‘It Is Survival of the Fittest Here’

In Nigeria's IDP camps, residents fight over bags of rice and live in constant fear of attack from the surrounding communities. Can the country's newly elected president finally rally the government to their cause?


ABUJA, Nigeria – Tucked behind a brightly painted international primary school and wedged between a series of construction projects sits Abuja’s Kuchigoro Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. It houses some 1,400 men, women, and children who now live in a series of huts built mostly from refuse, though empty grain sacks and plastic church banners are the most common construction material here.

Kuchigoro began as an informal encampment several years ago, a smattering of tents scattered across an empty lot, occupied by people uprooted by conflict and environmental disaster. Since last July, it has swollen into a refuge for people from the north fleeing Boko Haram.

Across Nigeria, camps like Kuchigoro have cropped up on their own as entire communities from the country’s northern states have been forced to flee Boko Haram’s brutality, seeking refuge in the states bordering the insurgency’s stronghold in the northeast.

Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Development and an expert on the IDP crisis, estimates that there are 4 million IDPs in Nigeria, over 2 million of whom have fled Boko Haram over the past six years. Like other IDPs, the residents of Kuchigoro have little access to health care and education.

On March 31, President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to his challenger, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, in Nigeria’s presidential election. The result was historic: It marked the first time since the start of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic in 1999 that an incumbent president was ousted in an election. And Buhari sealed that victory in large part because of his campaign’s promise to crack down on the insurgency in the north. But even if Buhari manages to curb the violence, he will eventually have to deal with the millions displaced by that violence — an issue that received scant attention during the hard-fought campaign.

Most of Kuchigoro’s residents fled Borno state, which has been hit hardest by the insurgency, and have been living in the settlement for a little over six months. Many of its residents come from Gwoza, an agricultural town in Borno. Perched on a stool outside of her hut, 53-year-old Saratu tells me she lost her husband and two of her children to Boko Haram before she left Gwoza for Kuchigoro — a nearly 500-mile journey. “We cannot count the number of people we know that Boko Haram killed,” she said.

Comfort, an 18-year-old girl who fled Adamawa State where she and her siblings were students and her parents worked as farmers, told me that she had been in the camp for just one month, but that she already cannot wait to leave. “We are always fighting over the food,” she says. “It is survival of the fittest here and we cannot be each other’s keeper.” She notes that she and her family received help from the government’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), but “it is not enough. We do not have enough to eat here.” I asked her what she needed most in the camp. “I just want to go back to school to study art,” she replies.

IDP camps in Nigeria like Kuchigoro depend heavily on NGOs. Nigerian NGOs like the Global Initiative for Peace Love and Care, the Christian Association of Nigeria, and the Federation of Muslim Women Associations in Nigeria, as well as international NGOs like Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross, provide the bulk of their food, and build their schools and latrines.

Dr. Ibrahim says that while NEMA has been the most active in providing care to IDPs, as an “emergency response” agency the group lacks the financial means and institutional know-how necessary to provide extended support to displaced people. According to the agency’s charter, as an emergency response agency it can only care for the IDPs for one month. Even worse, among the IDPs I spoke with, there is a widespread belief that NEMA sells the emergency aid in local markets, a claim Ibrahim says is “difficult to verify but not to believe.” NEMA declined to comment on these allegations.

The Nigerian government does have a National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons tasked with caring for the displaced. But when Ibrahim, a widely recognized expert on aid funding in Nigeria, asked the commission about funding, it told him that it had enough money to pay salaries but not run programs.

Last August, President Jonathan created a Victims Support Fund to help victims of Boko Haram and the IDPs scattered throughout the country, raising millions of dollars from some of Nigeria’s wealthiest business moguls. Kwajafa, a resident at Kuchigoro, says that Jonathan held a headline-grabbing fundraiser in late July that secured an estimated 80 billion naira in donations. “But we have seen no money and no action from this,” he said furiously.

Indeed, little news about Jonathan’s fund has emerged since the fundraiser. Alkasim Abdulkadir, a member of the fund’s board, lamented that of the 80 billion naira pledged by donors at the fundraiser, only about 15 billion had actually been donated. “We need to conduct a census to understand how many IDPs there are and where they are, but we don’t yet have the resources,” Abdulkadir explains. Further hampering efforts to respond to the IDP crisis, the Nigerian government had only 100,000 IDPs registered; such a low estimate makes it difficult to allocate the necessary levels of aid and support.

Unfortunately, Buhari’s election could serve to further stunt Nigeria’s response to the IDP crisis. Abdulkadir predicts that Buhari’s victory may result in the withdrawal of the assistance pledged to Jonathan’s fund during the much-publicized fundraiser. “These were just pledges, and they were political,” he notes. With Buhari in the top office, “people may not give the money since it will not get them political favor.”

On the day I visited Kuchigoro, men gather anywhere they can find shade. No permanent NGO presence is visible. Nor are there any security or government officials. The night before, villagers living nearby, many of whom had fled from flood-prone areas a few years earlier, had raided their camp and stolen the rice and flour that had been delivered by NGOs the day before. All of the IDPs here, regardless of their geographical origin, are desperately poor. Villagers from the surrounding areas had recently raided the camp and stolen recently delivered food. Those who tried to fight off the villagers have the marks to prove it, though the majority of the residents said that they “slept in the bush like the animals” in order to avoid being hurt in the fray. Dr. Ibrahim says that this is not uncommon. “There are very often tensions between the host communities and the IDPs. Hosts are poor themselves and want some of the IDP aid,” he says.

Elizabeth, has been living in the camp with several of her children for three months now. With a comb stuck in her hair and a few kids milling around her ankles, she pumps water from the communal well — provided by an NGO, not the government, Kwajafa is quick to note. She said that Boko Haram had created “a famine and terror,” which forced her to flee Gwoza with her eight children. To reach the camp, they packed into a trailer used to carry grain sacks along with 200 other people. “We did not travel straight here, because the roads were bad. We would take trucks to towns, sleep in the bush, and try to find other trucks that were leaving the north.” Along the way, she was separated from some of her children. But Elizabeth believes that they are safe with her family members in other parts of the country. She finishes pumping her water, gathers her children, and begins hauling her load back to her new home: a few branches stuck into the ground and draped with grain sacks.

Standing next in line at the pump was Amatu, seemingly one of the few in the camp able to crack a smile. “Yesterday I heard from my husband for the first time in 10 months. He is safe in Adamawa,” she says. She is infuriated, however, by the government’s lack of response. “They have done nothing, not even getting our kids into school. All of this,” she says with a gesture to the stooped huts and crooked benches, “we made by ourselves.”

The returns in the 2015 elections, in which the regions most affected by the insurgency voted heavily in favor of Buhari, suggest that there is a strong desire for a more robust state response to counter the insurgency. A critical component of responding to Boko Haram will be allocating resources for the care and rehabilitation of IDPs. Though the instability in the north was a critical issue in the election, those most affected — the IDPs — were the least able to express their preference: Nigeria’s laws required its citizens to vote in the district where they are registered, an impossibility for many who fled Boko Haram.

But even if they had been able to vote, many had no interest. When asked if she had intended to vote, Amatu’s response was that the government is “not taking care of us, so why should I vote? I cannot think of the future here. I just live day by day.”

The problem, IDPs assert, is a government that has underserved them and outright ignored their plight. The government, however, has been hamstrung in responding because of limited funds, a lack of political will, and under-informed institutions. Overcoming these hurdles will require the government to invest considerable effort and money into building up government agencies to catalogue, assist, and eventually rehabilitate displaced Nigerians. Unfortunately, the global collapse of the price of oil has ground Nigeria’s economy to a halt, making such investment unlikely.

When asked what she needed most, Amatu said, “By God’s grace, we need to move. We need to leave this place. We have nothing here and we have nothing back home.”

Photo Credit: Olatunji Omirin / Stringer

Hilary Matfess is a Ph.D. student at Yale University and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram.” Follow her on Twitter at: @HilaryMatfess. Twitter: @HilaryMatfess

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