No Bread For You: Nigerian Refugees and the Food Security Crisis Nobody’s Talking About

Since the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram began scaling up its attacks on civilians, an estimated 1.3 million Nigerians have been internally displaced and at least another 150,000 have taken refuge in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The exodus of Nigerians fleeing the country’s northeastern region for government-sponsored camps or host communities has intensified the pressure on already scarce natural resources. 

Of several major challenges faced by internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, access to food is among the most dire. According to UNHCR, food insecurity is set to peak this month, and between 3.5 and 4 million people in Nigeria will face food shortages this year. In its latest report on Nigeria, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network warned that between July and September, IDP settlements in four northeastern states are expected to experience a level of acute food insecurity just one step below famine. 

The rapidly deteriorating food crisis can be attributed to a few key causes. First, as the Boko Haram insurgency continues, locals from northeastern Nigeria—who mainly subsist as farmers or pastoralists—remain displaced by the violence. Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states have been the worst-hit, so instead of generating staple foods such as cowpeas, rice, millet, corn, yams, fish and livestock, fleeing residents have left the land vacant and unprepared for crop production. Precious farming tools, seeds, and fertilizer that are left behind are often stolen and destroyed during raids by Boko Haram. Considering the sporadic attacks and persistent danger of land mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), most farmers from these states cannot even feasibly return home to access their farms to salvage supplies or cultivate any yields for the upcoming year.  

Delayed rains have only exacerbated the situation. The extended dry season bodes for a poor planting season, and later, an unsuccessful harvest in September. Without the proper tools, fertilizer, or seeds, IDPs who do decide to risk returning to their homes lack assistance from the Nigerian government needed to purchase new equipment for planting and harvesting crops. As a result, food prices are abnormally high, putting additional stress on local populations. This chain of factors undoubtedly affects markets in the northeast as well as cross-border trade with Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

The exodus of Nigerians fleeing the country’s northeastern region for government-sponsored camps or host communities has intensified the pressure on already scarce natural resources.

Reduced food availability not only hurts Nigerians, but people across the Sahel region, as 50 percent of the entire area receives its cereal from Nigeria. Already the need for food stock is apparent. In fact, IRIN News reported that some villagers in northern Cameroon became so desperate for food after hosting a surge of refugees in January that they resorted to eating seeds once reserved for the next planting season. 

Insecurity and climate-related constraints aren’t the only factors affecting the food situation for displaced Nigerians. The quantity and quality of aid itself remains a major concern. While the number of IDPs continues to rise by the day, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the amount of resources devoted to providing food and other necessities to displacement camps has actually stayed the same. So, in reality, food aid available per person is actually declining. In an attempt to serve more people, rations in all camps are being slashed. 

These ration cuts couldn’t come at a worse time. Approximately 1.7 million children under five in Nigeria are severely acutely malnourished – the highest number in Africa and among the highest in the world. Among internally displaced populations, the numbers are staggering. According to UNICEF, the average malnutrition rate in IDP camps in northeastern Nigeria has climbed as high as 12.2 percent. If 10 percent or more of children are classified as suffering from acute malnutrition, it is considered a serious emergency. Because only 10 percent of IDPs are living in formal sites, the real number of children suffering from malnutrition could actually be much higher. 

The food security situation isn’t much better across the border. About 68 percent of villages in Diffa in southeastern Niger are experiencing a serious cereal deficit due the strain of hosting Nigerian refugees. And in neighboring Cameroon, where more than 50,000 Nigerian refugees have fled and relations between refugees and host communities in some areas are beginning to sour, rates of malnutrition and food insecurity are on the rise. 

More than 3 million people in Nigeria alone will need emergency food assistance over the next few months. Clearly, something must be done about this situation before food concerns reach a critical famine level. The international community must start first by allocating a sufficient amount of funds to deal with the scale of the crisis, prioritizing the purchase of food and nutrition commodities required to meet food needs and undermine malnutrition. 

Katie Cornelius is an intern at Refugees International and a recent graduate of American University.

Banner image: Reuters photo.