MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA - Aid agencies including UNICEF are profiting from funds meant to help those fleeing Boko Haram's Islamic uprising and should leave the country, the governor of Nigeria's northeastern Borno state says, even as the agencies warn of mass starvation and accuse the government of underplaying the crisis.
Gov. Kashim Shettima made the comments to legislators and journalists late Tuesday in Maiduguri, the state capital that is the birthplace of Boko Haram's Islamic insurgency. His criticism follows President Muhammadu Buhari's charges in December that the United Nations and private agencies are exaggerating a massive humanitarian crisis to boost funding.
Meanwhile, Nigeria's Senate is investigating accusations that government agents are stealing food aid. On Monday, several officials with the Borno State Emergency Management Agency were charged with theft after camp guards allegedly caught them loading dozens of bags of rice from a store at a refugee camp.
For months, children and others have been dying of starvation in Borno, according to aid groups. The U.N. launched an appeal in December for $1 billion, warning that 5.1 million people face starvation in northeast Nigeria and tens of thousands of children will die this year without critically needed aid.
"We have become a cash cow" with people profiting "from the agony of our people," Shettima said. "People that are really ready to work are very much welcome here. But people that are here only to use us to make money may as well leave."
He said only eight of 126 registered agencies were doing "good work," including the U.N. World Food Program and Population Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Danish Refugee Council.
There was no immediate comment from aid agencies on the allegations. The agencies have not commented in the past on such criticism, for fear of further antagonizing government officials and jeopardizing their work.
Shettima accused UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, of misusing funds by buying bullet-proof vehicles. Such a vehicle saved lives in July when Boko Haram attacked a military-escorted humanitarian convoy, wounding a UNICEF worker, two other aid workers and two soldiers.
UNICEF's latest situation report said the agency treated 160,000 children under 5 for severe acute malnutrition in 2016, helped provide health care for 4.2 million in the war zone, brought clean water to 745,000 and provided more than 1 million people with hygiene kits and education.
Last year, Shettima accused rival politicians of instigating protests by refugees from Boko Haram who said they had received no food aid for weeks. Shettima was publicly booed by refugees and residents, with some shouting "Rice thief!" when his convoy passed.
Shettima said Tuesday that while the government has been focusing on resettling refugees and reconstruction, aid agencies are concentrating on refugee camps, which his government wants to dismantle by May. Aid agencies have warned against hasty resettling of refugees in towns and villages still vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram.
Tensions between the Nigerian government and aid agencies have increased, with agencies accusing the government of trying to hide the extent of the crisis.
Doctors Without Borders said last week that it has stepped outside its traditional medical role to distribute food because people are "in desperate need" and other organizations are not stepping up.
Aid agencies have warned that the crisis is of near-famine proportions and that many more people could die in addition to the more than 20,000 killed in the seven-year Islamic uprising that has driven 2.6 million people from their homes and, in some cases, across Nigeria's borders.