Saving the starving children in the North East

FOLLOWING seven years of the Boko Haram war in the North East, development experts have observed that it would take years to rebuild the zone. But the response to the humanitarian consequences of the war cannot wait for long if further disaster is to be averted. The reported suffering in the camps of internally displaced persons should trigger some emergency responses in many respects.

The lack of access of the displaced to clean water, nourishing food, basic medical care, schools for children, among others. is an immediate issue to tackle, while the long-term plan of rehabilitation and reconstruction is afoot. The starving children have to be saved today so that they can live to be beneficiaries of plans for the future development of their villages.

At the heart of the problem is the seeming lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the problem. If anything at all, there appears to be a better appreciation by the outside world of the danger and hardship that people, especially to which children, are exposed in those parts of Nigeria. Governments at all levels should shift their focus to a better coordination of the responses to the crisis to the benefits of the victims. With the opening up of territories formerly under the control of Boko Haram, aid workers are discovering that the poor conditions of those trapped might have been largely underreported.

The picture would be clearer now that more towns and villages have been opened up due to the gallant efforts of the armed forces and other security agencies. For instance, it is seriously projected that by the time aid workers have access to other towns and villages, it would be seen that hundreds of thousands are, indeed, facing famine. The experience in Bama, Borno State, where aid workers are actively providing relief to the victims has lent credence to this grim projection.

Hence, development organisations are warning loudly that famine may further plague a zone of Nigeria already devastate by the bestial war of Boko Haram. Similarly, the charity organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has warned against the deterioration in the health conditions of the victims due to inadequate medical care. In one of the most credible estimates, the United Nations has put the number of children facing starvation in Borno alone at 240, 000, warning that 130 of those poor children may die daily if relief does not come their way promptly. This piece of news should raise an alarm to all humanitarian organisations and individuals. The UN’s budget of $300m is expected to be funded by international donors as organisations and individuals.

In this regard, greater attention has to be drawn to the problem in order to attract help from outside the country. Demonstration of solidarity as exemplified by the recent visit of the Irish rock star, Bono, will go a long way in attracting the attention of donors. The heroic efforts of aid workers taking risks to provide relief to the victims should be better appreciated. They are, indeed, making all the difference. Their operational relationship with agencies of government and other bodies should be smoothened.

The campaign for external help should be conducted methodically so as to achieve the desired results. The donors, of course, would consider the sense of purpose here among other things. Doubtless, Nigeria is in dire need of external help to tackle the humanitarian crisis in the northeast. The need even becomes greater in the light of the prevailing financial crunch. The magnitude of the problem suggests nothing less in the circumstance.

Ultimately, the responsibility of saving the lives of persons in desperate need of succour in the North East is that of Federal, state and local governments. In fact, what is at stake is squarely the responsibility of governance. Come to think of it, even when Boko Haram overran some parts of the Nigerian federation, there was never a proclaimed abdication of governance. So governments should muster the capacity to tackle the problem.

First, in this phase of emergency response, there should be competent and honest coordination of efforts. It is the demonstrable seriousness here that would engender the confidence of external donors. In this respect, the presidential committee on the northeast is a welcome development. It is not enough for the President to “order” the release of grains for those dying of starvation. There should be an organising principle underlying the distribution.

The committee should critically examine the mechanism in place for the distribution of the materials. The federal government should ensure that its relevant agencies discharge their statutory responsibilities in the situation of the northeast. After all, that is the purpose of establishing those agencies in the first place. In proportionate terms, the state and local governments should also deploy the public resources at their disposal for the care of the people who are in this life-threatening situation.

Secondly, it is also immensely helpful that the military is also giving a helping hand in providing humanitarian relief especially in the area of medical care. The defence and security authorities should to more ensure that liberated towns and villages are secure for relief efforts to spread to more people. It is no salutary news (as reported) that months after the defence authorities announced that Boko Haram had been pushed back, relief workers cannot still take food to starving children in some villages.

Thirdly, the corruption in the administration of the relief efforts for the victims should be categorically tackled. Those who elect to divert the food meant for starving children should be punished according to the law. The resources available to provide succour for the victims should be judiciously managed. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure transparency in the process.

Finally, the humanitarian conscience of Nigeria’s well-endowed organisations and individuals ought to be pricked by the grim situation in the North East. The political and socio-economic elite in the region should also be visible in providing food for their kinsmen who are starving and thirsty.

  • Komolafe is a public affair analyst.