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The challenge of Humanitarian response in conflict: Nigeria Case Study

01 Nov 2017

Last month the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, told the UN Security Council session on Famines in Africa and Yemen that ‘while we have succeeded in keeping famine at bay, we have not kept suffering at bay’. Referring to northeast Nigeria where still 8.5 million people need humanitarian aid, he reminded the Council that up to 700,000 people “are completely inaccessible and may need urgent support”.

This grim assessment underlines the huge difficulties that attend to humanitarian response in the context of active conflict. MSF is acutely aware of the difficulties as teams remain on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, and northeast Nigeria.

The case of the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria and surrounding countries has been examined in the most recent case study of MSF’s ‘Emergency Gap’ series. As this summary illustrates, the case provides a salutary warning to those who would promote policy coherence, and Sustainable Development Goal lead approaches when conflict rages through communities:

As with many conflict related crises, the emergency in North East Nigeria has deep and complex roots in the history of the region. The conflict began in 2009 and quickly developed beyond the control of the authorities. It unfolded in the midst of pre-existing political, social and economic tensions, making an effective humanitarian response exceedingly difficult. Despite this complexity, what is clear is that the crisis has resulted in a sprawling humanitarian disaster that has killed over 25,000 people as a direct result of the violence. This crisis continues to devastate many more lives through hunger, psychological trauma and lack of access to healthcare.

All respondents interviewed during this research agreed that the humanitarian response in northeast Nigeria, and in particular in Borno state, was late. Further examination of this claim reveals that the system meant to provide emergency humanitarian relief (which includes MSF) was late in coming to the aid of the people of Borno not once, or twice, but three times. It was late to recognise the IDP crisis as a major humanitarian emergency in 2015; late to predict, confirm and respond to the nutritional emergency that followed in early 2016; and then, once this tragic reality was made public, late to scale up the response.

Late to recognise the humanitarian crisis (2015)

Refugees fleeing the conflict in Nigeria had been arriving in Niger, Cameroon and Chad in large numbers since late 2014. Amidst a scale-up of the counter-insurgency campaign by Nigerian security forces in 2015, Maiduguri saw a huge influx of Internally Displaced People (IDPs). It was clear that a significant crisis was unfolding and yet the response from all actors was very small. This was for many reasons but the very high security constraints that limited freedom of movement and visibility of the evolving crisis was critical. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), MSF and Action Contre Faim (ACF) began modest operations in Maiduguri. National and state emergency management agencies and the local Red Cross were able to provide some services (especially food) to the minority of IDPs in official camps. UNICEF and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were on the ground, but with very limited coverage. The humanitarian country team did not recognise the situation as a large-scale emergency, and no UN-led mobilisation occurred.

Late to see the dangers, late to sound the alarm, slow to act (end of 2015 to June 2016)

During the period from October 2015 to February 2016, no humanitarian actor left the state capital and little or no news reached the humanitarian community as to what was happening in Borno beyond Maiduguri. The deaths and suffering of the populations who had been cut off from humanitarian access – by both Boko Haram and the counter-insurgency tactics of security forces – was obvious to the Nigerian army from at least January 2016. Despite a clear causal role in the plight of some of the IDP population, attempts were made by the army to feed and provide shelter and care for these populations. However, many still died.

At best, there was a clear failure on behalf of authorities to predict and/or adequately plan and provide for the probability that many thousands of IDPs would need urgent humanitarian care. Unofficial warnings of starvation and deaths began in January 2016. Only the smallest humanitarian responses followed. Not until April and May did official calls for help from the army result in a UN leadership visit to Bama and assessments in other towns.  And even then, not until MSF visited Bama and issued a public statement widely broadcasting the depth of the unfolding tragedy, did the humanitarian system attempt an emergency scale up.

Despite the very serious security constraints limiting access beyond Maiduguri in early 2016, it was in fact possible to gain access, albeit very limited, to some local government areas (LGAs) from around February. The exact fate of the population in these areas had been unknown for months, but the insurgency and counter-insurgency tactics they were living through were not a secret. These circumstances raise the question of why humanitarian organisations, including MSF, took so long either to raise the alarm about the possible condition of the population, or, if they could not themselves gain independent access, to press for credible assurances of their treatment. Or why it took until June 2016 to ultimately choose to use military facilitated access as a last resort.

System is slow to gear up and late to arrive (from June 2016)

Since June 2016, the scale of the crisis in Borno, together with improved access, has mobilised donors, UN leadership, NGOs and the Nigerian authorities to radically increase the humanitarian response. However, that scale-up was still painfully slow. At the beginning of 2017, some NGOs were still waiting for funding to arrive, the UN system claimed to be only a quarter of the way to ‘cruising altitude’, and the Nigerian government resources were yet to scale up to meet the needs.

The slow scale-up comes with a cost. FEWSNET reported that famine was likely to have occurred in Borno, killing an estimated 2,000 people in Bama LGA alone between January and September 2017. Other LGAs were similarly affected. Newly accessed areas like Gowza and Pulka reveal huge needs, including lack of access to healthcare, poor sanitation and ongoing insecurity.

Contextual and systemic constraints

These three instances of delayed or slow response are clear, but were they a failure of the system? Only partly. It is perhaps more true to say that the repeated delays in mobilising effective humanitarian responses to the conflict-related crisis in the North-East were, in large part, the result of deep contextual constraints.

The political context in Nigeria and in Borno state was antithetical to the deployment of international humanitarian actors. As noted by Nigeria’s Emergency Coordination Centre chief Dr Ayoade in his report to the Oslo donor conference in February 2017, “the unfolding humanitarian crisis was largely overlooked prior to 2016.” Even in early 2016, “denial endured in certain quarters even as conditions deteriorated on the ground.” This politically motivated denial, at least during 2015 and early 2016, was also shared by much of the international donor community. Donor states and the UN system did not want to recognise the situation in North-East Nigeria as a large-scale emergency. There was little appetite to add another emergency to an already overwhelming humanitarian load, and clear reluctance to divert resources into a comparatively rich country like Nigeria.

Security constraints were also very significant. The conflict was very hot in 2015 and early 2016. Access was tightly controlled by the military and, even when access was possible, there were still serious security risks, including the possibility (there were many examples) of direct attack by Boko Haram. There had been no successful access negotiation with any element of Boko Haram and so access for independent humanitarians was very restricted, effectively impossible.

Notwithstanding these external context-specific constraints, UN agencies, INGOs, donors and local humanitarian actors undermined their own capacity to deliver effective humanitarian relief. Leadership of the UN system was underperforming, if not outright antagonistic to mobilising an emergency response. Too many actors struggled to change gear from development mode to emergency mode. Funding systems could not deliver adequate resources in an appropriate timeframe. Corruption of data and communication regarding ongoing and planned humanitarian activities undermined the coordination efforts. Global policy imperatives worked against efforts to clearly recognise the situation as an emergency requiring large-scale humanitarian relief. And a lack of relevant experience allowed warning signs to be missed and responses to be timid or ineffective.

These self-imposed limitations represent the content of the ‘emergency gap’ as it was manifest in North-East Nigeria. Imagining solutions to these limitations is not to imagine a radical change to the history of the humanitarian tragedy experienced by millions of northern Nigerians. After all, the security and political constraints would still have been formidable. However, solutions to these problems are at least choices in the hands of humanitarian decision-makers – so much else that limits humanitarian action, is not.

Key data relating to the work of MSF teams across Borno state between January and May 2017

Admissions to therapeutic feeding centres: 20,760
Admissions to inpatient departments: 3,071
Emergency room consultations: 2,764
Births assisted: 5,181
Antenatal consultations: 56,160
Latrines built: 282
Water tanks provided: 38
Water taps provided: 887
Tonnes of food distributed: 1,099