Nigeria’s Ticking Time Bomb

Maiduguri – In the dusty arid town of Dikwa, tens of thousands of Nigerians queue for hours in sweltering 40-degree heat for water. Fatuma is one of 100,000 people displaced in the Borno State town, the epicentre of Nigeria’s conflict. She sifts through remnants of food aid seeds, drying them out to prepare them to eat. Food is a scarcity here. Fatuma used to live on three meals a day. Today she is happy if aid agencies can provide her with a single meal.

Dikwa’s food crisis is mirrored throughout the conflict-stricken northeast, where the armed group Boko Haram has been brutally fighting to enforce strict Islamic Sharia law since 2009.

The Nigerian government launched a military operation in 2015 to flush the jihadist group out. An estimated 20,000people have been killed due to the violence. Close to 2 million people have fled their homes, including 200,000 who sought safety in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The violence was the first thing Nigerians feared for their lives. Now they fear famine.

Northeast Nigeria is inching closer than ever to mass starvation. The food crisis is about to get alarmingly worse, with food security experts predicting its deterioration between now and the end of August.

Experts forecast a rise in the number of people facing crisis, emergency and famine conditions from 4.7 million to 5.2 million in northeast Nigeria. This includes 50,000 people likely to be affected by ‘famine-like’ conditions, according to the latest United Nations Global Early Warning report.

Declaring famine has serious implications for countries to step up and take action. It rings international alarm bells. But lack of access to some communities caught up in Nigeria’s conflict means the exact number of people dying of hunger is impossible to confirm. Regardless, the threat of famine draws nearer.

Armed conflict and violence are driving this food crisis. Insecurity is preventing people from farming in many areas, and restricting access to local markets. This is depleting grain stocks and pushing food prices beyond people’s reach. It’s having devastating consequences for affected families, including 450,000 acutely malnourished children.

The May to August lean season is well underway in Nigeria. This is a period when food production is traditionally low and families rely on what they have stockpiled from more plentiful times. With many farmers unable to cultivate their land for up to three years already, families have little reserves to draw from.

Inflation caused by currency depreciation is compounding the situation further. Conflict areas are experiencing prices about 150 per cent higher than in 2015, according to the United Nations.

My organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, was forced to reduce the food basket we provide to families this month, to make up for the increased price of rice beans and millet. It’s a heart-breaking decision to make, but the alternative is to feed fewer people.

Despite the worsening food crisis, donor countries have only contributed 28 per cent of the money needed to provide the most basic humanitarian assistance this year. More visible crises like the war in Syria and Iraq garner so much international attention, there is less space for countries like Nigeria to get the same attention. As a result, donor dollars go elsewhere.

But while providing people with food saves lives, it’s only a short term solution. The crisis will only end when the conflict has been resolved, and communities can safely return to their land to rebuild their lives.

This is a man-made conflict that needs a man-made solution.

By Cheick Ba

Cheick Ba is the Norwegian Refugee Council Country Director in Nigeria, who has worked in the humanitarian sector for more than 20 years, including in Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This article was published on Ips Africa.

Credit picture: UNHCR

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Educating Children One Radio Wave at a Time

Nigeria’s conflict has displaced more than a million children, leaving them without access to education. However, an innovative radio program aims to transform this bleak scenario. Concerned by the ongoing insecurity and its impacts, the UN’s children agency (UNICEF) created a radio program to help educate displaced children in the Lake Chad region.

“Boko Haram has disrupted the lives of 1.3 million children with a radical insurgency that has burned villages, displaced people, and created a culture of fear,” said UNICEF’s Crisis Communications Specialist Patrick Rose.

Now entering its eight year, Boko Haram’s violent insurgency has intensified and spilled over in the Lake Chad region, displacing over 2 million people across four countries.

The group has particularly targeted education, destroying more than 900 schools and forcing at least 1,500 more to close.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 611 teachers have been killed and another 19,000 forced to flee. Boko Haram has also attacked students to keep them out of school and forcibly recruited students into its ranks.

Such targeted attacks and destruction have created an education gap in crisis-affected areas, especially where displaced communities have fled to.

“Short of going through and building new schools in all of those communities when we don’t know how long this conflict is going to last, we tried to develop ways that we could reach these children and deliver some sort of educational routine that will keep them at least learning,” Rose told IPS.

Created with support from the European Union (EU) and in partnership with the governments of Cameroon and Niger, UNICEF’s radio education programs serve as an alternative platform for the 200,000 children in the two countries unable to access schools.

It includes 44 episodes of educational programming on literacy and numeracy for various ages and will be broadcast through state channels in both French and the local languages of Kanouri, Fulfulde, and Hausa.

The curriculum also includes a child protection component such as psychosocial support, guiding teachers to create a space for children to share their experiences and learn how to manage their fears.

“When you have children who have been deeply disturbed by displacement, many of whom have witnessed the murders of their own families, and you create a situation in which they are expected to spend eight hours a day in a classroom that isn’t engaging at all with the reality that they are encountering outside, you get a fundamental dissonance and ultimately low engagement,” Rose said.

As part of its Education in Emergencies initiatives, UNICEF works closely with communities to identify the risks they face as individuals and schools as a whole.

In one such workshop about fears, one girl wrote “kidnappy,” reflecting the deep distress and risk of kidnapping that young girls face.

Not only does the radio program have the potential to decrease the likelihood of kidnapping as children listen from home, but it also creates a “positive” space that addresses children’s realities.

Discussions are underway with the governments of Cameroon and Niger to make radio courses certified, allowing children to receive a certification and pass the school year.

Rose called the approach to the complex crisis “unique,” as it moves from a focus on individual countries to a multi-country response.

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By  Tharanga Yakupitiyage

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The region in Niger quietly piloting a Boko Haram amnesty

In mid-December 2016, in rural Diffa region on Niger’s southern border with Nigeria, fourteen men gave themselves up to authorities. The group said that they were former fighters of Boko Haram and that they had abandoned their weapons in the bush.

News of this impromptu surrender from the Islamist militant group responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displacements came as a surprise to most in the area. But not to regional authorities.

Since late last year, they had been quietly testing a tactic of asking families whose children have joined Boko Haram to spread word of an amnesty. If they surrendered, fighters were told, they would be pardoned and assisted in rejoining their communities.

Before then, the main regional response to the brutal Islamist militant group had been military. This has had some successes in weakening the combatants, and the last major Boko Haram attack in Niger in which civilians were killed was in September 2016. But in Nigeria, where the group originated, and beyond, gruesome assaults, abductions, and bombings of schools and markets continued.

To those in Diffa, these attacks have been shocking. But more distressing to many has been the rate of voluntary conscription amongst Niger’s youth. Imams and village chiefs return to one question: “What about this savagery is attractive to our young?” Families and leaders tussle with this issue, but many simply refuse to countenance that those who join Boko Haram from Niger are truly radicalised.

It was with this belief in mind – as well as an awareness of the limits of a ground war – that the experimental amnesty plan was hatched last year. The exact details of the “secret messaging” campaign are unclear, but local leaders express pride in their initiative, which they say is ongoing, and follow it closely.

As the prefect of Maïné-Soroa told me, “Governor [of Diffa Region] Dan Dano calls every night to ask how many Boko have surrendered.”

As of late-March, the number stood at nearly 150 across Diffa.

Planning ahead

In terms of numbers, the amnesty scheme has so far proven to be effective. The logic behind it is also clear. Uganda’s use of a similar strategy to entice defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the early-2000s is widely believed to have weakened rebel ranks. And Diffa’s experiment comes at a time when Boko Haram is already facing factional splintering and other difficulties.

[Making sense of Boko Haram’s different factions: Who, how and why?]

As a locally-designed and -executed initiative, it is also impressive and promising. Often when disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) schemes are implemented, they are imported internationally with little local ownership. But this is not the case with Diffa, and other regions facing the same problem are watching the bold experiment closely.

However, while local leaders are buoyed by progress so far, not everyone is convinced.

Some believe that the policy is a distraction from tackling the longer-term push factors – such as poverty and a weak state – that lead youth to join Boko Haram in the first place. Meanwhile others worry that funds from other more widely beneficial development projects will be re-directed to rehabilitating former combatants.

As Niger’s Minister of Justice Marou Amadou says of ex-Boko Haram fighters, “it costs us money to house them, to feed them”.

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By Edward Rackley

Picture credit: Issouf Sanogo/Getty Images.

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Former Boko Haram Abductees Speak Out

Though still fearful for her life and the safety of her family, one of the girls who escaped abduction by Boko Haram in Nigeria has appealed to global leaders to intervene and help bring back 195 schoolgirls still being held by the terrorist network. Next month it will be three years since the Nigerian militants abducted more than 270 girls from the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.

Last October, the Boko Haram fighters freed 21 of the girls, including one with a baby that triggered global outrage and spurred the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

Telling our story

“We have to share our story and tell the world about it for the world to know,’ the student, using a pseudonym to protect her identity, Sa’a* (20) said at press conference on the sidelines of the two-day Global Education and Skills Forum.

Earlier SAA and another girl, identified as Rachel*, who lost her father and siblings to Boko Haram, told the Forum that the kidnapping of the schoolgirls was a painful episode that the world should not forget.

“The only thing we need to do is to ask the world leaders to bring back the girls. We cannot do anything other than speak out,” said SAA, who escaped from the clutches of Boko Haram. She jumped off a moving truck when the group attacked and burnt her school and books in Borno State in April 2014.

Sa’a, who was moved from Nigeria and is currently studying in the United States, said the traumatic ordeal should not be allowed to happen to any student. Her resolve to continue her schooling was the reason she has come out publicly about her experience.

“Every child needs to be educated and to go to school,” Sa’a said. “We must never forget this until all the girls are safely back. Next month it will not be three days but three years and they are not back. It is painful.”

Sa’a told the conference that after they were abducted and forced at gunpoint into trucks, she decided to jump off a moving truck together with a friend who sustained injuries. They were helped by a shepherd and made their way to safety.

Emmanuel Ogebe is a human rights lawyer and director of the Education Must Continue Initiative, which has assisted child victims and IDPs from conflicts, primary Boko Haram. Most of the victims are in Nigeria and a handful in the United States.

“Most venerable targets of Boko Haram have been educational institutions and religious institutions. Pastors have been killed in thousands and over 600 teachers have been killed by Boko Haram and we see vulnerability in both areas,” Ogebe told IPS.

“It is a painful situation of what happened to the girls because we understand that there were early warnings that the terrorists were going to strike and supported by the fact that teachers escaped and left the girls. The sense of failure to protect is very story in addition to the fact that the government did not protect the girls at school even when they were warned.”

Since January this year, Sa’a has started college under a project by the Education Must Continue Initiative, a charity which has helped about 3000 other internally-displaced children go to school. She now has an ambition to study science and medicine.

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By Busani Bafana

Credit picture: Nigerian student Sa’a, one of the more than 250 schoolgirls abducted by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram in the northern Nigerian city Chibok in 2014, waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 11, 2016, before the House Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organisations on the US Role in Helping Nigeria Confront Boko Haram and Other Threats in Northern Nigeria. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images.

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How do we talk about rebel groups?

Talking about rebel groups is especially the conundrum for journalists and researchers who follow the fates of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – which has been operational for almost 30 years across northern Uganda, southern Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and Eastern Congo – and Boko Haram, which has been active in northeastern Nigeria and countries that surround Lake Chad since the early 2000s.

Both Boko Haram and the LRA have stirred religious fanaticism; tapped into a feeling among citizens of government neglect; carried out attacks and abductions on civilian populations causing large scale internal displacement; and have successfully avoided military defeat despite a substantial technological and logistical disadvantage.

Media reports and analyses of these rebel groups, and the government responses to them, are too often simplified “good vs evil” narratives, with little room for complexity and nuance. Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video campaigned for a redoubling of international efforts to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony, but omitted any mention of abuses committed by members of Uganda People’s Defence Force. In response to the capture of 276 girls from Chibok in Nigeria, an open letter to the international community by prominent British political actors, accused Boko Haram of “waging an evil war.” But the proposed support for military action seemed oblivious to the propensity for violence and terror within Nigeria’s armed forces. These two examples highlight a general trend; a tendency to overlook the blurred lines of conflict.

These narratives hamper attempts to better understand why these groups continue to exist, how they operate and what messages they seek to convey. When the LRA is described, as it has been by a number of media outlets, as “a rag-tag force”, or when Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau is said to have more of the air of a psychopath than a militant” or is cast as being notorious for his wild YouTube rants,” an image is reinforced that is not wholly accurate.

The researcher and writer, Ledio Cakaj’s newly published book, When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard, which chronicles life in the LRA from the perspective of a foot soldier, George Omona (a pseudonym), breaks with this consensus.

Omona joined the LRA voluntarily in 2007, two decades after it began operating in northern Uganda. Under Kony’s leadership the group engaged in guerrilla warfare across northern Uganda, against Yoweri Museveni’s government. The conflict subsequently spread across borders into neighboring countries. Upwards of 1.5 million Ugandans were internally displaced. George grew up in this context, but does not give the impression that he was radicalized by it. He was well educated, but his uncle, who appears to have connections to the group, pushed him towards the LRA. George boarded a United Nations flight, under the pretext of being a herbalist who had been sent for by Kony, and made his way to the LRA camps in the bush. It became his home for the next three years.

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By Jamie Hitchen

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The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram

In ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram, journalist Andrew Walker examines the emergence of Boko Haram, teasing out the societal and state structures that contributed to its rise and sustained its position. With the book drawing on a comprehensive range of resources, Fisayo Ajala recommends this well-researched and dutifully analysed work.

The north east of Nigeria is a region where the state, specifically the security the state is supposed to provide in its most basic form, was already weak and ineffective. Boko Haram put those already weak institutions into an almost complete reverse. The limited writ of the state, the failure of democratic governance and the thin influence of the rule of the law in the north east had been laid bare for all to see. The heart of the state had already been eaten hollow (161).

The above paragraph from Andrew Walker’s ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram explains the near-capitulation of the Nigerian state at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency. The technical defeat of Boko Haram in December 2015 could therefore be regarded as a narrow escape.

Walker’s book is a major addition to existing literature on Boko Haram that has described and examined its emergence, the factors that have sustained it and the dynamics of Nigeria’s war against this insurgent group. The book is a reader’s delight. The journalistic background of the author gives life to the book and enthrals in many ways. It provides a dispassionate analysis of Nigeria’s history, particularly of the north, and the prevailing structural and societal imbalances that gave rise to Boko Haram.

Writing on the country since 2006 and having worked for the Daily Trust and the BBC, it is safe to conclude that Walker is well informed about Nigeria, its grand opportunities and fatal vulnerabilities as well as how it works. For instance, Walker decries its certificate culture and describes its education problem as a ‘rot’ that has eaten away the heart of society (73). According to Walker, Nigerian politics is a quilted blanket of clashing and complementary patterns (110), spread across the politics of patronage, stomach infrastructure, federal character, ethnic irredentism and so on.

Walker’s book provides comprehensive detail on (northern) Nigeria’s socio-political and religious history, carefully noting the failed desire of Uthman dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, to reorganise pre-colonial northern Nigeria or, more precisely, Hausa city states, along salafi principles and create a dynasty of ‘spiritual leaders and a purified faith’ (27), the varying interpretations of Islam among the different sects and the resistance to education that was accommodated because of colonial expediency (60). Decades later, Boko Haram under its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, would denounce western education in strong terms, describing the education system put in place during and after colonial rule as the ‘wellspring of corruption’ (145).

Walker outlines the nature, doctrine and methods of Boko Haram: how before the 2009 uprising Yusuf grew his community through da’wah – or proselytisation – so that his group operated like ‘a state within a state’, drawing followers from the urban and rural poor, trades people and the ‘informal sector’: street hawkers, cobblers, blacksmiths, knife sharpeners and tailors (146, 152). Because Yusuf, the now-slain leader of Boko Haram, was able to move through the many levels of the northern city Maiduguri’s social worlds, the group formed a ‘counter-elite alienated by resentment over what they saw as years of compromise to the state (147, 151).

Walker equally explains the recruitment process, noting the different kinds of people in Boko Haram (167), which fall into Tore Bjorgo’s three categories of captive participants, mercenaries and real ideologues. Recruitment exercises include cult-like, mysterious activities tied to dates tainted with cursed blood. Al Jazeera journalist Chika Oduah testifies to this as she notes that oath of allegiances – mubaya’a – and poisoned dabino (dates), tea and coconuts were asked of, and given to, would-be members as methods of indoctrination and recruitment. Yet, as Walker notes, the real ideologues are so indoctrinated that their world may be beyond reach: ‘they believe that the world is sort of a motor park. They are the passengers; they are the ones who are going somewhere, to paradise. The rest of us are just hawking peanuts’ (168).

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By Fisayo Ayala

Picture credit: Tim Green CC BY 2.0

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Refugees from Boko Haram Languish in Cameroon

Minawao Camp (Cameroon) – Tears spring to Aichatou Njoya’s eyes as she recalls the day Islamic militants from Boko Haram arrived on her doorstep in Nigeria. “It was on May 24, 2013. My husband was sleeping in his room while I was on the other side of the house with our six children. The youngest was only one month old,” she mutters, pausing to collect herself.

Njoya told IPS when the armed insurgents broke into the house, they grabbed her husband and dragged him into her room. “They brought him in front of us and put a machete to his neck and asked him if he was going to convert from Christianity to Islam. They asked thrice, and thrice he refused. Then they slew him right in front of me and our children,” she said, still holding back tears.

The widowed refugee said an argument ensued among the assailants as to whether to spare her life or not. They finally agreed to let her live. The next day she escaped with her children to the hills and trekked for several days until they reached the border with Cameroon, where the UNHCR had vehicles to transport refugees to the camp. The camp had just been set up, she says.

Njoya, now 36, has been living in the Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon’s Far North region for more than three and a half years now, with scant hope of returning anytime soon.

IPS spoke with Njoya and others during the Dec. 15 visit of Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner for the United Nations Refugee agency UNHCR, to the camp. Grandi called for the financial empowerment of Nigerian refugees to help them cope with insufficient humanitarian aid.

The camp hosts about 60,000 Nigerians who have fled their homes since 2011 because of attacks carried out by the Islamist terror group, Boko Haram.

Grandi spoke with refugees, representatives of national and international NGOs, and officials of the Cameroonian government who gathered to welcome him. Cameroon is the third country he is visiting as part of his tour of countries of the Lake Chad Basin affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.

Grandi said his visit was intended to encourage donors to provide more aid to affected countries and governments to work together to reinstate peace in the region and facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) their homes.

“We have made efforts to improve aid, but aid is still insufficient. I have listened to complaints of these refugee women who say they do not have any income generation activities and I think the UNHCR and its partners should begin working in that direction. Help them help themselves,” he said.

He had just listened to representatives of the refugees and refugee women discussing the difficulties they face on a daily basis, including food and water shortages, scarcity of wood, insufficient medicines, and insufficient classroom and medical staff in health units in the camp.

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By Mbom Sixtus

Picture credit: Joshua Massarenti

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