Aid groups in northern Nigeria scramble to provide assistance despite recent attacks

Families staying in the back of this church in Yola are from Michika, Madagali and Gwosa, some of the areas worst hit by Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa and Borno states. (Credit: EU/ECHO/Isabel Coello/flickr)

An attack last Thursday on an aid convoy in northern Nigeria forced UNICEF to temporarily suspend its operations. The group resumed work over the weekend as the region struggles to deal with the violent Islamist group Boko Haram that has created a score of humanitarian problems. The attack hit as the U.N. and aid groups are trying to support 250,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition in Borno state.

“We are working at full strength in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri,” UNICEF Nigeria Representative Jean Gough said in a statement. “We continue to call for increased efforts to reach people in desperate need across the state. We cannot let this heartless attack divert any of us from reaching the more than 2 million people who are in dire need of immediate humanitarian assistance.”

Two people were injured when an aid convoy consisting of UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund and the International Organization for Migration, was traveling back from an aid delivery to the town of Bama. UNICEF decried the incident saying it was both an attack on the aid groups and the people suffering from the effects of the instability caused by Boko Haram.

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A day earlier, Doctors Without Borders issued a warning of a “large-scale humanitarian disaster” in Borno state. The medical aid group said that more than 500,000 people in the state were living in “catastrophic” conditions, cut off from basic sanitation after fleeing their homes for safety. Fighting between Boko Haram and government forces, as well as attacks by the group on civilians, have disrupted basic trade routes, forced people from their homes and destroyed crops.

For both Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF the message is the same: People are in need of humanitarian assistance now and the insecure situation in the state is making it extremely difficult to reach people in need. Things will get much worse if there are no improvements.

“We’re gradually discovering the extent of this crisis and we are particularly concerned for the inhabitants of the remote areas that we have not been able to access,” Hugues Robert, emergency program manager for Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement. “People are gathered, isolated and cut off in a half-destroyed town and are totally dependent on external assistance, which is cruelly lacking. If we don’t manage quickly to provide them with food, water and urgent medical supplies, malnutrition and disease will continue to wreak havoc.”

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The rainy season is approaching, which means driving across unpaved roads will become more difficult and in some areas impossible. It is why warnings have been issued and UNICEF quickly resumed work despite the recent attack. UNICEF announced plans to scale up its work in Borno State late last week. It will heed the call for more aid in northern Nigeria, a place that observers say is getting worse.

“What we have uncovered and assessed is deeply, distressingly alarming, even for those of us who have witnessed such depths of humanitarian need before,” said U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Stephen O’Brien to the U.N. Security Council last Wednesday. “We urgently need to strengthen international attention onto this neglected crisis. For months I have been shouting into what feels like an empty room to highlight the dire situation.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.