A “forgotten crisis” is taking place in north-eastern Nigeria which the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) warns could be the worst on the African continent. Seven years of insecurity sparked by the terrorist group Boko Haram has affected up to 15 million people in four states, leading to mass displacement. It has also caused a major food shortage as agricultural production has stalled. As a result, some 400,000 children face starvation. Dianne Penn asked OCHA Public Information Officer Órla Fagan about the extent of the crisis.
Shovels are almost as valuable a commodity as food in Nigeria’s north-east these days, because with a shovel you can bury the dead. This is the reality for hundreds and thousands of people fleeing from Boko Haram violence and suffering the effects of mass displacement. Such is the ensuing humanitarian situation that ordinary citizens are unable to recover from treatable diseases such as malaria because of their weakened nutritional status.
Farmers in the north-east haven’t returned to the land for three years in a row because they fear either attack from Boko Haram or the unexploded devices and land minutes
and land mines planted in place of crops across their farms. The result is food shortages across an area that was the bread basket of Nigeria as fertile land lies fallow.
I travelled by helicopter with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) over towns and villages for kilometres on end – all razed to the ground by Boko Haram violence.
Houses and premises are shells – empty, with the roofs of buildings gone and some of the towns going back to the jungle with rapid growth after the rainy season. Burnt out cars and trucks are randomly scattered as they were abandoned when set on fire. In Bama town, two burnt out cars and a truck remain on the courtyard of a petrol station – an apocalyptic scene more reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. You half expect to see Bruce Willis coming out of the jungle with a blackened face and an AK47 with a shoulder strap of bullets slung over his shoulder.
I was back in the helicopter a few weeks ago, travelling to Monguno, Banki and Gwoza on different days. All these areas have become newly accessible to the humanitarian community. I was travelling with Kevin Sieff a journalist with the Washington Post and Jane Hahn a freelance talented photographer – both were deployed to cover the unfolding humanitarian crisis. They had visited Gwoza a year previously, just after the Nigerian Armed Forces pushed out Boko Haram and they wanted to revisit to see what progress was made and also to see some of the lesser-reported areas.
We travelled to Banki on Wednesday 28 September after a 45-minute helicopter trip. The Nigerian Armed Forces controls the town and its officers are understandably paranoid about the possibility of Boko Haram attacks. Citizens are not free to move beyond the perimeter of the town for fear they will share their miserly food allowances with the rebels. Some believe there is a strategy to starve the rebels, but if that is so, then it is also affecting thousands of innocent people left without insufficient food on a daily basis.
There is not much traffic in Banki – the roads around it are too dangerous for humanitarian convoys to come from nearby Maidiguri, the capital of Borno state. The World Food Programme bring in food from neighbouring Cameroon. The first food convoy arrived in July and delivery is sporadic and dependent on road conditions and security.
Even the health clinic is run with personnel who come in from Cameroon and is open just a few days each week. Hundreds of people queued outside in the heat of the sun waiting as the nurse performed triage, making decision after decision on which patients needed immediate treatment and who could be treated for minor ailments or left for another day to see the medics.
I sat by in the medical tent and watched Kevin interview a few women with clearly malnourished babies, as they fed them with a mixture of water and sugar from syringes, in between feeds – these were severely acute malnourished children who would die without intervention. On a bed was a woman rolling around in pain, occasionally vomiting into a bucket. On another bed a young medic attended to a baby, as her mother sat on a chair watching in bewilderment. The mother, Adama Adam is just 15 years old and already married two years to a 22 year-old man. Fana, her daughter is six months old and weighs just 5 kg. Fana is Adama’s only child. Far too many young girls who should be going to school are married as children themselves and whipped out of school – Adama was just 13 years old when she married. Some men in this bigamist society are fathering scores of children with no thought, awareness , or questioning on whether there is enough land to support this massively increasing population.
Back in Banki, the afternoon heat intensified in the medical tent as the doctor brought in a portable oxygen tank for Fana to assist her breathing. She was hopeful that the baby would make it when her organs showed signs of recovery and Fana peed on the bed. The oxygen tank battery had run out and the doctor gently picked up the baby and with great care moved her to the car where she could recharge the battery. A while later the medic came back into the tent and I asked how the baby was doing, the doctor responded that she was hopeful of a recovery. In order to get Fana to a better-equipped hospital for treatment, they needed a military escort for the ambulance to protect them from Boko Haram attacks. With no reason given, the military refused the escort.
After some time, we proceeded to an orphanage to see the living conditions of the children and a compound full of women, who claimed their husbands’ were abducted; they were possibly Boko Haram widows.
Kevin, Jane and myself were returning to the clinic along the sandy streets when Jane recognized Adama as she walked alongside her sister-in-law who was carrying the remains of Fana, her tiny body still wrapped in the bundle of cloths. Adama walked alongside her husband’s sister, arms hanging by her side, as if, without a child to carry, she didn’t know what to do with them. Tears poured down her face. Fana’s death was caused by malaria but her weakened nutritional status prevented her ability to fight the disease and like so many weakened children, she just didn’t have the strength in the end. Not having access to adequate medical facilities also didn’t enhance Fana’s chances of survival.
Jane, with her journalist instinct used body language and hand signals to ask if it was okay to photograph the two women as they walked back to the house where the family had taken refuge. We followed them into the compound as other family members and people living there gathered to see what had happened. Adama’s husband leaned against the wall, watching, not knowing what to do.
Adama and some family members went indoors as we looked on from the outside. Adama’s sister-in-law knelt on the floor with Fana still in her arms, while a male relative took the baby. Adama, overcome with grief, passed out as the room became crowded with people who came to see what was happening and offer sympathy.
In this culture, funerals are the business of men. Women have nothing to do with the burial. The imam (holy man) came along and with a hand-made hatchet went to the corner of the compound and began digging. He then broke some sticks and placed them across the small hole he had dug. He gently placed the body on the sticks and began washing Fana’s body. The body is washed over the freshly dug hole incase an infectious disease caused the death, so the water used to cleanse the body is absorbed in the hole and not a danger to others in the compound.
A rag was then brought out and the baby’s body wrapped in the material and tied in several places. Fana was then placed on a board and carried to the front of the compound where the men prayed over the body. A wheelbarrow was brought out and the body placed in the barrow as the men in the family went to the army commander to seek permission to bury Fana on the edge of the forest.
I returned to the helicopter pad, to wait and reflect on the afternoon’s events as Jane and Kevin followed the funeral and see Fana’s burial. I felt depressed, deflated and just really helpless. Kevin and Jane were stopped at the edge of the town because in Banki there is an invisible line – on one side the Nigerian military are in control and on the other side it is Boko Haram territory.
September 28 was an upsetting afternoon, not least for Adama and Fana’s family. We were witnesses to something that’s happening day in, day out for many families in Nigeria’s north-east.
Nigeria is considered a wealthy country, but there are millions who live below the poverty line, and in conditions that are incongruous to what should be happening in the 21st Century. These crushing levels poverty with zero quality of life, where children die unnecessarily is just fodder for Boko Haram recruitment.
Innocent people are suffering. The international community is reluctant to contribute to the unfolding humanitarian situation because they believe, and probably rightly so, there is sufficient wealth in this oil rich country.
In the meantime, scores of children and vulnerable people die each day, waiting for assistance that may never come. There are too many demands, with too many crises around the world, from Syria, to Yemen to Lybia, to the Central African Republic with billions of dollars required to assist the most vulnerable citizens of the world. But if we don’t provide the most basics, including food, health and clean water, then it will come back and bite us in the ass. Nigerians striving for a better life, will march towards Europe in their droves to escape the grinding poverty and then maybe, just maybe people will then take notice and do something to address the growing humanitarian needs developing in Nigeria.