Urgent Action Needed to Save Lives in Nigeria and Lake Chad

On Friday, the governments of Germany, Nigeria, and Norway, along with the United Nations, are hosting the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. The objective is to focus political attention on Africa’s biggest humanitarian crisis, as well as to generate financial contributions to respond to urgent humanitarian needs.  

The seriousness of the hunger and protection crisis in northeast Nigeria, as well as in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, cannot be understated. The crisis is rooted in the violent insurgency carried out by the Boko Haram militant group, as well fighting between national armies and Boko Haram, and has forced more than 2.6 million people to flee their homes. Throughout the region, 7.1 million people are severely food insecure. And according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, it is likely that that famine has already occurred in areas of Borno state, Nigeria. 

For 2017, the UN estimates that $1.5 billion will be required to respond to the needs of the affected populations. In Oslo this week, donor governments, including the United States, must step up to the plate. The U.S. has long been the leading financial contributor to humanitarian response efforts around the world, and with lives at stake, this is no time to abandon that role. As Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) stated from the Senate floor last week, “We have been generous, but the scale of the emergency [in north east Nigeria] demands that we – and our partners – do more.” 


2.6 million people
forced to flee their homes. 

7.1 million people
severely food insecure

$1.5 billion
UN appeal to respond to humanitarian needs

Importantly, though, money alone cannot solve the complex emergency in Nigeria and the region. Last year, a team from Refugees International, led by my colleague, Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, conducted an assessment of the humanitarian situation in northeast Nigeria. Poor camp management, squabbling between and amongst government agencies and UN officials, as well as diversion of food aid, have led to devastating conditions for internally displaced people (IDP) in Borno state. The RI team found there to be a prevalence of internally displaced women resorting to survival sex as the only means to access food aid for themselves and their children. Corruption in the provision of emergency assistance must be rooted out.  

The militarized nature of the Nigerian government’s response has also compounded existing challenges. As the Nigerian military pursues Boko Haram fighters, displaced people and aid workers alike have been caught in the crosshairs. Last month, a Nigerian air force jet mistakenly bombed a camp for internally displaced people in Borno that killed up to 200 people, including residents of the camp as well as humanitarian staff who were there to deliver services. This event highlights, with great tragedy, that there must be an improvement in civil-military coordination between the government of Nigeria and humanitarian actors on the ground. Innocent civilians who have fled for their lives from Boko Haram should not be at risk of harm by the Nigerian military, and aid agencies must feel free and secure to operate in newly accessible areas to provide life-saving assistance.  

The seriousness of the hunger and protection crisis in northeast Nigeria, as well as in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, cannot be understated.

Toward this end, there is an urgent need for the Nigerian government, the UN, and donor governments to prioritize the protection of civilians. In particular, robust measures for the prevention of and response to gender-based violence are needed. Boko Haram’s tactics include horrific acts of sexual violence, abductions, and forced recruitment. And Nigerian officials are alleged to have also sexually assaulted displaced women and girls. During RI’s visit to Maiduguri in Borno state last year, the team learned that women and girls were reportedly purchasing and drinking bottles of cough syrup to “go to sleep and forget.”  

As donors, aid officials, and members of civil society meet in Oslo this week, there is the opportunity raise money for the emergency response but also address fundamental challenges to the quality of the response. On the one hand, it is a failure of the international community and the government of Nigeria that the crisis has been able to deteriorate to this point. On the other hand, there can be no excuses going forward now that the severity of the emergency is well known.    

Refugees International will continue to push for a robust and effective response to the suffering of millions of people in northeast Nigeria and the region. I am in Oslo this week to follow the proceedings and will be tweeting on my Twitter handle, @yarnellmark. Follow along for updates from the conference.