Famine Stalks Nigeria's Northeast as Aid Agencies Seek Funds

  • More than 1 million people threatened by famine, UN Says
  • Aid agencies have quarter of $1 billion in needed funding

Nigeria is battling to stave off famine in the northeastern state of Borno where a seven-year-old insurgency by Islamist militants has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes and wrecked the local economy.

While aid agencies estimate that as many as 1.4 million people are facing an emergency and 44,000 are close to starvation, they’ve raised only a fifth of the $1.05 billion needed for the operation to provide assistance this year. Nigeria is one of four countries pushed to the brink of famine by conflict this year, alongside South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, according to the UN.

A woman measures the diameter of a girl’s arm suffering from severe acute malnutrition on outskirts of Maiduguri

STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images

“Right now, we are managing barely to keep a large-scale famine-like situation at an arm’s length,” the UN’s deputy humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, Peter Lundberg, said by phone from Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.

Recent military successes by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration against the Boko Haram militant group haven’t halted attacks altogether. Suicide bombers regularly set off explosions in towns, and rural residents are unable to tend their fields or even fetch firewood and water without being escorted by soldiers. The conflict has caused more than $9 billion in damage in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions, according to the government and the UN.

Preventing Famine

“Climbing out of a famine situation is 10 times more expensive than preventing one, so we have no choice but to do everything we need to do right now to ensure this does not happen,” Ayoade Alakija, Nigeria’s chief humanitarian coordinator, said in an interview. The situation is so desperate that in some cases “women are selling their babies or their bodies to buy food so they can feed the rest of their children,” she said.

Between October last year and January, the World Food Programme, which administers the largest chunk of donor funds, scaled up its operation seven-fold. A lack of funding has forced the Rome-based UN agency to abandon its goal of providing assistance to 1.8 million people by June and maintain its target of 1.3 million.

“Eventually, we’re going to essentially be forced to choose, who are the neediest among the many many extremely hungry and needy people,” WFP spokeswoman Elizabeth Bryant said by phone from Dakar, Senegal.

Nigeria would ordinarily have been able to afford the $274 million the WFP says it needs to feed people until October, but last year its economy contracted for the first time in 25 years because of a slump in the price of oil, its main export. Both the Nigerian government and the UN acknowledge their response was initially slow.

Counterinsurgency Operations

The food crisis has also been exacerbated by Nigeria’s counterinsurgency campaign, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last week. Soldiers routinely force civilians to flee from battle zones and discourage them from carrying out economic activities such as trade and farming in a bid to deprive Boko Haram of possible sources of revenue, it said.

An estimated 700,000 people still can’t be reached due to the threat of Boko Haram attacks, ICG said. It suggested that the Nigerian government ought to negotiate with the insurgents so aid agencies can gain further access to those in need.

“It’s very fragile and it’s very unfortunate that we can’t continue with the scale-up,” Lundberg said. “Now our concern is to maintain the gains we have made and ensure that those populations that are in critical need can continue to be assisted. If not, we will have a very very serious situation on our hands.”

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