeast had very limited response capacity with no set budget allocation, which meant that they had to make budget requests as operational needs arose. The SEMAs were in most cases an office under the State Ministry of Special Duties, whose dozen or so staff were drawn from the ordinary civil service pool, without the relevant experience or specialised training necessary for humanitarian coordination. Staff had no knowledge of humanitarian principles or international standards relating to camp coordination and management, food distribution or protection monitoring, and were not familiar with the operating procedures of international humanitarian organisations. Participation or information-sharing with UN agencies and NGOs was very limited, and the nascent humanitarian coordination structures put in place by the UN in response to floods in 2012 were centred in Abuja, far from the of the crisis in the north-east.

Coordination between the federal and state governments in the early days of the Boko Haram insurgency was also hampered by tensions between the presidency and the governors of Borno and Yobe states, Kashim Shettima and Ibrahim Gaidam, both of whom belonged to the opposition All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). There were allegations in Abuja that the crisis was being manufactured by northern politicians to undermine the federal government, and both Shettima and Gaidam were openly hostile to the federal government, which provided only limited resources to both state governments to respond to the growing crisis.+The governor of Adamawa State, Murtala Nyako, was a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

The state of emergency (2013-2014)

While state governments lacked resources to respond to the escalating crisis, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in May 2013. This suspended the governors’ role as Chief Security Officer for the state and imposed significant cuts in state budget allocations, including all non-salary expenditure. All three governors strongly opposed the declaration. The state of emergency had a significant impact on social, economic and political dynamics within the three states. Large numbers of military personnel were deployed to patrol towns and curfews were imposed. Checkpoints made even short journeys within and between towns long and difficult. The military also banned the use of motorbikes, which are integral to economic activity and the movement of goods and people across the northeast. After numerous attacks on power and mobile network installations in 2013, electricity supply and mobile phone networks were turned off in many areas to shut down Boko Haram’s communications, with disastrous consequences for the local economy. Despite the National Assembly’s decision in late 2014 not to renew the state of emergency, the federal authorities refused to restore state budgets.

The hostility between state and federal authorities also played out in the humanitarian response. State governments required that federal authorities and humanitarian agencies work directly through state agencies and coordinate all planning for humanitarian response with the SEMAs. State authorities also frequently refused to recognise decisions reached between humanitarian agencies and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) at federal level. Interventions by federal authorities were viewed with suspicion, and as a campaign tool for the forthcoming general election.

The 2015 general election campaign

During the 2015 general election campaign, federal and state governments suddenly provided large quantities of relief materials, all of which were branded with political party labels and images of politicians. In all three states, little was done for IDPs by both levels of government in 2014, but by the end of the year there was open competition between federal and state governments to outdo each other in providing assistance. State governments also successfully blocked significant amounts of federal relief from reaching people in their states.

During this period, emergency management decisions taken federally had limited significance for state ministries, and there was little direct communication between the two levels, except where state government assistance was requested for direct implementation. State authorities complained that the federal government treated states like a subordinate body rather than equal partners, and demanded that the federal government provide state budgetary resources to implement emergency management activities. In response, the federal government raised concerns about the lack of accountability and transparency and misappropriation of funds by state governments, citing reports of diversion of humanitarian assistance, corruption and misuse of political power by state operatives.

The election of President Buhari and the roll-out of state-level coordination

The election of Muhammadu Buhari as president in 2015 saw the All Progressives Congress (APC) party peacefully take power from Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In Borno and Yobe the , the elections saw the return of Shettima and Gaidam from the now-governing APC. The two re-elected governors had already embraced the crisis response under way in their states and were actively involved in advocacy for increased humanitarian funding and coordination. However, the newly elected governor of Adamawa state, Umar Jibrilla Bindow, tried to distance the state from the humanitarian crisis and paint a picture of a complete return to normality. While state government ministries in Adamawa were involved in sector meetings, resource constraints meant that they played a more limited role in the field. Many humanitarian agencies could not secure additional funding from donors to continue response programming in Adamawa as a result of the limited response infrastructure and the transfer of tens of thousands of IDPs to Borno state during 2015.

Today, all three states have coordination structures in place, though the level of coordination varies in terms of government participation, resources and the support extended to humanitarian partners. The federal government’s emergency management response is also much more visible at state level. The Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative (PCNI) has positioned itself as the responsible agency for coordination of the government response, and produces a dashboard reflecting all government interventions in the north-east. This has been met with significant resistance in Borno state, where the state government has remained fully in charge of response coordination. In comparison, resource constraints mean that ADSEMA, NEMA and other government agencies in Adamawa have been far more open to working with the PCNI. As the PCNI expands its operations across the north-east, time will tell how the various bodies, all reporting to different principals on the two levels and with no clear coordination framework, will operate. It is worth noting that the National Assembly has also pushed for the establishment of a North- East Development Commission to manage reconstruction.


While local-level coordination of the response has increased in areas where civilian administration has returned, access to hard-to-reach areas in the north-east remains a challenge for government and humanitarian response actors alike. International and national NGOs are not able to operate on a strictly state by state basis due to security and infrastructure challenges. For example, NGOs in Mubi, Adamawa state, plan and coordinate activities in Askira Uba and Gwoza Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Borno state, which are only accessible from northern Adamawa state. This move towards an area-based north-eastern response, rather than a state-based Adamawa, Borno and Yobe response, may reduce the bureaucratic hurdles humanitarian agencies face, or equally may lead to increased demands from state governments struggling to retain authority over emergency management at state level.

Zainab Murtala is a Humanitarian Affairs Advisor with OCHA in Nigeria. Bashir Abubakar is a National Project Coordinator with IOM in Nigeria.