Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka, Executive Director of Social Action reflects on field visits and a Roundtable Conference on the Ecological Crisis and Conflict in the Lake Chad Basin, which held in Maiduguri, Borno State, northeastern Nigeria.
On Saturday, 22 July 2017, Social Action organized a roundtable conference in Maiduguri, Borno State, with a focus on violence and displacement in northeastern Nigeria. The meeting, convened in collaboration with the organization YARAC, was in continuation of efforts to build a pan-Nigerian civil society response to the ecological crisis and violence in the Sahel region. The Maiduguri meeting provided the first opportunity for local civil society activists, academics, and members of the local media and officials of the Chad Basin Development Authority (CDBA) to examine immediate and longer term challenges to resettlement of over two million people displaced by Boko Haram violence in the area.
Social Action organized a Roundtable Conference for civil society, academics and media in Maiduguri, Borno State
As the birthplace of the Boko Haram sect, Maiduguri has been the epicenter of security responses to the violence which has spread to other parts of the Lake Chad area, including territories of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Despite reports of successes by the Nigerian military, most of northern Borno State (areas closest to the receding Lake Chad) remains unsafe. Most of the surviving members of communities of northern Borno (and other areas) have been living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri and other locations for over three years. They have no immediate hope of returning to their homes as the Boko Haram group continues to kill and abduct people, including young girls. Apart from Maiduguri and few parts areas near the capital city of Borno, all police stations and other public infrastructure have been destroyed by Boko Haram. Public health facilities and over six thousand classrooms have been destroyed, according to Satomi Ahmed, Executive Chairman of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).
Within the IDP camps, the Borno SEMA has been working with the federal NEMA and international aid agencies to respond in providing temporary shelter, food, medicine and education opportunities for children. Inter-agency collaboration has improved with monthly meetings. It appears that political commitment is improving after years of government inaction. As one participant commented, “our people would have been dead if not for international NGOs.” At the same time, there is distrust for international NGOs within sections of the local population. Building trust between NGOs and local opinion leaders is essential for ensuring that humanitarian intervention is sustained beyond the immediate period into lasting resettlement. Beyond the emergency, even more challenging is the enormous task of returning displaced persons to their homes, in ‘safety and dignity.’
Kids growing up in IDP camps do not know any other home
Participants at the Maiduguri meeting agreed that there was already significant displacement in the Lake Chad basin even before Boko Haram. Climate change was in part responsible for major droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. The dams and irrigation projects, and other actions by individuals, to mitigate the impact of the droughts were not properly managed with the result that the river systems that supplied over 95 percent of the waters of the Lake Chad were disrupted. With the drastic reduction of the Lake Chad, a lifeline for over twenty million farmers and fishers was lost. The general unaccountability of local, state and federal governments, which failed to respond adequately to the ecological crisis, created mass impoverishments, migration into Maiduguri and the near collapse of the educational systems. Resentment of elite corruption amidst mass impoverishment created a fertile ground for the germination of an extremist theology.
Peacebuilding would involve a program of de-radicalization and communal reconciliation following heightened distrust among Muslim and Christian communities. The goal of reconciliation is not helped by the current practice of separating Christians and Muslims in some IDP camps even when they are of the same ethnic groups. Also, there is an emerging ‘returnee and ramainee dichotomy’ with lack of trust in IDP camps and communities for people returning from displacement. It is hard to know for sure those that may have joined Boko Haram. Institutions will have to be strengthened or created to encourage reconciliation.
Important is the need to inculcate a new civic ethos of accountability and participation. While absentee government officials dispensed patronage selectively in the past, a culture of community and mass (democratic) participation must be promoted. Beginning with the current interventions, citizens groups from among displaced communities must participate in not only monitoring the deployment of Aid money but participate in determining the very agenda and direction of all things that concern them. There must be accountability at all levels of intervention.
It is only in the context of restored power of participation that the enormous investments that are needed to address the ecological catastrophe would serve the needs of people and nature. For example, participants at the Maiduguri meeting identified cooking fuel as a major need of families and communities. The search for fuel wood has resulted in cutting down of trees, which exacerbates the ecological crisis.
A delegation of Social Action visited the Managing Director of the Chad Basin Development Authority in Maiduguri. Abba Garba pointed out that the urgency of the energy crisis. With widespread displacement, firewood cutting now a rampant and indiscriminate.
While tree planting has long been identified as an imperative to halt desertification, projects can only be sustainable when communities are included in the plans, and when such plans guarantee their right to energy. Past ‘development’ efforts, which have seen people as passive ‘beneficiaries,’ have actually contributed to marginalizing the poor. The current crises in the northeast of Nigeria provide a moment for examining past mistakes and ensuring that they are not repeated. Going forward, local groups must more clearly link the current crisis to past and ongoing climate change impacts. Beyond the badly needed humanitarian assistance, there should be a focus on climate change as an underlying problem. That way, medium and longer term resettlement programs would have to be framed in terms of climate change adaptation. In this case, IDPs in northeast Nigeria are not victims of Boko Haram alone but (also) of climate change.
The need to promote alternative narratives informed the commitment of participants at the Maiduguri meeting who have agreed to meet more regularly to improve awareness and to identify options for improving civil society and communities’ collaboration to ensure accountability and sustainability of security and humanitarian assistance.
Social Action will work with civil society partners and scholars from the universities to ensure continuous interactions in northeastern Nigeria