This is what it’s like on the front lines of Nigeria’s unseen hunger crisis

Millions of Nigerians survived Boko Haram, but now a humanitarian catastrophe is putting their lives at risk again.

After her father died two years ago during a Boko Haram raid on her village in Yobe State, 16-year-old Zulyatu, her younger siblings and their mother, fled to Biu, a town in Northeast Borno State. A year ago, their mother left for another town to get treatment for high blood pressure from a traditional healer, leaving Zulyatu alone to care for her siblings, 12-year-old Abubakar and 8-year-old Amira.

Zulyatu said hunger affects every part of their lives. They only eat once or twice a day and they often feel dizzy from hunger. In their home village, before Boko Haram came, their father was a butcher, so the family always had enough meat to eat. The hunger makes her long for her father, and Zulyatu said that if he were still alive, they wouldn’t be having this experience.

The focus on their struggle for food also leaves the siblings with little time or access for education. Before they came to Biu, Zulyatu was interested in studying to become a doctor, but they have been unable to attend school since the move. Sadly, experiences of hunger and desperation, like those of Zulyatu and her siblings, are the rule, rather than the exception, in conflict-weary Nigeria and in the greater Lake Chad Basin area.

The hunger has become so strong, that one woman recently told us that she had become so desperate to feed her children that she took to boiling grass.

Years of violence and destruction, combined with widespread and underestimated drought conditions, have created an ongoing crisis here. But as the Nigerian army retakes territory held by Boko Haram, another problem has emerged in the country – a horrific and massive humanitarian crisis is revealing itself. More than 4 million people are food insecure, not knowing from where their next meal will come.

In August, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that in Borno State, nearly a quarter of a million children are severely malnourished, and one in five will die if they aren’t treated.

But despite efforts from aid organisations, there are still 2.2 million people living in unreachable areas in Northeast Nigeria, with no contact to the outside world, and no guarantee of safe passage for aid workers.

But for now though, many of the people we come across are not smiling. “When I see the people in these communities, I see hunger and suffering in their faces,” Umar Shuaibu, our operations officer, said.

In our internal assessments this past July, we found that in the area of Damboa, more than 80 per cent of shelters were destroyed or partially destroyed, with no roof or doors. Of the people we interviewed, 97 per cent reported that they could not afford to buy food in the previous four weeks. Because of continued insecurity, many farmers cannot reach the land where they cultivate food to eat and sell. People in these communities survive by selling foraged firewood and begging or labouring for less than the equivalent of $1 per day. Others have resorted to transactional sex.

The Nigerian military must clear and secure new areas before aid can get in, to make sure humanitarian workers have safe passage and aid does not end up in the wrong hands. And we have also not seen the amount of funding needed to mount a response of this size. Right now, less than one-third of current United Nations appeals for the crisis has been funded, a shortfall of $542 million.

As a sovereign nation, Nigeria has a duty to provide for its people. It is ultimately responsible for leading the response to this emergency, establishing strong coordination and allowing for safe and organised access to deliver assistance to people in need. But it is also the humanitarian imperative of the international community to help people in crisis.

At Mercy Corps, we are working quickly to meet urgent needs. We know that the needs are massive, and are going unmet, and we are working as quickly as possible to scale up our operations. Already in the past several months we have shifted to new locations and tripled our financial and staffing resources to reach upwards of 100,000 people. But it is a herculean task for any single organisation to tackle on its own, and a risky one because insurgents could attack us unexpectedly. All organisations responding to this crisis in Nigeria face stretched capacity and daunting logistics.

But we aren’t giving up. Already we see the benefit of one small act. With the e-voucher she received during Mercy Corps’ first distribution, Zulyatu bought a month’s worth of rice and cooking oil in the local market. When asked what she hopes for the future, Zulyatu said, “I just want to see everyone happy. Everyone would have enough to eat and abundance.” We can make that hope possible, if we act urgently.


Ghilda Chrabieh is Director of Mercy Corps Humanitarian Programs for Northeast Nigeria