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North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
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.

Contributors

Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
vincentfoucher
Director, Sahel Project
jhjezequel
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
NnamdiObasi
An elderly woman looks on while sitting on a make-shift bed as people try to salvage tents damaged by torrential rain, at a camp for Yemenis displaced by conflict in the northern Hajjah province on 30 September 2020. Essa Ahmed/AFP

The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation

The outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Huthi rebels a terrorist organisation. Proponents argue the measure will provide leverage with the Huthis, but in reality it will hurt efforts to end the war and could precipitate famine. The incoming Biden administration should rescind it immediately.

Against the advice of more or less everyone working in the humanitarian, economic and diplomatic fields in Yemen, and including many of its own professional staff, the outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Ansar Allah, better known at home and abroad as the Huthis, as a terrorist organisation.

The designation (in fact, a package of designations that named the Huthi movement both a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” and, along with three of its top leaders, a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” entity) will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine. The action is also bad for UN-led efforts to end the war. And it arguably runs counter to U.S. interests and harms the security of Washington’s Gulf allies.

The designation will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine.

For these reasons, the incoming Biden administration should reverse the Huthis’ designation as soon as possible upon taking office. In the meantime, the Trump administration should state unequivocally what exceptions and licences it has put in place to allow for the continued flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen and expand them to include commercial imports. Without such steps, famine is all but certain to follow.

The debate over the merits and risks of a designation is not new. Proponents of a designation, namely Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies along with the United Arab Emirates, have been unable to win the war militarily and contend that fighting will only end when the Huthis, now in the ascendant militarily and confident in their status as de facto rulers of north-western Yemen, have been forced into “behaviour change” by economic and political pressure. They also argue that the designation is warranted because the Huthis fulfil the criteria for it by engaging in indiscriminate attacks upon civilians in Yemen as well as firing rockets and missiles at Saudi Arabia and attacking shipping in the Red Sea. As the most recent example, they cite a missile they claim the movement launched at Aden’s international airport in southern Yemen to target the newly formed Yemeni government that had just arrived there on 30 December. The Huthis deny responsibility for the strike.

Critics of the designation, including Crisis Group, approach the issue from a different angle. They argue, first and foremost, that the designation will impose dire collective punishment on the estimated 20 million people who live in Huthi-controlled areas. Yemen is a poor country in peacetime; in wartime, ordinary people have become too impoverished to pay for basic foodstuffs, leaving them increasingly dependent on extensive humanitarian aid. As detailed below, the designation will send a chill through aid agencies, which will fear running afoul of the U.S., and it could throw international trade with Yemen into a deep freeze. Food will become scarce and costlier, making it too expensive for most people to buy. Critics of the designation also contend that it will contribute little to resolving the conflict. The Huthis are likely to become more bellicose and make up any income they lose from taxing local markets by increasing tariffs on goods, pushing the cost of living to even more unsustainable levels for ordinary Yemenis. They are also likely to rely more heavily on Iran, their main external backer, for economic and political support – an outcome the U.S. says it is determined to avoid.

A nurse cares for a malnourished child at a clinic in Tuhayta, Western Yemen, 28 September 2018. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

The Huthis’ ties with Iran are not the only issue where Washington’s actions are likely to prove counterproductive to its stated goals. Huthi officials say they will take “reciprocal” action as the designation’s impact becomes clear. Responses could range from a ban on contact with U.S. nationals to intensified cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia as far as to efforts to halt maritime traffic in the Red Sea. In December 2020, Saudi media outlets reported that a seaborne mine launched by the Huthis had struck a cargo ship in the Red Sea in what some in Riyadh saw as a warning from the Yemeni rebels.

The designation also complicates UN-led efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and convene political talks about ways to end the war. These efforts were already stalling, and in dire need of a boost from the U.S., as both the Huthis and the government seem resolved to pursue a military victory. The Huthis may now choose to boycott the UN envoy, whom they sporadically accuse of being a tool of U.S. interests. Foreign diplomats are likely to be constrained in their ability to meet the Huthis because of the designations. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, will see in the designation validation of its maximalist demand that the Huthis, in effect, surrender, rather than working to find a middle ground with the rebels. The designation further hampers UN-led efforts to remove an estimated one million barrels of oil from a rusting tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, thus averting ecological disaster, and to decommission the vessel, an operation that will require foreign experts to travel to Sanaa – something that will become more difficult with the designations.

Along with UN and humanitarian officials, Crisis Group has repeatedly raised these concerns with senior U.S. officials. But the proponents have won the day, having gained the support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior Trump administration officials. Since mid-2020, a group of these officials have come to see a designation as another building block in their “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and as a source of much-needed leverage with the Huthis for the U.S. and its allies. Internal deliberations over the designation intensified after President Donald Trump lost the November 2020 election, and Pompeo and others sought a final series of political “wins” at home and abroad before leaving office, including the normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states and a final wave of sanctions against perceived U.S. rivals. Congressional insiders in Washington liken the raft of punitive measures unleashed over the course of the administration’s final months to a “minefield” deliberately laid for the incoming Biden administration, which will likely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of politically sensitive measures it is pressed to undo in its early days.

The U.S. officials’ rush to the finish line has had deeply troubling consequences. So eager was the Trump administration to designate the Huthis before leaving office that it announced the move before it had done its due diligence on limiting humanitarian harm. It made the announcement before the Treasury Department had prepared a package of licences that would assure the UN aid agencies and humanitarian NGOs that they could continue their work in Yemen without fear of civil or criminal penalties in the U.S. Treasury officials are now scrambling to complete this package before the designation takes effect on 19 January. Meanwhile, no such licence is being prepared for private-sector importers, meaning that trade inflows may grind to a halt even if the U.S. puts humanitarian waivers in place in time. Senior aid officials say that if food and other imports are frozen, there is little they can do to prevent a famine. In December 2020, the UN warned that 16,500 Yemenis were already in famine-like conditions and that this number would triple by the end of 2021, before accounting for the effects of a designation.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps. It should have the Treasury Department issue an expansive licence package while the Department of Justice should state unequivocally that humanitarian organisations will not be prosecuted for working in Yemen or engaging directly with the Huthis. If it cannot complete the package before the designation comes into force, the designation should be halted. The U.S. should also issue licences for the private sector, or at a minimum give clear public guidance to commercial interests that they will not be prosecuted for trading with merchants in Yemen, who may be subject to taxation, for example, in Huthi-held areas – that is to say, all businesses importing goods into Yemen.

But these measures are merely palliative – and inadequate at that. Never before has the U.S. slapped a terrorist designation on a group like the Huthis that controls this much territory (around 30 per cent of Yemen’s land mass) and administers (at least de facto) so many people (approximately twenty million Yemenis). Even with licences in place, international banks, insurers and commodity traders that grease the wheels of international trade could well conclude that the risk of legal censure in the U.S. outweighs the meagre profits offered by trade with Yemen. The only way to avoid additional impediments to the movement of trade is to lift the blanket designation of the Huthis.

That task will fall to the incoming Biden administration. The new president’s senior advisers may believe there are more pressing issues to attend to, or worry that lifting the designation is too tricky politically, given that the Huthis are a violent armed group with a sectarian outlook that overthrew Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Nonetheless, the administration must lift the movement’s dual Foreign Terrorist Organisation and Specially Designated Global Terrorist designations, preferably in its first days or week. That said, lifting designations can take time, and in the interim the Biden administration should be prepared to issue as expansive a licencing regime as possible and signal to the humanitarian aid community and others its intention to revoke the designations. It is far better to prevent a full-blown famine driven by U.S. actions now, than to deal with the consequences only when they become so evident as to be uncontrollable.