The Heavy Cost of Misreading Nigeria’s Crisis

Children who escaped Boko Haram gather at the Bakassi displacement camp. Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 27, 2016. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

Northeast Nigeria and the surrounding Lake Chad region face a complex humanitarian emergency due to a combination of terrorism, hunger and malnutrition, displacement, and disease. Yet the situation attracts far less international attention than do other severe and ongoing emergencies. The reasons center on geopolitics and widespread media framing of the crisis as primarily security-related. This creates several dilemmas for those interested in resolving it.

By most measures, the Lake Chad humanitarian crisis is one of the worst in the world. As of June 2016, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 2.6 million people were displaced and 3.8 million faced “severe food shortages.” Certainly, these are far less than the number of people affected by the crisis in Syria—over 250,000 killed, 4.8 million displaced outside Syria, 6.5 million displaced within the country, and 13.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance—but the Lake Chad situation remains significant regardless.

Why, then, does the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR)’s list of emergencies feature only the Central African Republic (CAR), Europe, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria? CAR’s numbers—2.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance—are higher as a proportion of its population, but less than Lake Chad’s in absolute terms, so the criteria for inclusion do not seem to be purely numerical. Nigeria’s absence may instead reflect its somewhat uncertain place in the geopolitical order: its emergency makes far fewer headlines than the European migration crisis or the wars in Iraq and Syria because, for most Western policymakers at least, the Middle East is more of a geopolitical chessboard than Africa. Meanwhile, Nigeria is a far richer country than either CAR or South Sudan, which perhaps means that it evokes less sympathy from Western policymakers and global humanitarian organizations.

This is not to say that no international actors are working to alleviate the Lake Chad area’s suffering. UNHCR, USAID, the European Commission, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program, Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization, and others are all active in northeastern Nigeria and the neighboring countries. But funding appeals have fallen far short of these organizations’ needs: as of August 30, nearly $179 million of requirements remained unmet.

The Nigerian government has mounted a humanitarian response through the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency and various private donors in the country have contributed funds for humanitarian assistance. But a prominent politician, Senate President Bukola Saraki, still called for more international help in a recent article in The Guardian. Saraki notes the Nigerian National Assembly’s effort to allocate more humanitarian funding, but also writes, “We need far greater support from overseas to ensure that, first, people are able to leave the camps and live their lives safely and securely, and, second, those who have suffered so much are effectively rehabilitated.”

Saraki is certainly correct in this, although cynical observers—Nigerian and non-Nigerian alike—will have their suspicions about whether corruption will inhibit aid delivery. Nigeria and its political class are infamous, sometimes unfairly so, for corruption, and there have already been numerous accusations about humanitarian supplies, especially food, being stolen by officials and soldiers in the northeast. Indeed, corruption in aid delivery is a problem around the world: in May, USAID reportedly suspended and investigated several of its humanitarian partners in Syria due to concerns of this nature. Some Nigerians may hear in Saraki’s call for increased aid a call for further enrichment of the governing elite.

Of more immediate concern is the framing of the humanitarian crisis in securitized terms. Saraki, again, writes, “While progress has been made in improving security, this is at risk of being undermined by the humanitarian situation. Poverty, malnourishment and isolation form a perfect breeding ground for Boko Haram to recruit desperate individuals and turn them into their latest weapon against humanity. Islamic State is reportedly recruiting members from European refugee camps. Kenya has announced plans to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, due to fears that al-Shabaab is recruiting on an unprecedented scale.”

Such claims about European camps and about Dadaab have been largely debunked. Nor is there evidence, so far, that Boko Haram has recruited significantly among displaced persons. The securitized approach therefore takes a risk in arguing that camps around Lake Chad could become breeding grounds for terrorists. On the one hand, it may attract more international attention. On the other, it may perpetuate stereotypes that make the crisis harder to resolve. Nigeria’s humanitarian response and its displaced persons camps have already been heavily, and dangerously, militarized.

Civilian victims of Boko Haram already face a terrible and unfair stigma, including from the authorities. Furthering this trend would be even more problematic. Kenya’s recurring threats to close Dadaab, about which I have previously written for the Global Observatory, have wasted valuable time and resources that could have gone to addressing both the displacement crisis and the threat of jihadism in East Africa. If calls to see Lake Chad camps as security threats succeed, the Boko Haram crisis could become even more difficult to resolve.

Media framing of the Nigerian extremist group is one reason that the humanitarian crisis is not getting the attention it needs: compare the significant attention that international media paid to the recent leadership schism within Boko Haram to the sparse and intermittent coverage of the humanitarian emergency. An attack or statement from the extremist group attracts much more coverage than mass hunger and deprivation among civilian victims. Even the international attention given to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 267 female students at Chibok over two years ago has not translated into adequate funding and assistance for Boko Haram.

In coverage of Syria, the international media and other observers seem to have room for more than one narrative: not just war and terrorism, but also a humanitarian emergency. For the sake of Boko Haram’s victims, more attention should be paid to Nigeria’s humanitarian situation, while the country’s elites should call attention to the problem without characterizing the displaced as potential terrorists.