A deepening but often overlooked humanitarian crisis in West Africa’s Lake Chad region has been described “as the new terrible” by the UN’s top relief official, Stephen O’Brien.
Of the region’s 20 million people, 9.2 million are now in need of life-saving assistance, while severe acute malnutrition rates for children under five have surpassed the emergency threshold in the affected areas of four separate countries: Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.
In a statement to the UN Security Council last week, O’Brien said: “this region, which hosts Africa’s fastest-growing displacement crisis, needs our urgent, united and collective attention.”
It is not just the 2.8 million people forced from their homes by the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram that are in need, but also the local host communities that are sheltering the bulk of the displaced. They are themselves among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
A neglected crisis
“For months I have been shouting into what feels like an empty room to highlight the dire situation in the Lake Chad Basin,” said O’Brien, who is also the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
“We urgently need to strengthen international attention onto this neglected crisis.”
John Ngule was among the first Nigerian refugees to arrive in Cameroon, fleeing Boko Haram attacks on his hometown in 2013. He is now in Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon’s Far North Region.
He moves to the shade of the veranda of a classroom in the camp’s school, where he teaches, to avoid the scorching sun. A staunch Christian, he is fasting in the hope that his prayers will be better heard, and is feeling weak as a result.
Ngule was a local government chairman in Nigeria, and “people who looked up to me still look up to me for support even in this camp where I own nothing,” he told IRIN. “Though I lost my houses and businesses, they still think I am influential.”
He helps where he can with the little salary he earns as a science teacher in the camp’s secondary school.
“But things have got worse,” he said. “Salaries have been reduced from [$205] to [$128], the food rations have been dropped without explanations and things are getting expensive in the local market. I cannot even help myself now.”
He has thought many times of returning to Nigeria, as other refugees have done, despite the fears of continuing insecurity.
“None of our fellow refugees who leave the camp has ever called us by phone to say he had arrived in his hometown safely,” said Ngule.
“But, you know, when a rat is escaping from fire and meets a man, it runs back into the fire. That is how refugees feel – they prefer to go back into the fire.”
In 2014, Boko Haram controlled a swathe of land in Nigeria’s northeast where it proclaimed a caliphate. It also raided into neighbouring countries, killing and kidnapping, insisting its interpretation of Islam was the only legitimate faith.
Joint military operations with Chad, Niger, and Cameroon have pushed the group out of most of the areas it once held, but pockets of violence continue in small towns and villages across the Lake Chad region.
The violence means that hundreds of thousands of farmers have missed successive harvests, leaving them further impoverished. In Nigeria, an estimated 244,000 children are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition in areas that used to be no-go due to security restrictions.
The Lake Chad Basin area is a fragile environment. Communities in the region were already vulnerable due to chronic drought, growing desertification and government neglect before the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Neither the authorities nor communities across the Lake Chad Basin can keep up with the tide of human suffering,” the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said in a report.
An under-funded response
Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri and its one million inhabitants now host up to 1.6 million displaced people. Across the border in Diffa, Niger – one of the poorest places on earth – there is one refugee for every four residents.
“Our main concern is that unless we promptly scale up humanitarian aid and delivery, this will only be the beginning of the biggest humanitarian crisis seen in this part of Africa,” said Eve Sabbagh in the UN’s Office of the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel.
Any further delay in funding aid operations will not only contribute to a deepening of the crisis, but will require larger aid interventions to rescue even more people later in the year, Sabbagh told IRIN.
At the beginning of 2016, the UN issued the humanitarian response plans for each of the four Lake Chad Basin countries. But Niger’s plan is currently only 31 percent funded; Nigeria has attracted just 29 percent of required financing; Cameroon 24 percent; and Chad 18 percent.
In May, the UN re-costed the response at $535 million, targeting just 5.2 million of the 9.2 million people in need.
The UN system has also launched a new 90-day plan highlighting the priority humanitarian needs in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. It’s valued at $221 million and prioritises the urgent needs – up until September – in all the different sectors: food security, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, protection, shelter, and education.
To kick-start relief operations, OCHA has used its rapid, short-term Central Emergency Response Fund. But O’Brien has warned that this mechanism can only supplement rather than replace contributions from member states.
“Time is running out, and a failure to act now will result in deeper and broader suffering,” warned Sabbagh.