Northeastern Nigeria: Epicenter of a forgotten crisis

A child is screened for malnutrition at an International Rescue Committee center in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
A child is screened for malnutrition at an International Rescue Committee center in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

There is no escaping US politics these days. Even in remote northeastern Nigeria, where I have just spent two months with the International Rescue Committee, most of the televisions are set to international news networks which are covering the presidential transition in excruciating detail.

At this point, Nigerians know as much about the political drama as the US audience does. And they are anxious about how Rex Tillerson will work with their government, starting January 20.

But there is virtually no coverage of the catastrophic events in their own backyard. After seven years of brutal violence by Boko Haram, 8.5 million people in northeastern Nigeria are in dire need of humanitarian aid, according to a United Nations analysis released last week.

Even before the US election, the situation in northeastern Nigeria was what we in the humanitarian field call a forgotten crisis -- one that has been ignored by the news media, politicians, and donors. Now I worry it will become even more removed from the public consciousness over the next few months, forestalling the possibility of urgently needed action.

Ground zero is Nigeria's Borno State, which is 36,000 square miles in land mass -- or about the size of Indiana. The state's motto, emblazoned on every license plate, is "The Home of Peace." Sadly, this is no longer the case. For the last seven years, Borno has been beset by violence, economic collapse and infrastructural decay. Over 1.4 million people -- more than twice the population of Washington, DC -- have been uprooted from their homes and forced to squat in government-run camps, abandoned buildings and the homes of generous strangers.

An estimated 529,000 people from around the state have fled to Borno's capital city, Maiduguri, where slums sprawl beyond the city limits and children in tattered clothes crisscross the streets, begging for money and food.

Borno is also home to Chibok local government area (LGA), where in April 2014 Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls. Despite the far-reaching #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Boko Haram continues to hold them hostage in undisclosed locations, apart from the small number who have been released or escaped.

Arguably the most catastrophic outcome of the conflict has been widespread hunger and malnutrition. The latest available data shows that 3.2 million people in Borno, out of the state's estimated population of 5.5 million, are facing between crisis and famine levels of food insecurity (famine level means a high risk of death by starvation).

If the gut-wrenching hunger wasn't bad enough, the United Nations estimates that 244,000 children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), the median mortality rate of which is typically 30-50%, according to the World Health Organization. The number of people currently on the brink of premature death in Borno is staggering.

Humanitarian agencies, including the IRC, are working to provide emergency aid to the people of Borno. To ward off hunger, agencies are distributing basic food and, in areas of the state with functioning local markets, small allocations of cash to help people purchase their own food while stimulating the local economy. Agencies are also working to prevent or mitigate malnutrition in communities by conducting middle upper-arm circumference (MUAC) measurements and providing nutrient-rich food pouches to nurse people back to health.

Is this enough? Not even close. This crisis requires substantially more resources than have been allocated. The 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) appeal for Nigeria, a fundraising effort coordinated by the United Nations, was $484 million and is at present only 51% funded. The recently released 2017 HRP appeal for Nigeria is more than double, at $1.05 billion, but the actual scale of need in Borno could be even higher because much of the state remains extremely dangerous and inaccessible to humanitarian agencies.

And there are signs that humanitarian needs and access could worsen. There has already been an uptick in violence in Maiduguri, where suicide bombings have been on the rise over the last two months.

Despite this grim situation, or perhaps because of it, people in northeastern Nigeria will continue to follow the US presidential transition. They will tune in for the spectacle, but also to see whether the US will live up to its values as a force for global good. They will watch to gauge our new leaders' political will to balance domestic priorities with helping people in faraway places. And they will hope that out of sight does not mean out of mind.

Max Weihe is a deputy field director with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian relief organization with operations in 40 countries and 22 US cities. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

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