Lake Chad’s unseen crisis

Sultana Begum Conflict, Disasters, Emergency, Humanitarian

Today Oxfam is launching Lake Chad’s Unseen Crisis, which tells the stories of people displaced by conflict in Niger and Nigeria. Oxfam’s Advocacy and Policy Lead in the Lake Chad Basin, Sultana Begum, shares with us what’s happening on the ground in the region.

Every year on 19th of August the world takes time out to recognize the work and contribution of aid workers to humanitarian service. This year’s theme is ‘One Humanity’ and the day is about global solidarity with the more than 130 million people around the world who need humanitarian assistance to survive. Today Oxfam is launching Lake Chad’s Unseen Crisis, which tells the stories of people displaced by conflict in Niger and Nigeria.

As I have spent the past month in West Africa, I want to use this day to show my solidarity with the people of the Lake Chad Basin region, a little known part of the world covering North East Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Here a seven year violent conflict involving a group known as Boko Haram and military operations to counter them continues to rage on. This bloody conflict has resulted in Africa’s fastest growing displacement crisis and one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world today. Last year one in every 15 people who died throughout the world as a direct result of violent conflict died in Nigeria.20 million people across the region are affected by this conflict, 2.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, 9 million people need immediate life saving assistance, 7 million of these people are in Nigeria alone. Yet, despite these stats the conflict goes largely unseen and neglected by the world.

A few weeks ago, I visited Maiduguri the capital city of Borno State in North Eastern Nigeria, the worst of the conflict affected states where the vast majority of people are in need and where the Nigerian government declared a food and nutrition crisis in late June. Thousands of people are believed to have died of hunger and malnutrition already. Until last year Maiduguri, once the economic hub of the North Eastern Nigeria, was on the front lines off the conflict and off limits to aid workers. The city is now home to 1.6 million internally displaced people (IDP), whilst some of these people are living in government run camps and get some assistance, the vast majority of people are living with residents of the city who are hosting them and have been largely missed out by the humanitarian response.

The Nigerian army has recently retaken territory in Borno state, leading to a new wave of internally displaced people. They have come to towns like Bama, hungry and malnourished, with some dying on arrival. Many never make it. The army in these newly accessible areas of Borno state has found itself in the uncomfortable position of managing displacement camps and distributing aid themselves. UN agencies had started to access these areas through the use of armed convoys, but an attack on an aid convoy in July saw assistance suspended. With millions of people estimated to still be trapped by the conflict and without access to food, supplies and markets for two to three years, the true extent of the situation is likely to be much more distressing.

I have spoken to people in the government-run camps and people living within communities. The stories I heard raised the hairs on my neck as they spoke of fleeing for their lives, families torn apart, communities being burnt and more.

I am now in the neighbouring country of Niger where the conflict has spilled over. For the past two days I have been travelling by road from the capital Niamey to the Diffa region close to Nigeria where the conflict has displaced 280,000 people. The drive to Diffa was pleasantly surprising. My image of Niger is one of desert and dryness, instead the rainy season had created the most beautiful picturesque scene, of rolling green hills and trees, oasis of palm trees, miles of planted millet, grazing camels and horses and bustling local markets. In this long idyllic journey it was easy to forget that I was headed into a conflict zone.

However, as we headed closer to our destination on a road known as N1, I started to see many makeshift shelters along the road side. I saw villages along the way, such as Gamgari where local residents had taken people fleeing the conflict into their homes. Many displaced people come to villages such as these as they are close to markets and with employment opportunities.

Women, men and children… came to collect water from the puddles in the road because they had no access to water

As we continued to drive down the N1, it started to pour down heavily with rain. We saw women, men and children running to the road side with buckets and jugs. They came to collect water from the puddles in the road because they had no access to water. I was told they were likely to drink it. They were from an area close to Diffa called Bosso, which had been attacked by Boko Haram in June. Many people have been here for months along the roadside but humanitarian assistance has been slow to reach them The government and army have also relocated people from Bosso and areas around the Lake Chad as part of military operations, and these people have also ended up on the road side with nowhere to go, living in dire conditions without adequate access to water and sanitation, food and shelter.

Restrictions by governments have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in these countries. As part of military operations communities have been relocated from their homes to areas without basic services, jobs and means of survival. Farmland, rivers and lakes which people rely on for farming and fishing have been declared off limits, major markets have officially been closed down, and transport, such as motorbikes, have been banned.

There has been a slow response from the affected governments, the UN, donors and humanitarian agencies alike. This has made it difficult to bring attention to the crisis and to respond to the scale needed. An urgent scale up of the humanitarian response is now required, with millions of lives under threat and people in immediate need of life-saving support. Oxfam and other humanitarian agencies need increased support to reach more people, and fast.

The governments of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, as well as their international partners must ensure that the military strategy designed to counter Boko Haram does not come at the expense of increasing suffering and must provide safe access to people in need.

In the longer term, there is a need to address the root causes of the Boko Haram conflict and find a comprehensive solution to the crisis.

Some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are carrying the weight of this crisis, opening up their homes and giving the little they have. These are the real heroes of this story, showing solidarity and sharing their humanity.


Dr. Jorrit Kamminga