Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Nigerian officials grow rich on the hunger of the poor

Originally published on New Internationalist

Samuel Malik reports on endemic corruption in Nigeria’s camps for the internally displaced.

epa01738967 Nigerian refugees take shelter in Warri, Nigeria 22 May 2009. Thousands of refugees from the oil rich Niger delta region have fled the recent fighting between the Nigerian military and oil rebels seeking refuge in the swamps. EPA/GEORGE ESIRI

Nigerian refugees take shelter in Warri, Nigeria 22 May 2009. Thousands of refugees from the oil rich Niger delta region have fled the recent fighting between the Nigerian military and oil rebels seeking refuge in the swamps. EPA/GEORGE ESIRI

Five weeks ago, when pictures surfaced in the media of severely malnourished internally displaced people (IDPs) in Bama, Borno State, the level of shock expressed by Nigerians could almost make one believe it was ‘news’, even though this problem has been with us for years.

What may have made it newsworthy this time is that the pictures came from Bama, about 70 kilometres from Maiduguri, the state capital. Access to Bama is difficult, especially for journalists. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR, icirnigeria.org) only got access because its reporter was embedded with the military for four days – access rarely given to a Nigerian journalist.

The second-largest town in Borno, Bama is the place that has been worst hit in the seven years of Boko Haram insurgency. In 2006 it had a population of over 260,000 people, according to census figures; now, it is virtually a ghost town, save for soldiers and the 26,000 IDPs camped on a hospital compound. The Bama camp has existed for about a year.

IDPs are suffering not due to shortages of food and other relief items, but because of endemic corruption

The reason for the lack of access is that the Maiduguri-Bama road is closed to civilians, due to occasional attacks by pockets of insurgents. In April they attacked a top army commander, killing one of his security guards and wounding two others. Access to the road is only possible with security clearance and a military escort.

The ICIR journalist discovered that at least 18 people are dying each day at the Bama camp. In May, a local non-governmental organization, the Bama Community Peace Initiative, wrote of its concerns to the Protection Sector Working Group under the UNHCR, saying that the food being cooked in the six designated kitchens was of poor quality and that the low rations meant the camp’s 4,000 inhabitants could only eat once a day. The report, which was signed by Ibrahim Mohammed and concerned the period from October to March, added that around 11 children aged 0 to 15 were being buried daily.

The high death toll was also caused by thirst, and by lack of sanitation facilities. There were only three functioning water boreholes, and people were having to relieve themselves in the open, due to lack of toilets or bathrooms.

As more Boko Haram hostages were rescued from surrounding towns like Banki and brought to Bama, the number of people living in the camp steadily increased, stretching scarce resources.

But since the release of the ICIR report, the level of response has been impressive. Doctors Without Borders, the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, Oxfam and the UNHCR have all visited the camp. The federal government ordered that medical and food items be taken in, and critical cases have been evacuated to the state capital for treatment.

Relief diverted

Though Bama is in the news today, there are thousands of other people in government-owned camps across the state where conditions are just as critical. The Dalori camp, which used to be the largest IDP camp in the state, was once in the news because of similar cases of malnutrition.

The present situation in camps in the state capital is not too different from what was discovered in Bama. However, access to these camps by journalists is highly restricted following critical media reports (especially from ICIR Nigeria), which exposed how relief items are diverted by camp officials. According to these reports, IDPs are suffering not due to shortages of food and other relief items, but because of endemic corruption in the National Emergency Management Agency and the state emergency agency which receive and distribute donations.

In 2015, I visited camps in Borno and Adamawa states and saw relief items in the stores, donated by wealthy individuals and organizations, including several types of grain, mattresses, noodles, detergents, bottled water, tomato puree and fish. But when I talked to the IDPs, they claimed they were not given these items and only ate once a day.

There are several organizations working in northeastern Nigeria, but there is no co-ordination of their activities. This leads to turf wars between them. For example, the most prominent rift is between two government agencies, NEMA and SEMA. In Borno, federal government agency NEMA delivers foodstuff to its state counterpart, SEMA, whose responsibility it is to get the food to the IDPs.

There also seems to be an arrangement, even if not official, whereby the government takes care of feeding the IDPs, while international NGOs take care of hygiene, education and healthcare.

Another problem is that the state government prefers to work with UN agencies rather than international NGOs, because it feels the UN agencies bring more money. NGOs, meanwhile, prefer to work directly with IDP camps, and this has not gone down well with state government officials, who create unnecessary bottlenecks for these organizations.

The cold war between the Borno state government and NGOs came to the fore recently, when Governor Kashim Shettima accused some of them of taking advantage of the IDPs to enrich themselves.

‘In the midst of credible organizations trying to help us, we have seen occasional instances of some “business groups” masquerading as NGOs, smiling to the bank on the agony of our people,’ Shettima said during a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in the state.

But while the governor is quick to attack NGOs, nothing is done about his officials, who are pretending to help IDPs but in reality are robbing them.

Government officials are happy for the IDPs to remain in the camps rather than returning to their homes: the longer they stay, the longer relief will keep coming. The governor is also aware that relief items are being diverted by officials, but little is done to rein them in.

Beyond the setting up of committees to investigate the allegations, nothing is heard. Government officials pre-empt the outcome of such investigations by talking up the innocence of suspects.

Little wonder there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel for the IDPs.

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