26 September 2017

West Africa: 'We Lose Entire Communities in the Blink of an Eye and People Do Not Seem to Look'

analysis

The crisis in Lake Chad Basin is one of the most desperate, and neglected, in the world.

It may not get the same level of international attention as similar crises, but the humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin is one of the worst in the world - and appears to be growing ever direr.

The Boko Haram insurgency has decimated agriculture and regional trade routes. The resulting crisis will be a feature of the region's socio-economic landscape and social memory for generations to come.

As an activist in Maiduguri explains, the situation here is not like that in Syria or Afghanistan in its scope or international awareness. "It's not been ten years with foreign fighters and a big war with just 50,000 dead," he sighs. "Here, we lose entire communities in the blink of an eye and people do not seem to look."

An official with the UN Refugee Agency warns, "If nothing is done, we will have a humanitarian crisis that nobody can contain." His colleague chips in, "I think we already have it."

The sheer statistics of the crisis are shocking. At the time of writing, more than 2.3 million people have been displaced. 7.2 million are "food insecure" and are at risk of starvation and malnutrition. And over half a million children are considered to be "severely acutely malnourished", meaning they are weeks away from death if they don't receive urgent assistance.

However, despite the pressing need for humanitarian interventions, the necessary bureaucratic capacity is lacking. Resources are scarce, and - perhaps most damningly - the government agencies tasked with caring for these vulnerable populations are often abusive and predatory.

A shoddy tool box: rehabilitating the north-east

The strain that looking after internally displaced persons (IDPs) has placed on the Nigerian government and host communities has made the return and reintegration of refugees a priority across all levels of government. But while plans to return IDPs to their communities have broad political support, they have little economic support. The programmes that do exist are piecemeal and frequently delayed.

In 2014, then-President Goodluck Jonathan established an NGO dedicated to providing relief and helping to rebuild the north-east. It was called the Victims Support Fund (VSF) and its management team was replete with successful Nigerian businesspeople.

Funds for the programme were raised at a glitzy fundraising dinner, where Nigeria's well-heeled elites pledged more than 58 billion naira ($160 million) to the cause - exceeding President Jonathan's goal of 50 billion naira ($140 million). Tycoon Aliko Dangote alone pledged 1 billion naira ($3 million), while representatives from the oil sector contributed 17 billion naira ($50 million), and government ministers contributed a total of 50 million naira ($140,000).

In press statements released immediately after the fundraiser, the government lauded the generosity of the attendees, saying that "it shows that the public is genuinely concerned about the threat of terrorism to our common humanity and stands ready to support worthy causes and pro-people policies".

Yet two years after the fundraiser, just 24 billion naira ($67 million) of the pledged total had been received. The "genuine concern" of attendees was more elusive once the lights had come up and the media faded away. Even the federal government had not yet released the 5 billion naira ($14 million) that President Jonathan pledged on its behalf.

Tragic politics: the international community's failures

The international community's reluctance to engage in the crisis has also been alarming. Despite having a greater number of displaced people than South Sudan, the crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has yet to receive the same sort of press coverage and international attention.

The delayed and contested designation of the situation as an "L3" humanitarian crisis - the most pressing category of crisis - further illustrates the marginalisation of this disaster. These classifications are made based on five criteria, and an L3 designation signals to the humanitarian community that it should "mobilize the resources, leadership, and capacity of the humanitarian system to respond to exceptional circumstances". The failure to designate the Lake Chad Basin crisis in a timely fashion reflected bureaucratic dithering that undoubtedly cost lives.

"This is not the sort of crisis that the international community knows how to deal with,' says Dr Gubio, a member of the Borno Elder's Forum, "This is a devil you don't know."

An array of factors limits the extent of the humanitarian intervention in the Lake Chad Basin, such as safety concerns, an overstretched budget, and the politics of intervention. However, Gubio gives undue credit to the will and capacity of the international humanitarian community in the first place. Among other things, its lack of engagement is also undeniably an exercise in privilege. The host communities absorbing those displaced by Boko Haram have no choice but to engage with this crisis. They do not have the option of turning a blind eye.

This article is an edited excerpt from Hilary Matfess' upcoming book, Women and Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses (ZED), out in November 2017.

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