Boko Haram Attacks Deepen Humanitarian Crisis in Nigeria

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Mohammadu Buhari
Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A worsening campaign of attacks by Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria is deepening a humanitarian crisis for tens of millions of people in what’s already the poorest region of Africa’s top oil producer.

The Boko Haram group has killed hundreds of civilians in almost daily attacks during the holy month of Ramadan even after President Muhammadu Buhari declared eliminating the militant group as a top priority. The surge in violence is worsening poverty and hunger in the northeast and diminishing hopes that 1.4 million people who’ve been displaced by the conflict will have a chance soon to return home.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on the country’s future prospects if the conflict continues,” Khwima Nthara, lead economist for the World Bank in Abuja, the capital, said by phone on July 15. “These are people who should have been farming, producing food for the region and the whole country, but are squatting in other people’s houses.”

The conflict is deterring investment in the region, choking cross-border trade and harming agricultural output. The northeast already suffers from a poverty rate, calculated on a daily income of about $1.40, of more than 50 percent and it is increasing, compared to rates as low as 16 percent in the southwest region and about 29 percent in the south east, the World Bank said in a report last year.

At least 11 people were killed by three suicide bomb blasts in the northeastern city of Damaturu on Friday as Muslims gathered for prayers to mark the end of Ramadan, the army said in a statement, correcting an earlier death toll of 50.

Resettlement Drive

During a visit to Maiduguri on July 1, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the government was moving into the next phase of overcoming the Boko Haram crisis: resettling those uprooted by it. While most of those the United Nations calls “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, say they want to go back home, Boko Haram remains active in the northeast and has killed thousands of civilians in its six-year campaign to impose its version if Shariah, or Islamic law.

“To go back, I need to be given clothes, bedding and food, and the government should assist us to build new places to live,” Alima Adamu Abatcha, a former public servant who fled with her husband and seven children from the town of Gwoza to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, said in a July 11 interview. “The government has tried but I do not believe they have done enough.”

Perilous Return

Until the region is safe, schools reopen, and there are opportunities for work, returning will be perilous, Sutapa Howlader, an official at the United Nations humanitarian affairs office, said in a July 9 interview in Abuja.

“Even if Boko Haram is annihilated, this doesn’t signal any kind of success for IDPs in the northeast,” she said.

Nigeria’s ability to finance its war on Boko Haram and care for those affected by it has been hampered by a 50 percent slump in crude prices in the past year, which forced the state to scale back its budget.

“The government is having to spend a lot of money not only on fighting Boko Haram but on looking after the displaced,” said Nthara. “That money should have been used to address the long-standing developmental challenges in the north.”

Command Center

Buhari, a former military ruler who took office in May, has demonstrated he wants to get tough on the insurgency by moving a command center closer to the violence, in Maiduguri, and he replaced the country’s top military officers this week.

“Defeating Boko Haram requires a comprehensive approach that involves the region and includes not only a strong military response, but also sustainable security for liberated areas, good governance, development, and opportunity for the civilian population,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Abuja on July 9.

Buhari has discussed security cooperation with Secretary of State John Kerry and he’s due to meet President Barack Obama on July 20.

For the displaced people being housed in temporary shelters, relief can’t come soon enough.

“It is very painful for all of us,” said Buba Gamaze, a teacher who has been living in a camp in Maiduguri since fleeing Gwoza in November. “We want the issue of Boko Haram buried completely because if we even have one of them in existence, it is a threat to people and society.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the death toll after the Nigerian army said it made a mistake in its statement.)

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