Saturday, 5 pm. I get off the plane on the tarmac of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. A news alert pops on my phone to inform me that a non-state armed group in the northeast of the country has murdered twelve farmers in their fields. Avoiding the noisy firearms that could have alerted the militaries, group operatives used machetes, a far much quieter and equally effective tool.
This happened 20 kilometers from Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno in the northeastern part of the country, where I am going the next day to document the everyday work of my colleagues in the field for two weeks.
Sunday. I arrived in Maiduguri. New information. Two deaths and several wounded in three villages near the city. The insurgents looted the houses and stole the food supplies before setting all the houses on fire.
Experiencing ongoing conflict
Day after day, macabre information is piling up. Population experiences conflict on a daily basis, along with hunger. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced in the three states of Borno, Yobe and Adawama. They have taken shelter in formal or informal camps and among the host populations.
Nine years after the conflict began, the United Nations estimates that 27,000 people have died and that more than 800,000 people are still living in inaccessible areas. The ongoing conflict is depriving the population of livelihoods and life-saving assistance, worsening the toll of malnutrition among the most vulnerable. Nearly 2.9 million people are severely food insecure and 440,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
"Borno is becoming a high-risk environment for humanitarian workers."
It is early morning in Maiduguri; the day begins as usual with a meeting led by the area coordinator, Anthony, and his colleague in charge of safety, Ahmed. About fifty people stand in the room. Attentive, they listen to the brief, which may decide the content of their day and, ultimately, that of the people they help.
Attacks in a camp for displaced people in the outskirts of city, rumors of planning violence in the city of Monguno where we operate, people arrested with explosive devices, incidents at checkpoints… Ahmed lists the facts and asks if someone has additional information. At the end, he reminds us “this review of security situation is not about sharing stories. Under no circumstances, you should allow security procedures to become boring for you. Borno is becoming a high-risk environment for humanitarian workers.͟”
As some of my colleagues prepare to leave for Monguno, 140 km from Maiduguri, Anthony informs me that the decision is irrevocable; I cannot join them due to the latest events and to the deterioration of the security context. Mid-October, armed opposition groups executed two International Red Cross aid workers who were beforehand abducted. Policy is to never pay ransom to avoid fueling these kind of attacks. Combined with the latest information gathered, which seems to confirm an increase in violence, the mission prefers to cancel the trip.
Beyond the frustration lies the question of operating in context where aid workers are at risk because of the job we do, because of the assistance we provide to vulnerable communities. I can call me lucky; my field visits are of short length and carefully supervised. As a communication officer I am not a lifesaving asset, there is no needs for me to push the limits to get to one place, but for some of my colleagues, to surrender means sometimes put in jeopardy other’s lives, who rely on aid.
Monguno, a garrison town surrounded by trenches, is protected by the military. There is two ways to reach the city; through the road and the multiple checkpoints for which my colleagues must submit a request for travel authorization to the authorities each week and which expose them to attacks, or with the United Nations helicopter that can operate limited flights.
On the spot, the conditions of intervention are precarious: there is no longer a cellular network and our teams communicate thanks to HF radios. Importing commodities such as fuel, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer are also highly complicated which increase the burden on traders, transport costs, hence market prices and are impediments to any recovery. At the same time, the needs of the populations are enormous. Monguno quickly became a shelter place for people fleeing attacks by non-state armed groups. Even today, some are arriving from areas that are still inaccessible to humanitarian actors.
Anthony is the coordinator for Action Against Hunger in Borno. He shares his experience “I remember one of my field visits to Monguno. I had the opportunity to speak with one of our community mobilizers, who clearly expressed the desperate needs of a 24-month-old child who was suffering from malnutrition. He had just returned from an area that recently became under control of by the Nigerian army. This child needed basic food.”
Getting food is not easy. Monguno is located in a rural area, where the majority of people rely on agriculture. With the conflict and the security measures put in place by the army, people cannot farm more than 5 km away from the city. It is nearly impossible under these conditions to support one’s family, whether for personal consumption or the sale of products.
Strategies of intervention must be designed according to the field constraints in order to reach vulnerable people in the most efficient way. “We have set up cash support for 11,890 families in Monguno. They receive 25,000 naira per month, the estimated amount of an average food basket. This support takes the form of food vouchers that allow people to pick up food from specific vendors who are able to import food into the city by their own means and who meet the selection criteria in terms of accountability.” Explains Titus, Food Security and Livelihood Officer for Borno. ͞
“About this child, resumes Anthony, just hearing the story, how Action against Hunger was able to turn that child’s life around, I think as an organization, once we invest more time and with resources, we would be able to reach more children and give those children who have been affected by this conflict an opportunity and a future. And they can be tomorrow teachers and doctors and nurses in Nigeria.”
Despite the security and access constraints, we were able to support more than 4,8 million persons in 2017 with humanitarian and development assistance. We help internally displaced persons and host communities to develop new resources through cash transfer, but also to fight malnutrition through activities in nutrition, food security and livelihoods and water, sanitation and hygiene.