NGOs Declare Famine in Nigeria

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has designated 4.4 million people in northeast Nigeria as “severely food insecure.”  The conditions in Borno and the Lake Chad region are so severe that the UN has compared it to the former food crisis in Darfur and South Sudan.

The ongoing food crisis is slated to be the most devastating in decades. In order to “keep people alive,” the UN estimates that $220 million will be needed over the next ten weeks. 

Médecins Sans Frontières has accused UN agencies for failing to respond to warnings after Boko Haram devastated food production in Borno state. MSF has been raising warnings about an impending famine for the last two years. The organization claims that the UN failed to  act quickly enough to save hundreds of thousands of lives in Northern Nigeria.

“We’ve been calling to the UN, to the headquarters of UNICEF, WFP [World Food Programme], OCHA and their response has been ‘Yes, we’re doing this and that’, But you cannot just be satisfied to say you built X number of latrines, delivered X bags of food when people are dying. It’s not enough,” Isabelle Mouniaman, head of Médecins Sans Frontières operations in Nigeria, was quoted as saying.

“The Red Cross is doing their job, MSF is doing their job, but the vast majority of humanitarian organizations are failing in their responsibility towards the crisis in Borno,” Mouniaman added.

Many International NGOs who have attempted reach some of the affected towns, have faced difficulties because many of the roads are prone to ambush and attack by Boko Haram and other petty criminals. 

Toby Lanzer, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, shared that progress has been made in recent years as Boko Haram has lost control of some areas. 

On a recent visit to the area, Lanzer said he was “horrified” by the state of the people living there.  “I have worked in many, many places — Central African Republic, Darfur, South Sudan — and the condition of people in very rural parts of Borno state is as bad as I have ever seen,” he reported. 

The Nigerian Government has also been accused of being complacent and utilizing their tight control over the media and humanitarian access to the affected area to conceal the gravity of the crisis. 

In Maiduguri, food rations, often consisting of raw rice with no means to cook it, were delivered once a day  and distributed by local community heads. 

Grema Terab, former chairman of the state’s humanitarian response-State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) in Borno blames the crisis on “total neglect and carelessness on the part of the government.” He claims that the government was aware of the extent of the hunger, but instead of delivering a plan to solve the crisis, there have been attempts to prevent media coverage of the issue due to fear of embarrassment.

According to Lanzer, Nigeria has disseminated over 10,000 tons of emergency food aid and is assisting international agencies with visas and customs clearance. 

While most of the humanitarian effort has been centered on camps in the capital of Borno State, Maiduguri, approximately 1.9 million people displaced within the city do not have access to food or medical support. Humanitarian NGOs are struggling to get an accurate sense of the need in remote areas or the state. According to UNICEF, 250,000 children under the age of 5 in Borno are at risk of severe malnutrition, and if the crisis is not alleviated, 50,000 could die. 

Just last week, MSF estimated 100,000 people were in need of assistance in Mondugo, but this week the group revised the estimate to 200,000. There is even less information about large communities in Dikwa, Konduga, Gwoza, and Kale where the situation is thought to be even worse than in Bama.

This past Friday, the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network said “a famine… could be occurring in the worst affected and less accessible pockets of the state.” In order for a famine to be declared, at least 20 percent of an area’s population must be facing an extreme lack of food with a daily death rate exceeding 2 out of 10,000 and at least 30 percent of children suffering from acute malnutrition. 

“I don’t think anyone was quick enough to understand how serious the situation was. We can criticize each other, but the main point is … what are we going to do to make sure this situation doesn’t deteriorate,” Lanzer explained. “We can make every plan on earth … [but] if we do not get resources from the donor community very little of that [plan] will actually happen.”



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