Issue 70 - Article 3

A collective shame: the response to the humanitarian crisis in north-eastern Nigeria

October 24, 2017
Patricia McIlreavy and Julien Schopp
Children trapped behind conflict lines receive World Food Programme assistance in Bol, Lake Chad Basin.

As with many complex crises, there is no clear start date for the humanitarian crisis in North-eastern Nigeria. While the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan states that the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military has reached its eighth year, the humanitarian response has not. Since 2014, humanitarian leadership and coordination structures have been progressively ramped up and refocused on Maiduguri, but it has taken much longer to kick into gear and reach a level commensurate with the actual needs of displaced populations. A level, one could argue, that remains outside the reach of the response to this day.

While the humanitarian operation has gained positive momentum in the past couple of years, the progress that has been made is still overshadowed by the initial missteps and slow build-up that contributed to the limitations of the current response. It is ironic that Nigeria, the country considered by many as the birthplace of modern humanitarianism, during the Biafran war at the end of the 1960s, has been both witness and victim to a response wanting in empathy, effectiveness and courageous, principled action.

The United Nations

Prior to the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s north-east, and the subsequent displacement of civilians in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, UN agencies in Nigeria were focused on large development programmes in health, agriculture and infrastructure. These long-term programmes, coupled with Nigeria’s economic and political vitality, led UN development agencies to foster close relations with the government and its line ministries, as well as with partner state governments. Despite the widespread under-development, lack of infrastructure and extreme poverty of the northern states, programmes did not focus on these areas, limiting the presence, understanding and connectivity of development actors within the region. This history, coupled with the sheer size of development programmes in Nigeria, created an immediate disincentive to rally the international community around the humanitarian crisis when it first emerged. To use USAID as an example, in 2016, the seventh year of the crisis, only $80 million was expended for humanitarian assistance out of a total budget of $441m for Nigeria.

Complicating the lack of attention from development actors and donors, and the tendency by capitals to focus on the security and counter-terrorism aspects of the crisis, was the lack of physical access to almost the entirety of Borno State. Additionally, and critically, the government’s portrayal of the situation as a domestic security matter, to be dealt with by the military, allowed the international community, in Abuja and the region, to continue with business as usual in an election year in which it was in everyone’s interest to downplay the scale of the crisis, and the human rights violations being perpetrated by the Nigerian army. It is worth noting that the UN had no dedicated civil/military or access negotiation personnel prior to 2015, and that existing programmes such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) polio campaign were not leveraged to coordinate access for a broader range of actors.

While working with the government was warranted, the UN also needed to be sending a strong signal about the scale of humanitarian needs and of the unfolding protection crisis to all relevant stakeholders, including embassies, UN headquarters and national and international partners. The UN did not play its leadership role. The failure of the then Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC) to convey the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis to all parties involved and the humanitarian community as a whole, as well as their failure to provide strategic leadership in the response itself, was one of the principal obstacles to a timely and effective response to the humanitarian crisis in the north-east.

The United Nations Rights Up Front initiative, launched in December 2013, is designed to prevent the UN from repeating weaknesses identified during the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka. It calls upon UN leaders to respond in a timely manner to situations where people are at risk of or subject to serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Nigeria was in such a situation and, although in 2014 a mission to Nigeria flagged protection concerns in the north-east crisis and recommended urgent attention, as did numerous other high-level visits in 2015 and 2016, these concerns were too long ignored. As the scale of the crisis became undeniable in 2014, the UN system, bureaucratically paralysed in its ability to replace personnel unable or unwilling to lead a humanitarian response, decided on a ‘work-around’, and a Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator (DHC) was appointed. While this approach has had success of late in countries such as Sudan or Iraq, it failed initially in Nigeria because there were too many cooks in the kitchen – the kitchen being Abuja, the federal capital, far from the realities of the north-east. In this sense, the Nigeria experience has taught us that the DHC position, whatever the scale of the crisis, can become counter-productive if it risks blurring the lines between the DHC’s responsibilities and the roles of Humanitarian Coordinator and OCHA Head of Office, multiplying opportunities for miscommunication and conflict. It is also worth noting that two of the leading UN humanitarian agencies globally, WFP and UNHCR, did not have a significant presence in Nigeria prior to the crisis – in a context where their expertise in food security, emergency logistics and protection was essential to an effective response.

International NGOs

While the UN was failing in its diplomatic leadership and response coordination roles, international NGOs were experiencing many of the same challenges. The limited number of international NGOs present in Nigeria prior to the crisis focused on longer-term development programming geared towards poverty alleviation and capacity support to government entities and civil society groups. While several INGOs were working in the north-east via partnerships with smaller community-based or local government entities, the scale was far below demand. INGOs with a mandate specific to humanitarian action in conflict and forced displacement were not present in Nigeria in the early days of the crisis, between 2011 and 2013.

The NGO sector, as with the UN, was also slow at building its humanitarian capacity in-country. As seen time and again, the crisis, in a peripheral and under-served region, did not draw the media or government attention it required. Individual agencies, focused on implementing programmes in what is a gigantic country, were able to ignore what they could not see. The fact that, well into 2014, the UN and donors did not challenge the inaction of these established actors present on the ground or call for more humanitarian organisations from outside compounded the problem. While some could defend their inaction due to a lack of information, this excuse became less convincing with each passing day.

Immobility was further reinforced by the government’s public stance that the situation was under control and that no outside help was needed, or at least not from the international NGOs of which the government was reportedly suspicious. Without clear evidence of obstructiveness from the government, NGO leaders, at least until 2015, were reluctant to draw attention to the crisis for fear of retribution against their organisation or programmes. The lack of a culture of humanitarian response in the NGO sector was also demonstrated by the lack of commitment to a collective NGO approach on some of the main issues affecting the community as a whole.

The Nigerian government

Both prior to and after the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, the Nigerian government did not seem to want to recognise the severity of the displacement crisis in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. Nigeria has been free of any major complex humanitarian crises stemming from conflict since the 1960s and the Biafra war. The government’s main focus, reinforced and supported by the international community, was to eradicate Boko Haram from the north-east. This objective was promised on the campaign trail, and was implemented by deploying the Nigerian army in a heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign, with special attention to Borno State.

This desire to appear in control was also evident in humanitarian assistance, with the creation of presidential initiatives to demonstrate attention to the crisis. Coordination with the government became mired in confusion for international actors, with limited understanding of who was doing what and a failure to implement agreements between ministries and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Government capacity and services were quickly overwhelmed, partly due to lack of sufficient funding and a reluctance to partner with international humanitarian actors.

In this context it is important to acknowledge the complex legacy of the Biafran war, both for the federal government and for international humanitarian organisations. The response to the government blockade of the secessionist state of Biafra led in 1968 to one of the first televised famines. There was an outpouring of international support for people within secessionist territories, with newly created non-governmental organisations flying in assistance. This practice was viewed as a violation of sovereignty by the Nigerian government, and gave rise to a perception within Nigeria that INGOs were untrustworthy agents meddling in Nigeria’s domestic affairs.

Humanitarian donors

In the case of the crisis in north-eastern Nigeria, donor governments have also played a unique role and hold some responsibility for not recognising the severity of the crisis. The displacement crisis in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states escalated in the midst of a major presidential election, and Boko Haram was seen as a legitimate target in the context of the global war on terror. As such, traditional humanitarian donor countries, whether implicitly or explicitly, appear to have chosen to ignore the severity and magnitude of the situation in order not to ruffle the feathers of a government that all actors wanted to see succeed. Donors’ reluctance to accurately portray the seriousness of the displacement crisis made it difficult to push the UN into shape or to appropriately fund the humanitarian response. This was compounded by institutional donors’ lack of humanitarian personnel in-country, which meant that they relied on experts in capitals at home who were consumed by Syria or South Sudan. In turn, it encouraged the UN, NGOs and the Nigerian government to persist in their own brand of denial.

Some have argued that strengthening political relations with a new government in Africa’s most populous and influential country required a pragmatic approach that downplayed the human suffering in the north-east and the region’s historic marginalisation. Donors may also have hoped that the new President, a northerner, would be well-placed to address the situation head on. Others gave precedence to economic factors, arguing that the booming Nigerian economy and its vast market pushed the diplomatic community to jockey for favour with the new government, rather than question its response to the humanitarian consequences of the Boko Haram insurgency. There were also those who questioned why international donors should fund the humanitarian response, given the wealth present in Nigeria.

And so, who is to blame?

It is clear that the humanitarian response to the crisis in Northeast Nigeria was slow and out of touch with the scale of the needs of the people affected. Unfortunately, there is plenty of blame to go around among the many actors responsible for ensuring an appropriate response. While everyone is now working double and triple time to meet the needs of affected people in the North-east, the self-inflicted wounds of the Nigeria response have still not healed. The shame of that sits with us all.

Patricia McIlreavy is Vice-President Humanitarian Policy and Practice at InterAction. Julien Schopp is InterAction’s Director of Humanitarian Practice.


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