The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Crisis in Nigeria

By: Leslie Stubbs


Boko Haram and the impending presidential elections in Nigeria dominates national, regional and international attention while a secondary crisis simmers largely unnoticed. Recent reports of human rights violations and abuses in the government run camps illuminates the growing population and struggles of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) both within Nigeria and the surrounding area. The shortages of food, water, healthcare, shelter and safety from rape and human trafficking are rampant and neither the government nor NGOs have the capacity to care for the 3.3 million IDPs from Nigeria. The Nigerian government’s flaccid response and pervasive corruption undermines the government’s ability to care for those citizens most affected by Boko Haram’s violent campaign in the northeast.

Nigeria’s current policy on IDPs, like so many other issues, languishes in legislative limbo after its initial drafting in 2011. Nigeria’s civil society is attempting to push for this policy’s ratification as it travels around the nation alerting the populace that such a bill exists and has yet to be passed into law. Funding for Nigeria’s existing government agencies that are overseeing the care of IDPs has even declined despite an increase in violence and humanitarian violations in the northeast over the past two years. Such nonsensical behavior by the government indicates either a misunderstanding of the severity of the situation or a general disinterest in adequately responding to the crisis at hand.

The conditions in Nigeria prior to the mass displacement caused by Boko Haram’s insurgency were already dire from drought and desertification. The destruction left behind by Boko Haram as they “laid waste to the region’s agriculture” worsened an already fragile economic state. The regions in the northeast face starvation under the plight of Boko Haram as aid and government services are unable to reach these areas. The longevity of the insurgency, six years since the surge in violence began, prevents farming and self-sustaining agriculture. USAID projects that three million people will not meet basic food needs by July 2015 without humanitarian intervention in these areas.

Boko Haram controls the areas in red and has attacked those in yellow.

The government maintains there are only 981,416 IDPs while the international community and Nigeria’ own Independent Electoral Commission estimates the figure to be much closer to the universally held 3.3 million, split roughly evenly between Nigeria and its neighbors. Since the government has neither the sufficient budget nor manpower to reach the vast population of IDPs, nonprofits and NGOs are attempting to fill the void. In Yola, the government is only able to support 10,000 refugees in the government run camps despite recent reports of a total of 400,000 IDPs. The American University of Nigeria (AUN), in direct opposition to the mantra of Boko Haram, has stepped in to provide food, blankets, and refuge as the population of Yola more than doubled with the inflow of IDPs. The AUN is providing food to almost 70% of the unregistered IDPs in Yola that seek shelter with friends and family. Like other NGOs, the aid and infrastructure of the AUN does not meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of IDPs living outside the government run camps and will run out of funding before the postponed presidential election on March 28.

The ineffectual nature of the government and lack of funding and focus permits pervasive violence within the official and unofficial IDPs camps. Despite only having legal jurisdiction over the official camps, the government somehow has control over the unofficial camps as well. A camp in Maiduguri is at the center of an exposé singling out the government and its agencies for profiting off the misery and misfortune. Aid workers in the camps confirmed the existence of child trafficking and even perform censuses to track the refugees and noted large disappearances of children. Government workers, volunteers that are under government supervision, and “lords” in the camps have formed a “conspiracy of silence” to orchestrate the purchasing price and coordinate the sale; the going price varies between 10,000 and 100,000 naira (50-500 USD).

Rape is commonplace in the camps, but little is being done to prevent it or assure girls and women to report incidences for fear of retribution or being forcibly removed from the camps. Unfortunately the reports of rape and trafficking have either gone unreported or ignored by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Nigeria. Even more disappointing is the response from a NEMA official that there is little the agency can do from headquarters far from the violent tumult of the northeast. The inability of government agencies to oversee its employees and volunteers further undermines the legitimacy of the government. However, NEMA shows some willingness to investigate the allegations of abuse in the camps by establishing a panel with the International Center for Investigative Reporting to examine and tour the camps.

Meanwhile, the NHRC has received 2,000 human rights violation cases in the Borno state alone in the last four years. However, the Executive Secretary of the NHRC believes the number of rape cases is exaggerated, further undermining any confidence or trust from IDPs in the government. The most egregious statement comes from the co-coordinator, Babangida Labaran, of the NHRC who places the prevalence of rape at the feet of women and mothers for failing to report the crimes. Labaran states that the perpetrators are emboldened by their silence thus allowing the incidence of rape to increase unabated. Vigilance and concern regarding child welfare are the best ways to safeguard women’s rights instead of increasing security, providing a safe environment for women to report rape and holding government employees and volunteers to the standards of human rights as enacted by law, according to the NHRC.

Between massive corruption and the Nigerian government’s inability to comprehend the scale of the fallout from Boko Haram in the northeast, the fate of the IDPs is not bright. Between the security risks associated with accessing the IDPs and the world’s focus on curbing Boko Haram, this secondary humanitarian crisis continues unabated and largely unnoticed. Increased aid from the international community and a functional government response are necessary to safeguard the Nigerian citizens, protect and maintain their basic human rights and return order and democracy to the area.

???????????????????????????????Leslie Stubbs is a master’s student at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. She is studying International Security and Commerce with core interests in non-state actors, the intelligence community and a regional focus on Africa. Leslie is currently looking for internship opportunities and can be contacted at or on LinkedIn.

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