“Raise your hands if you spent the night here,” Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza said to the thousands of Nigerian women packed into St. Theresa’s Cathedral waiting for food to be distributed. All but a few raised their hands. Neither the women nor the thousands of listless children in their arms had eaten in more than 24 hours. Their faces were etched with hunger and despair.
These women and children are internally displaced people (IDP), refugees from elsewhere in northeastern Nigeria. Close to 400,000 of them have come to our city of Yola, doubling the population in six months. Each woman likely represents a household of 20 to 30 people, so together with Bishop Mamza and the diocese, we had purchased food for 120,000.
We are the Adamawa Peace Initiative, an effort started by the American University of Nigeria three years ago. Members include Yola’s Christian and Muslim leaders, as well as community and educational organizers and professionals. When we began, our goal was to protect the thousands of vulnerable children in our city, the capital of Adamawa state, from extreme ideologies. These children have had little formal education, and over the past three years we have provided more than 15,000 of them with literacy instruction and training in entrepreneurship and information and communications technology. Our Peace Through Sports program unites more than 2,000 Christian and Muslim children on our campus every day. Our programs are working. Youth from Yola are not joining Boko Haram.
A year ago, we began receiving people fleeing the horrors of Boko Haram. We noticed this first when university employees — bus drivers, maintenance workers, cleaning staff, clerical staff, security personnel — began reporting that they were housing large numbers of people. One driver has provided shelter for 50 people for six months. We have sought help from the Nigerian government and the outside world, largely in vain. Except for a small amount of financial support we received from the U.S. government at the beginning of the crisis, we have had to raise the funds ourselves, including through a foundation we set up to help fund the education of girls who escaped from Boko Haram in Chibok. We are feeding 276,000 people. We are nearly out of money.
The national government did reach out to Mamza this month, not with an offer of food but with an order: “Take those IDP women and children to the airport,” he said he was told by a member of the Ministry of Women. “They need to be there to welcome the president’s wife, Patience, when she arrives today, and to show their support.” He was given a brown envelope containing money for their transportation to the airport. “I will not take them,” he said indignantly. “What insensitivity this shows. I gave the money back.”
Also this month, we welcomed, not for the first time, a large group of U.N. representatives. “We came to show our solidarity,” the head of the delegation said, “and we hope to support you.” An alphabet soup of international agencies continues to arrive in Yola — to conduct studies, prepare reports and communicate with their headquarters. In the meantime, women are being raped at government camps and our food supplies dwindle. A year ago, we were distributing not just food but also soap, mosquito nets and sleeping mats. Now we typically provide one bag of maize and 200 naira, which is about $1. We have no more to give.
Whose responsibility is it when people flee violence and destruction wreaked by bloodthirsty terrorists? Of course, in this case, the duty lies primarily with the government of Nigeria, which has the largest economy in Africa. The Adamawa state government has set up several committees to respond. In October, I was asked by the governor to join his task force on IDPs. At first I felt honored to have an opportunity to work with government officials to take care of these desperate people. But for the first three weeks, we argued about the budget. This wouldn’t be so surprising for a body dealing with such a large crisis — except the budget at issue was not for food aid but for the committee itself. Members wanted new cars and allowances for their lunches.
Consequently, the committee was very slow to respond to the escalating crisis. When the first IDP camp opened at a former national service facility, it had just four latrines for a population of 5,000. None were designated for women and children, who composed at least two-thirds of the refugees. We sent a university team to the camp to build eight latrines for them. There have been allegations of abuse at the camps, yet the task force has not met for months. When I called recently to find out why, I was told: “We only meet when there are urgent issues.”
And so, one year into a major humanitarian crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands of Nigerians to flee the horrors of Boko Haram, we are still not receiving national or international assistance. Where will we get the food we need.
Margee Ensign is president of the American University of Nigeria and chairwoman of the Adamawa Peace Initiative.