Nigeria's president accuses UN of hyping up humanitarian crisis for $1bn appeal

President Buhari says the UN and aid agencies are ‘whipping up a non-existent fear of mass starvation’ to draw donor support

President Buhari has accused the UN and aid agencies of creating “hype” and exaggerating the humanitarian crisis in north-eastern Nigeria in order to encourage more donations.

A crisis in states severely affected by the Boko Haram insurgency has been escalating in Nigeria over the last 12 months. On Friday, the UN warned that next year, 5.1 million people would be likely to face serious food shortages if more aid to the north-east of the country does not arrive.

Peter Lundberg, the deputy humanitarian coordinator for the UN in Nigeria, described the crisis as the worst on the African continent, appealing that without more aid, the situation is set to worsen.

In an appeal for a $1bn (£800m) humanitarian response plan launched in partnership with the Nigerian government on Friday, Lundberg claimed, “the narrative on this humanitarian crisis can no longer be ignored. We are appealing to the international community to help us prevent the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians over the coming 12 months.”

According to Unicef, a UN agency providing humanitarian aid for children and mothers in Nigeria, about 400,000 children under five will suffer from severe malnutrition in the country this year, with more than 65,000 people living in famine-like conditions.

But Nigeria’s president has now accused the UN and aid agencies of deliberately exaggerating the situation in the north-east to increase the amount of aid. “We are concerned about the blatant attempts to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation by some aid agencies, a type of hype that does not provide a solution to the situation on the ground but more to do with calculations for operations financing locally and abroad,” the president said.

President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari, who accuses aid agencies of making hyperbolic claims to increase donations. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Buhari accused aid agencies of giving the impression that the government was incapable of dealing with the humanitarian crisis. “The hype, especially that which suggests that the government is doing nothing is, therefore, uncharitable and unnecessary,” Buhari stated, claiming that although the UN had done an “immeasurable amount” in helping the relief effort, “we do not, however, see the reason for the theories and hyperbolic claims being made ostensibly to draw donor support by some of the aid agencies. The situation on the ground, as it exists, provides sufficient motivation to all well-meaning donors to come and do a decent part.”

Reports in the Nigerian press on Sunday reported on alleged UN claims that 5.1 million people were set to die of hunger in 2017, which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs denied as inaccurate.

At the height of Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency in northern Nigeria the terrorist group occupied territory across Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states, directly affecting more than 15 million people and displacing 2 million. But in the last 18 months, military successes in pushing back the insurgency have helped free occupied areas. As Boko Haram’s presence in Nigerian communities has decreased, the scale of the humanitarian crisis has become increasingly clear.

Boko Haram’s insurgency has destroyed farmland in Borno, leading to what will now be the region’s third year without a harvest.

According to the Nigerian government, more than 400,000 people remain in formal displacement camps. In the last year, Nigerian officials have been accused of stealing food meant for the people in the camps.

Nigerian media reports in September stated that 6,500 people from a shelter known as the Arabic College camp took to the streets saying they been given so little food that their children had died. Protestors pleaded that they wanted food to be handed to them directly as opposed to through state committees present at the camps.

A number of domestic newspapers and other agencies have carried reports of corruption by camp officials and IDPs being raped and sexually assaulted in exchange for food.

The president in September ordered that officials caught stealing food should be arrested, with the Nigerian Senate launching an investigation.

The president’s official spokesman today insisted that despite a recession in Nigeria, the government is meeting the challenges in the north-east, with the help of international aid agencies. “At all the camps, the Nigerian government is supplying food to IDPs [internally displaced people], and where there are gaps, of course the aid agencies can help us to fill them.

“But if you say that 1 million people will die or 7 million will go hungry – are they really accurately taking cognisance of the entire situation? Our sense is that there is no need for hype.”

United Nations agencies’ heads attend the UN’s launch of the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan for Nigeria’s northeast region in Abuja, Nigeria December 2, 2016.
United Nations agencies’ heads attend the launch of the 2017 humanitarian response plan for Nigeria’s northeast region in Abuja on 2 December 2016. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Responding to the president’s criticisms, Lundberg said the UN would continue to work closely with the government, but that there was a need for more assistance.

“The reality is that if we don’t receive the funding we require, many thousands of people will die. When Boko Haram was forced out of areas and we were able to assess the humanitarian situation, the scale of the needs became more apparent.

“It is in part because of the Nigerian armed forces’ success that we realised the sheer scale of the humanitarian situation and are making best efforts to respond to those needs to ensure that the worst-case scenario will not happen.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, was elected last year in a historic election victory. The Muslim leader won on a manifesto promising to defeat Boko Haram and tackle corruption. Since then, the Nigerian military have made progress in defeating the terrorist group, although they remain a deadly threat. But the president has had a difficult second term governing Nigeria, with the predominantly oil-producing economy now in recession after a collapse in oil prices and severe damage to its pipelines by Delta militants. The deepening humanitarian crisis and the government’s difficulty in addressing it has also undermined the progress by the Nigerian military, whose alleged human rights violations have continued under Buhari’s regime.


Emmanuel Akinwotu in Abuja

The GuardianTramp

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