“Boko Haram is not yet in the past, but still in the present”
First Foreign Minister Steinmeier in Nigeria, then Nigerian President Buhari in Germany: At the beginning of October, German politics on Africa was busy on migration and refugee issues in West Africa, especially Nigeria. But the crisis of internally displaced people within Nigeria is far greater: more than 2 million refugees have lost their homes because of the terror war of Boko Haram. Mausi Segun, Head of Human Rights Watch in Nigeria, warns in this interview with the HBS that the conflict continues to smolder despite the success stories announced by the Nigerian government.
Mausi Segun: Because of the number of people affected, we have to classify this conflict into the highest global category of refugee crises. It is not about the whole country of Nigeria, but the conflict in the north-east reaches as far as the neighboring countries and refugee flows move between Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram and the “scorched earth” tactics (a military strategy that targets anything that might be useful to the enemy, editor’s note) of the armies of these countries force many people into camps, and it is only a matter of time when starvation will also threaten them.
HBS: How does the famine cited in the media looks like on the ground?
Mausi Segun: The famine in the northeast is serious. I met a mother of four in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri (the capital city of Borno State, editor’s note) who exhausted the bowl of corn shared to her and her children after four days and did not know when the next bowl would come – perhaps the next day, maybe next week. Worse off are the singles in the camps, because they get a smaller ration. Unaccompanied orphans usually get nothing - because you have to know someone to get the ticket for the food supply. The government has finally taken steps to change from the communal sharing of foodstuff to direct distribution to individuals in IDP camps.
The UN organizations are talking about about 65,000 people who are in danger of dying of hunger. There could be more. Where to draw the line? Many people might not die of hunger, but perhaps they just manage to survive. It is not only the IDPs, but also the host communities, villages and families who share the little that they have with the displaced people and thus might face starvation themselves. Nigeria needs much more capacity to deal with a problem of this size.
What is the Nigerian government doing?
Mausi Segun: The Nigerian government deliberately understates the crisis because it does not want any observers on the ground to find out what is really going on. The conflict is not over. Though the intensity of the war has reduced, Boko Haram continues to attack and control areas, especially in the north of Borno State.
But there is no political will to really deal with the humanitarian crisis and solve it. Look at the government's response to the security situation in Maiduguri: for a year now, the IDPs are kept in the camps, their freedom of movement is restricted, they are often not allowed to leave the camp, and other people are not allowed to enter. These IDPs are practically imprisoned in the fenced camps, in order to give a picture of peace and normality in the rest of the city. The narrative of the government is that the conflict is actually over – but for many people this is not so because they continue to be exposed to the attacks of Boko Haram.
The speed with which the government is sending people back home is not matched by the military preparations for their return. Ironically, the military evacuates entire villages and communities to reduce the possibility of Boko Haram fighters hiding there to launch attacks. Human Rights Watch is currently investigating allegations that the army completely destroys and sets buildings in these re-captured communities on fire. The army's success stories on television often show fire in the background, while the speaker explains that a region has been liberated from Boko Haram. I would just like to know the reasons for this "scorched earth" strategy: it is not just that it will delay reconstruction and make it more expensive. If the allegations are confirmed, such incidents might qualify as war crimes.
Since Medecins Sans Frontieres discovered the famine in Bama in April of this year, the number of humanitarian relief efforts has increased. When the military gave access to Bama, the situation improved somewhat. The army has also opened up access for humanitarian actors to reach Dikwa in the far north of Borno State.
But what happens outside these cities? Where the military evacuated the people to settle them in so-called temporary satellite centers? Who has access here? Who assesses the needs of people here? A report by the UN and the Borno Protection Sector Working Group of April 2016 not only stated the humanitarian shortcomings, but also the human rights violations in the northern states. This crisis cannot be addressed with money alone.
The majority of the refugees are not in the camps ...
Mausi Segun: Only 8 to 12 percent of refugees are in the camps. The bigger problem is the host communities and villages that have absorbed the almost 2 million refugees who are not living in the camps. The villagers often do not know about humanitarian aid, and the aid organizations have no knowledge of the refugees in those locations. There seems to be no mapping, or central register. Here the lack of coordination in reaching IDPs in host communities is serious.
What kind of coordination is needed?
There are a lot of actors in the region: donor organizations, the government, international humanitarian aid organizations and the UN organizations, but very little action reaches the victims of the crisis, especially those in host communities.
The food shortage in the IDP camps is horrific, people have nothing ... At the same time, there are reports that stores of the provincial government of Borno State agency in charge of relief material distribution, are filled up to the roof with rice, grains and even blankets and hygiene articles. But then there were media reports on the sale of relief supplies on local markets. As long as the government cannot correct this situation, donors should not channel relief funds through the government but rather to humanitarian organizations working directly with the IDPs. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) are on-site and work with local staff, but also lack adequate funds. I was in an IDP camp in Maiduguri, where I met a UNFPA nurse who was to work in a newly built sick room but had absolutely no medicine or materials. For an acutely ill woman, we had to send someone to the city to buy medicine, with our own money.
Donors and foreign governments who offers funds for emergency relief should insist on an effective monitoring system. It might be better if the funds are given to those organizations that really work on the ground. These include national and international organizations, such as the UN, the Red Cross and Nigerian NGOs. Since the IDPs protested the lack of relief materials in IDP camps in August, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) decided not to supply the food and other materials via the provincial government of Borno State but to hand them directly to the IDPs. This is a sign of the failure of the state government of Borno State.
Is the release of 21 Chibok girls happy news?
Mausi Segun: It is indeed a positive development. It is an incident that rekindles hope for the families of the other girls who remain in Boko Haram captivity. The other aspect is, and I would like to put this carefully, but that is not easy ... that the government says there was no deal for the release of the 21 Chibok girls. But this may not be the whole truth, because media reports claim that local people confirm that at least 4 high-ranking Boko Haram fighters have been released in return. As much as we all want all the Chibok girls and the other hundreds of girls and women who have been abducted by Boko Haram to be released, the question to be asked is at what price? If these fighters are released in exchange for the girls, it means they will not be subjected to the de-radicalization process for Boko Haram defectors, but they are likely to fight again and thus fuel the conflict. How would the government weigh the lives of the 21 Chibok against the future casualties of these fighters, and decide on which achieves a positive image for the government?
How do you assess the clashes between the Shiite group Islamic Movement of Nigeria and the military plus civilian population in some Northern Nigerian cities?
The attitude towards the Shiites is a sign of growing intolerance in Nigeria. We have already seen this in the government's reactions to the Biafra protesters in the south-east of the country, and in December 2015, during the initial clashes between the army and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN, the Shia umbrella organization in Nigeria), where 347 members of the IMN and one soldier were killed. Since then, nearly 200 IMN members have been standing trial because of the death of the soldier, while no one is being tried for the death of the IMN members. According to the report of a judicial commission of inquiry set up by the Kaduna state government, the Shiites are responsible for the deaths of their own members. Their leader has been in custody since the December 2015 clashes, without charges and court trial. The MNI was banned in Kaduna State in early October, just before the annual Shiite festival, as recommended by the Committee of Inquiry. However, this cannot be reconciled with the constitution of Nigeria, which promises freedom of religion.
At the time of the religious festival in mid-October, there were clashes in several states after the local governments who had not banned the IMN, decided to ban their religious processions. It looks like those state governments are riding on a popular wave of intolerance by majority Sunni Muslims against Shi’ites in northern Nigeria. This risks pushing the group underground and into radicalization. One of the factors driving the initial recruitment of Boko Haram was the resentment of the followers and their sense of injustice against the brutal government crackdown of the group: the then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody in 2009 along with hundreds of supporters. I hope that the German government can urge President Buhari that a heavy handed crack down of protests or dissenters never works. It is time to look back and learn from the mistakes of the past – but then, Boko Haram is not yet in the past, but still in the present!
The interview was conducted by Christine K, office manager of the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Nigeria, Abuja.