ABUJA, NIGERIA - Aid agencies warn that humanitarian efforts against hunger in northeastern Nigeria are dangerously underfunded and some communities remain cut off from aid and their farms as the military continues to battle Boko Haram.
Communities in northeastern Nigeria are facing the dual threats of hunger and the terrorist group known as Boko Haram. The zone has been identified by aid agencies as one of four conflict-torn parts of the world at risk of famine this year.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition will reach 450,000 this year in the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.
Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy advisor for the international charity organization Oxfam America, was recently in northeastern Nigeria. He said the biggest driver for the humanitarian emergency is the inability for residents to access their farmlands, fishing sites and the markets.
“I spoke with people who had to flee villages that were captured by Boko Haram and they’ve since come back but they can’t go a kilometer out of town to farm. Right now people are coming home sometimes under false pretenses," he said.
"They’re being told that their homeland and home areas are safe and they’re coming home to find that the towns themselves might be safe but the farmlands outside aren’t safe. The markets aren’t safe. The roads aren’t safe. And in some areas that we’re working in there isn’t even clean and safe water to be procured.”
Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency says people internally displaced by the conflict can voluntarily go back to liberated areas as long as they feel safe. The Nigerian army provides road escorts several times a week from Maiduguri to certain communities.
But aid groups say many communities are simply not prepared for the large numbers of people coming back.
The Norwegian Refugee Council noted more than one million people have returned to northeast Nigeria since October 2015, and they are returning to towns that have no basic services or infrastructure. Nearly one million homes were destroyed or damaged by years of fighting, according to Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima.
Earlier this month, Shettima told reporters it is still not safe for many internally displaced people to return to their homes. The governor said the IDP camps will remain open indefinitely, but that he hopes Borno state will be safe enough for full rehabilitation very soon.
The state capital, Maiduguri, is home to more than a dozen camps for those displaced by Boko Haram. Those camps have repeatedly been targeted by suicide bombings.
Recently, four IDPs who had ventured outside one of the largest camps in Maiduguri to go hunting were killed by Boko Haram, an official from a state-sanctioned vigilante group told VOA. Their decapitated bodies were found along a major road. Two weeks ago, Boko Haram insurgents killed at least six villagers who were working on their farmlands in a community just about 16 kilometers outside of Maiduguri. The fighters attacked the farmers as they prepared their fields for the rainy season.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in December Boko Haram had been crushed. But the military said mop-up operations are still underway.
The unpredictability of the security situation is hampering food aid. The U.N. World Food Program is delivering food to communities by road under military escort but says there are still areas it cannot access due to active fighting.
And humanitarian response efforts remain critically underfunded. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says it has only received 23 percent of the $1.1 billion needed this year for Nigeria.
The World Food Program warns that the lean season has begun with the next harvest not expected until September. The WFP says inadequate funding means it will not be able to reach about a quarter of the nearly two million people in northeast Nigeria that it had planned to assist in June.
In its latest report, the International Crisis Group says failure to respond to the growing food emergency could have long-term security implications. VOA spoke to ICG’s Nigeria researcher, Nnamdi Obasi.
“If the crisis is prolonged, the frustration within the young people could make them vulnerable to all kinds of criminal engagements. Some of them could join bandit groups and just prey on communities trying to steal food,” said Obasi.
Aid agencies are calling for urgent donor support and for the government to ensure that communities are safe enough for returnees to resume farming, fishing and market activities before the IDP's go home.