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Aid workers forced to pull back in Nigeria as famine looms

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Access to those in need has worsened, aid workers say, as the conflict continues unabated PHOTO: AFP

Risk of famine is looming in Nigeria as a decade-long Islamist insurgency in the country’s northeast shows no signs of abating and access to people in need is becoming more challenging, say aid workers.

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Four senior officials from international humanitarian organisations have told AFP that their response to the crisis is being crimped by worsening security, direct targeting of humanitarian staff but also mistrust and military-imposed restrictions — claims the government denied.

“There’s no real intervention here we can do, as long as the army keeps losing territory,” warned one.

The Lake Chad region, which includes parts of Nigeria, last year suffered a roughly 60-percent increase in militant violence, leading to 4,801 fatalities, the highest death toll linked to jihadist groups in Africa, according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a US Defense Department research institution.

As a result of insecurity, “almost no one is operating at full capacity,” the aid worker said.

Yet the number of people in emergency acute food insecurity in northern Nigeria is likely to almost double this year, according to the UN.

“We are at a catastrophic turning point,” said Margot van der Velden from the World Food Programme (WFP) in a statement about Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan.

“When we declare a famine, it means many lives have already been lost. If we wait to find that out for sure, people are already dead.”

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Fair target
For those worst affected, food, cash and other items are distributed by local authorities, but a large part of aid provision in northeast Nigeria is done by the UN and 150 local and international NGOs.

Humanitarian staff are only allowed to work in government-controlled areas, where 8.7 million people are in need of assistance this year.

A further 1.2 million people are estimated to be out of reach, living in areas under control of either Boko Haram or rival group Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

“It’s even more challenging than Syria I would say, where you can communicate and negotiate with some groups,” said another aid worker with vast experience in the Middle East.

“Logistically, we also don’t even have road access to these groups,” she said.

Borno state official Mairo Mandara disagreed on humanitarians’ definition of “out of reach”.

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“We go everywhere… some nationals, even if we give them permission, their embassies or organisations won’t allow them to go, so they have their own restrictions.”

Increasingly, humanitarian workers have become “fair targets” for the insurgents, according a third aid worker.

Early March, ISWAP attacked the town of Dikwa and directly targeted one the country’s nine UN hubs — where humanitarians live and work.

Three other hubs have been attacked since 2019, and last year insurgents shot at a UN helicopter.

Along with civilians and government officials, aid workers have been kidnapped and executed.

“The narrative from insurgents is that aid workers are ‘Christianising’ the population,” said the third aid worker, “spreading ‘Western’ values that go against their fundamentalist approach to Islam.”

After the attack in Dikwa, the UN suspended flights there, as well as to other “deep field” locations.

This affects NGOs who rely on UN flights, as the roads are unsafe and no commercial flights are available.

When the army suffers a defeat in areas it controls, not only does it disrupt aid provision, it also reinforces the narrative that the state and its “allies” cannot help their people.

Insurgents loot from NGOs and then distribute the goods to residents, telling them “look at what they have keen keeping from you. We are sharing,” the third aid worker said.

“Aid workers are caught in the middle of this battle for hearts and minds.”

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A nightmare
It’s not just insecurity that is forcing aid workers to pull back.

“To move cash or fuel for instance has become a nightmare,” said a fourth aid worker, in reference to tight military-imposed restrictions.

When food trucks are attacked on the roads and looted by insurgents, the military has questioned NGOs and accused them of “feeding the armed groups”, causing delays.

“Recently, it took us two months to be able to deliver supplies to Monguno (a densely populated area). It means children will miss their rations… so there is so much at stake.”

But security forces are occupied, responded Mandara, and can’t just “drop whatever they’re doing” to assist aid workers.

“If you know it will take two months to get approval, why didn’t you apply three months ago?… You have to respect the people you work with. They think Borno is Mogadishu. Nigeria is a sovereign state!”

Army spokesman Brigadier General Mohammed Yerima also denied that aid workers are being curbed by insecurity and restrictions and said security forces “provide an enabling environment.”

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“We have never discouraged them from working. We allow them to work, we provide security for them,” Yerima told AFP by phone.

Humanitarian organisations made mistakes when the aid response to the conflict started, they themselves recognise.

There was a lack of coordination, little accountability on the ground and some NGOs conducted activities without taking cultural sensitivities into account.

In January, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed new military commanders in an attempt to reinvigorate the armed response.

Among aid workers, some wonder if that is enough.

Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, is one of the largest economies on the continent, yet more than 40 percent of its approximately 200 million citizens live in absolute poverty.

“Are we doing the government a favour so that they don’t have to do their job?” one aid worker asked. “We have to push the government to contribute more.”

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