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North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
Preventing State Collapse in Lebanon
Preventing State Collapse in Lebanon
A displaced malnourished mother and her children sit on the ground waiting for food in Bama's camp for internally displaced people (IDP), Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, 30 June 2016. AFP/STRINGER
Commentary / Africa

North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout

Children are dying in Bama, a town in Borno state, north-east Nigeria, suffering from lack of food, clean water and medical care. They are the most tragic manifestation of the humanitarian fallout of the Boko Haram insurgency and the state response to it, a crisis that now impacts the lives of millions. The insurgency itself, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance, both national and international, to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and depredation. Unless efforts to contain and roll back the current crisis are quickly scaled-up, peace is likely to remain a distant prospect in this region of Nigeria.

Once a city of 300,000, Bama is now an army-controlled camp of 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), some forcibly moved there by the military. There are around a dozen sites like Bama, hosting at least 250,000 people living under the security forces’ scrutiny. The number will likely grow as military campaigns continue.

Neither the army, nor the Nigerian emergency services are up to the task of caring for them. There have been – and still are – too many bottlenecks. Authorities must pay more attention and commit more resources, clarify and rationalise the country’s assistance structure, improve aid governance, promote transparency (more NGO and media reporting), facilitate humanitarian access and address the widespread suspicion that many IDPs support Boko Haram.

Humanitarian agencies have also struggled to respond adequately, both in recognising the scale of the problem and reacting sufficiently promptly. For their part, UN agencies and international humanitarian NGOs need to engage authorities more proactively and improve their collaboration in responding to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Doing so will mobilise more international funding – currently grossly lacking – and make better use of international expertise.If the humanitarian crisis is not addressed soon, it will have serious security and political implications. In the short term, it may push people back into areas under Boko Haram’s control, or to other parts of Nigeria whose capacity to sustain them is questionable, or across international borders, from where some could be trafficked into an already vulnerable Sahel region, and on to Libya – an important gateway to Europe. In the long term, it could leave the Nigerian state and its international partners tainted, undermining further their legitimacy and capacity to control violence in the north east and the Lake Chad region.

Dying in a “Safe Area”: The Situation in Bama

Situated 72km south east of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, Bama was once a major trade hub on a main road to Cameroon. Overrun by Boko Haram in September 2014, the army recaptured it in March 2015. Most of its inhabitants had already left by then and thousands had been killed by Boko Haram, but the army began bringing in civilians it found during operations in the surrounding rural areas. Citing security concerns, the army has itself been running the Bama camp, notionally the responsibility of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (BOSEMA). It has banned IDPs from travelling in the camp’s vicinity or to other “safe areas”. The security forces and state-supported civilian self-defence groups, known as vigilantes, also have been “vetting” the newly arrived.While Bama camp is safe from the Boko Haram threat that hovers over the wider local government area, it is, for many, a place of death. In June, the rate of severe acute malnutrition was 19 per cent among children – the emergency threshold is 3 per cent. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 244,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Borno state and on average 134 die every day from this. A few health ministry officials have been brought in under military escort for short stays and some humanitarian partners have been intermittently giving the army supplies to distribute to the IDPs, though with little supervision. This is not enough and with major deficiencies in water, sanitation and hygiene and the rainy season (June-September) under way, many are concerned that a cholera epidemic could break out. The rains, furthermore, will make many roads and tracks impassable.

The Humanitarian Costs of Insurgency and Counter-insurgency

Most officials blame Bama’s dire humanitarian crisis on Boko Haram: people began starving while they lived under the insurgents’ control, and the military rescued them. The insurgency has indeed done terrible damage to the lives and livelihoods of many in Borno state, as well as in neighbouring Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states. Boko Haram ruthlessly targeted some communities, particularly those that set up vigilante forces or helped the military, killing many civilians and forcing many more into exile. Those who tried to stay and live under Boko Haram’s control faced significant difficulties. The insurgents heavily taxed communities, plundered and forcefully recruited among them and fighting disrupted harvests.But the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the nature of the counter-insurgency campaign. An aggressive, regional military operation has deliberately stifled economic activities, denying Boko Haram supplies, trade and income from protection rackets. Military operations have also made producing and accessing food a lot more difficult for all living in and close to Boko Haram-controlled areas. Trade and mobility, essential for making a living in the Sahel, have become extremely difficult and dangerous.

Attitudes toward those Displaced

Many among the military and many civilians are quick to look with suspicion on people coming from Boko Haram-held areas. Though there is no evidence to suggest a deliberate attempt to punish a population suspected of complicity with the insurgents, there are alarming signs that their welfare is not being prioritised, whether out of a lack of capacity or concern or due to security concerns. Even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by Boko Haram bear the stigma of their association, and their children are suspected of having “bad blood”. This fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, of suicide attacks by women and children, is part of the problem. This is one reason the only IDPs the army lets into Maiduguri, which already hosts an estimated 1.5 million, are children requiring sustained medical support, though sometimes without their carers.Conducting security operations should be kept distinct from humanitarian actions. If not, those in genuine need of assistance risk being denied help; while entire communities stand in danger of neglect. In such an environment, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated from the state, driving them to seek support elsewhere. Humanitarian assistance must remain impartial and needs-based; while security measures must be proportionate to the risk – which will likely be reduced, not increased, by greater freedom of movement – and non-discriminatory.

Inadequate National and International Assistance

At the end of 2015, 3.9 million people in north-east Nigeria out of a total of 5.2 million across the Lake Chad Basin were in urgent need of food assistance. In April 2016, the Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer visited Bama. Shettima said afterward that his state was “hanging between malnutrition and famine …. People [were] dying like flies”.

Of the $248 million required for the emergency response in north-east Nigeria in 2016, less than 20 per cent was available by May. Donor pledges were higher for Chad and Niger, where the number of persons in need was smaller. The World Food Program (WFP) supported fewer than 2,000 people in the north east in March 2016; that figure had increased to 50,000 in May, but was still way behind target given that more than half of the 1.5 million IDPs just in Maiduguri are judged by the UN to be malnourished, and the situation in rural areas is often worse. In neighbouring Cameroon, also affected by Boko Haram, UN agencies helped four times as many people (90 per cent of the most food insecure). In July, the total number of IDPs in this part of Cameroon was around 190,000. Recent reports of the shocking conditions in Bama did draw some attention, but it took a controversial 22 June communiqué by Médecins Sans Frontières to bring the starving into the limelight.

The Nigerian government’s response has been hampered by constrained resources and multiple pressing security problems. It is facing a resurgent rebellion in the Niger Delta, separatist agitation in the south east, and increasing violence in the Middle Belt, including recent clashes between pastoralists and farmers over land and water, as well as a severe economic and budgetary crisis. Neither the National Emergency Management Agency nor its state-level counterparts have the funds or the capacity and experience to manage a prolonged, large-scale humanitarian operation. Already overwhelmed by IDPs in Maiduguri and other established sites, Nigerian agencies have struggled to serve new camps.

Attempts to improve the government’s response have lagged. The Victims Support Fund (VSF) is constrained by the lack of clarity in Nigeria’s overall framework for humanitarian response. In July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari established a Presidential Committee on North-East Interventions (PCNI) to coordinate domestic and international humanitarian efforts, but as of July 2016, the committee had still not been inaugurated. Some government sources say the president is waiting for the National Assembly (federal parliament) to create the North East Development Commission (NEDC), which includes a humanitarian portfolio, but some interviewed by Crisis Group fear it may become merely another platform for the region’s elite to share patronage rather than for boosting humanitarian aid.

Many implementation partners of UN agencies lack the capacity to work in the region’s remoter parts where the terrain is extremely challenging and where they do not enjoy the relative protection of Maiduguri (which itself faces significant humanitarian needs). So far, humanitarian workers have been unable to establish credible contacts with Boko Haram to negotiate access and obtain guarantees that can reduce risks to acceptable levels. Particularly in areas of Borno state outside the Maiduguri metropolitan area, some organisations, including from the UN, have depended on the army for protection, assessments of local security conditions and sometimes humanitarian service delivery.

Nigeria, with Africa’s largest population and economy, is sensitive to foreign criticism and, understandably, keen to ensure that foreign support in addressing the crisis does not compromise its sovereignty. Many officials remember the civil war (1967-1970) when Nigeria was condemned for the terrible famine in the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra and some secessionist supporters provided military aid under the guise of international humanitarian assistance. As a result, authorities are sensitive to outside aid or reporting. Yet the lack of reporting has made it difficult to mobilise international support for resources.

The Risks Ahead

Failure to adequately support IDPs, in part because of suspicion that they support Boko Haram, may push them back into, or discourage them from leaving, insurgent-controlled areas. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Boko Haram’s attacks and suicide bombings in and around IDP camps are attempts by the insurgents to staunch the flow of people from areas under their control. It may be working to an extent. Some IDPs reportedly are choosing to return to their home areas, despite the risk of Boko Haram attacks, rather than staying in dire camps.In the long term, failure to help those in need could further undermine the state’s legitimacy and capacity to control violence. While the Nigerian military and its regional and international partners may be able to contain Boko Haram, unless the state addresses poor governance and other structural factors that drove people to support the movement, there is a high risk either that Boko Haram will be revived or similar groups will emerge.

What Should Be Done

To prevent the current humanitarian emergency from claiming more lives, prolonging the conflict and fuelling longer term insecurity in the region, the government must match its military campaign against Boko Haram with strong commitment to addressing the immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term development and reconstruction assistance to rebuild the north east. That includes granting access to, and facilitating, independent local and international reporting and assessments. This is necessary not only for proper resource mobilisation, but even more importantly as a way to provide independent analysis of outstanding emergency relief requirements.

Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as some army commanders, have been remarkably willing to talk to journalists. However, the president should pay special attention to the governance of aid. Reports of the embezzlement and diversion of food and other aid need to be properly investigated and officials found to have stolen or mismanaged aid must be sanctioned. For example, the report of the Borno state House Verification Committee into allegations of aid diversion, which should be completed soon, should be made public and quickly and openly acted upon.

The government and international partners should have fewer qualms about bringing assistance closer to the war zones. It is possible that some of it could leak to Boko Haram members, but this marginal price should be balanced with the immense relief it would provide, the lives it would save and the goodwill it would generate for the government. Furthermore, improved assistance would probably be more efficient in attracting civilians to government areas than military mop-up operations. Where Boko Haram can no longer use the “rhetoric of plenty”, as it once did, offering feasts of meat and cold drinks to potential recruits, authorities now have that card to play.

Equally, the reluctance to allow IDPs encamped in secondary towns like Bama to move around should be revised. The arguably marginal benefit in security which the ban on movement provides will be far outweighed by the humanitarian gains and goodwill generated by easing up this restriction. As an immediate measure, all those most in need should be allowed to temporarily move to Maiduguri or other cities where appropriate treatment is available.

‪While vigilante groups have done much to defend their communities, Borno state authorities should stop using these irregular forces to vet IDPs. Further, the Federal Government should begin to put in place a demobilisation process lest longer-term problems result, including increased risks of communal violence based on revenge between vigilante group members and displaced persons.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

International partners must drastically increase their humanitarian response, including by releasing all funds pledged to the UN and other humanitarian agencies for the emergency. They must lend greater support to the government, preferably in a high-level forum that includes the military, UN agencies, international NGOs, as well as local civil society and NGOs. This forum should provide a platform for all actors to share knowledge, including their assessments of the gravity of the humanitarian situation and areas of greatest needs as well as clarify guiding principles and improve working relations.

The Buhari administration for its part needs to be far more proactive. A clarification of its assistance framework is pressing, and senior officials need to make clear that they regard the unfolding humanitarian crisis as a first-order priority. The government should accelerate the implementation of its response, for instance in disbursing the 12 billion naira (about $41 million) which it announced, in May 2016, would be used to rebuild the north east and also in implementing the programs of the Victims Support Fund. It is also essential that accountability mechanisms are strengthened.

The authorities should not forget that they announced the North East Marshall Plan (Nemap) in October 2015 with the aim of providing “intermediate and long-term interventions in emergency assistance, economic reconstruction and development” – a vital component of efforts to bring peace to the region. The first action of this ambitious plan should target camps for the displaced. In order to rebuild state legitimacy, the authorities should scale down reliance on security forces to manage the camps and give greater room to civil authorities.

Finally, periodic visits by senior leaders, including President Buhari himself, to the camps and major communities hosting IDPs are essential to begin breaking down the suspicion faced by the newly displaced, and to affirm to them, as well as to state and government officials, that as Nigerian citizens and victims of the insurgency, they should not be left without food or medical assistance. Governor Shettima’s visits are welcome moves. He should make more and his fellow governors should follow his example. Without a visible and genuine commitment to providing the humanitarian support needed in these areas, insecurity will persist – and could become worse – and peace will remain far out of reach.


Former Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
Director, Sahel Project
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
Protesters in Beirut voice rejection of the ruling political elites of all sects, 20 October 2019. CRISISGROUP/Heiko Wimmen

Preventing State Collapse in Lebanon

Lebanon’s socio-economic and financial crisis accelerated greatly in the first half of 2020. The government resigned after the Beirut port blast, compounding the disarray. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to coordinate continued emergency assistance and revitalisation of key infrastructure, create reforms roadmap, boost civil society, and pool and coordinate emergency funds.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

Lebanon’s socio-economic and financial crisis accelerated greatly in the first half of 2020, pushed along by the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatised by the catastrophic explosion in the Beirut port on 4 August, and marked throughout by massive job and income losses. The government resigned six days after the port blast, compounding the disarray, though it had hardly been effective in addressing the country’s problems previously. At the end of August, President Michel Aoun, acting with broad parliamentary support, appointed Mustapha Adib as prime minister, but disagreement over cabinet posts has stymied efforts to form a new government. On 26 September, Adib withdrew amid apparently irreconcilable differences among political blocs, making it highly improbable that a new government can be formed soon.

The likely consequences will be three-fold. First, the enduring vacuum of political leadership will delay urgently needed reforms and external assistance, such as an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Secondly, in the absence of an IMF bailout, large numbers of Lebanese as well as substantial portions of the Syrian refugee population (more than one million people) will slip into food insecurity and poverty. Thirdly, the state’s capacity will erode, not least in the security sector. As state control recedes and ungoverned spaces expand, turf wars may break out between political groups in some areas and between criminal networks in others, and illegal migration will increase.

To meet urgent humanitarian needs, and to fend off yet another state failure in the eastern Mediterranean basin, the EU and its member states should:

  • Continue providing emergency assistance that directly reaches people in need through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge. Programs could include disaster relief for victims of the port explosion (eg, “cash for work” to repair dwellings before winter).
  • Prepare to extend and expand support to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis, particularly if a solution to the political stalemate remains elusive; plan for long-term assistance directed at poor communities (Lebanese and refugees) that aims to create jobs and improve infrastructure; provide equipment to upgrade public hospitals and support for Lebanese entrepreneurs to boost exports and substitute imports.
  • Offer substantial assistance for revitalisation of key national infrastructure (in particular electricity generation) on the condition that the Lebanese government, once formed, establishes proper legal and regulatory frameworks for the sectors involved and transparent procurement, recruitment and planning procedures.
  • Draw up a roadmap of concrete reforms that a new Lebanese government should undertake to receive EU assistance, such as reaching preliminary agreement with the IMF, legislating to safeguard the independence of the judiciary, and passing anti-corruption and public procurement laws together with necessary implementation decrees.
  • Boost the capacity of Lebanese civil society organisations to participate in public policymaking and to increase government accountability. 

  • Distance itself from any U.S. attempt to influence Lebanon’s political processes for the sake of regional politics (eg, the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” policy aimed at squeezing Iran) and pursue an inclusive approach that enlists all major political actors in Lebanon, including Hizbollah, in the reform process.

Government Crisis

In the port explosion’s aftermath, French President Emmanuel Macron stepped in to urge that Lebanon fast-track the substantial reforms necessary to unlock external assistance, in particular an IMF package and some of the funds pledged by donors at the 2018 CEDRE conference. After the government resigned on 10 August, he also pushed for the quick formation of a new government backed by all political forces. On 31 August, on the eve of Macron’s second visit to Beirut, a broad majority of the Lebanese parliament nominated Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, Mustapha Adib, as prime minister. Macron’s initiative stalled due to a combination of domestic competition and external pressure. As distrust runs deep, Lebanese actors, in particular Hizbollah and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, battled over nominations of ministers to secure influence in the new cabinet, making Adib miss the two-week deadline proposed by the French president. Ten days later, he resigned. In reaction, Macron blamed all sides, adding he was “ashamed of Lebanon’s political leaders”, said he would give them a few more weeks to get their act together, but also pointedly criticised Hizbollah, asserting it “can’t be at the same time an army at war with Israel, an unrestrained militia against civilians in Syria and a respectable party in Lebanon”.

Uncertainty about the U.S. attitude toward Macron’s initiative – coupled with Saudi pressure on Hariri to adopt a tough stance toward Hizbollah – almost certainly further complicated the bargaining. Washington had expressed qualified support for the effort as a whole, but took exception to the French president’s explicit recognition of Hizbollah as a central and legitimate part of the Lebanese political system. The U.S. considers Hizbollah a terrorist organisation and aims to clip its wings as part of the “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and its allies. On 8 September, the U.S. Treasury imposed new sanctions on Lebanese politicians allied with the Shiite Islamist party, and seven days later Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned France, while visiting Paris, that “efforts to resolve the crisis in Lebanon would be in vain without immediately tackling the issue of Iran-backed Hezbollah’s weaponry”. On the other hand, U.S. officials have indicated that their position vis-à-vis a new government may hinge on a distinction between Hizbollah having a “presence” in it or exercising “dominance” over it. 

The uncertainty created by signals from Washington has been compounded by the approaching U.S. elections. Lebanese politicians may prefer to wait to see if President Donald Trump wins or whether Washington moves closer to the French position under a Biden presidency. 

What is clear is that greater polarisation and renewed confrontation risks – as it has done repeatedly over the past fifteen years –provoking a breakdown in the political process and violence. Government formation, IMF negotiations and urgent reforms – all pre-conditions for badly needed external assistance – would become impossible. The social crisis would get still worse and state capacity dwindle faster.

Social Crisis

The collapse of the Lebanese currency and economy sped up in the first half of 2020. The loss of summer tourism revenue due to the COVID-19 lockdown was a further blow, followed by the 4 August port explosion, whose resulting damage cost between $3 and $5 billion, according to the World Bank. Lebanese citizens had already lost access to their savings as a result of informal controls local banks have enacted since late 2019 in response to capital outflows and their own severe lack of liquidity. Now citizens have also lost a significant part of their income to runaway inflation (110 per cent annually as of July). Since early 2019, some 350,000 private-sector employees (out of a total work force of 1.8 million) have been laid off and many more have been furloughed or suffered pay cuts as businesses, facing declining purchasing power and evaporating credit, scaled down or suspended operations. 

The situation is bound to deteriorate further: the Lebanese Central Bank is burning through its remaining foreign exchange reserves and its governor has warned that by year’s end, he will have to stop the policy of subsidising fuel, food and medicine imports by providing foreign exchange at a highly preferential rate. Scrapping the subsidies would cause yet another huge spike in inflation. Already, 55 per cent of Lebanese live below the poverty line and 23 per cent in extreme poverty; Save the Children estimates that in Beirut alone, more than 500,000 children “struggle to survive”. Among Syrian refugees, some 90 per cent of households are food-insecure, and negative coping mechanisms, such as child marriage and child labour, are common. Without substantial external assistance, the threat of widespread food insecurity is real. As a result of the misery, migration pressure is increasing. Thousands who have legal residency elsewhere or hold foreign passports have begun to leave. A Western diplomat in Beirut told Crisis Group: “Everybody I know is leaving”. Illegal migration by sea to Cyprus is on the rise.

Deteriorating State Capacity and Control

With revenue collapsing and access to financial markets cut off, the Lebanese state will soon be unable to fund ministry budgets or increase salaries to make up for state employees’ lost income caused by runaway inflation. Crucial state services would accordingly erode, particularly in the health sector. As public resources dry up, the capacity of some political actors to keep their constituents loyal by offering access to such resources (eg, by securing public employment) and their related ability to enforce social control will recede. Predatory and criminal networks could fill the gaps. 

Overstretched and underpaid security forces might be able to prevent some such developments, but not necessarily for long, and some of their personnel might have no choice but to find additional sources of income. Their professionalism would suffer further, as would the functioning of security institutions. Turf wars among local armed groups may become a daily occurrence and could scale up once groups driven by sectarian and political motivations become involved. Some parts of the country could turn into de facto ungoverned spaces, and some may even become safe havens for jihadists or organised crime. Security forces might also no longer be able to patrol the coastline and curb migration to Cyprus, which is less than 200km away.

A Role for the EU, with France in the Lead

European capitals have a strong interest – and a major role to play – in preventing the Lebanese state’s collapse. After the port explosion, France took the lead in mobilising support for Lebanon through two donor conferences (one held on 9 August, the second planned for October) and pushing the Lebanese leadership to adopt a reform roadmap. France is uniquely positioned to spearhead this effort, as it enjoys credibility with actors across the Lebanese political spectrum. Failure to form a government represents a serious setback for the French initiative; at this point, however, there is no viable alternative to Macron’s approach and, as he recognised, any solution will need to include Hizbollah – together with its Shiite ally, Amal.

Whatever happens with the French initiative, countries like Germany, Italy and Sweden should scale up their humanitarian assistance. Lebanon needs funding and technical capacity for major infrastructure projects (such as in energy, water and garbage disposal) and reconstruction in areas affected by the port blast. Through such projects, donor countries could insist on the establishment of new governance standards (eg, transparency in planning, procurement and disbursement of funds). Donors could also expand existing programs that seek to create jobs for Lebanese and refugees alike by improving local infrastructure and agricultural production, as these places will likely be the first to experience food insecurity and the failure of already feeble state services and control. They could also boost the capacity of Lebanon’s already well-developed civil society by facilitating its inclusion in planning procedures and access to information related to projects implemented with EU participation, so as to create new mechanisms of participation and public accountability. The private sector could be another avenue to explore, as increasing domestic production would reduce unemployment and the balance of payments deficit, substituting for imports that drain foreign currency reserves and creating a source of foreign currency through exports. 

Europe should assume a unified position vis-à-vis the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council and urge that international assistance be conditioned on progress on reform, and not tied to U.S. and Gulf Arab strategic considerations.

Donors could better coordinate their assistance by pooling resources under a common instrument such as a dedicated EU Trust Fund. Europe should also assume a unified position vis-à-vis the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council and urge that international assistance (in particular, an IMF package) be conditioned on progress on reform, and not tied to U.S. and Gulf Arab strategic considerations, such as disarming Hizbollah, diminishing the group’s influence in Lebanon and ending its activities in the region. The objective should be to prevent another failed state in the eastern Mediterranean, not to score points in a geostrategic competition.