ABUJA – Two-year-old Bintu Mustapha is the human face behind the hidden humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in northeast Nigeria. Her body wasted and stomach distended by hunger, Bintu’s life hangs by the nutritional drip inserted in her hand. Too weak to move, she is one of 30 children being treated at a Save the Children emergency nutrition clinic in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State – and the area worst affected by the Nigerian government’s drive to end the Boko Haram insurgency.
As aid donors gather in Oslo for a conference aimed at mobilizing support for northeast Nigeria, the stakes could hardly be higher. For tens of thousands of children like Bintu, this is – literally – a life-or-death moment. Success in Oslo could bring hope and the prospect of recovery for millions of vulnerable people. Failure will cost lives.
The scale of the crisis has yet to register with the international community. The humanitarian emergency in northeast Nigeria is the country’s most serious since the Biafra famine in the 1960s. As the Nigerian army has pushed into areas previously controlled by Boko Haram, more than two million people have been displaced. Huge pockets of previously hidden deprivation are coming into view as the military retakes territory.
Over 14 million people are in urgent need of assistance in the states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe alone. With livelihoods collapsing as farmers flee their lands and the economy declines, that number is set to rise sharply. High background poverty rates – already in excess of 50% in the northeast – exacerbate the effects of conflict and displacement.
As ever, children are bearing the brunt. Those like Bintu Mustapha are the lucky ones. She was carried for two weeks by her mother to the nutrition clinic in Maiduguri from an area recently liberated from Boko Haram.
Many others don’t make it. Death rates from hunger, diarrhea, and pneumonia are soaring. Almost half a million children are facing the prospect of severe and acute malnutrition, 300,000 of them in Borno alone. Famine-like conditions are emerging in some areas. In the absence of an effective response, some 200 children, on average, could die each day this year.
It’s not just nutrition indicators that are in free fall. Children born in northeast Nigeria, especially girls, face some of the world’s most limited opportunities for education. Fewer than half of Borno’s children make it through primary school. Rural girls in the state average less than two years of schooling.
The combination of conflict, destruction of education infrastructure (around 1,200 schools have been destroyed), and Boko Haram’s attacks on schoolchildren – most notoriously with the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from Chibok – has forced half a million students to abandon their studies.
This matters for Nigeria’s future. The country has ten million children out of school, more than any other country in the world – and 60% live in the northeast. Failure to equip these children with the opportunities that come with education will trap them in a cycle of poverty, undermining growth, weakening livelihoods, and creating fertile ground for recruitment by militant organizations.
The response to the crisis in northeast Nigeria has been desperately inadequate. Last year, aid donors and UN agencies failed spectacularly to act with the urgency the crisis demanded. Less than half of the UN’s humanitarian appeal was funded. Meanwhile, the last Nigerian government, struggling with an economic downturn, failed to mobilize sufficient resources – and it was slow to call for international support.
The Oslo conference provides an opportunity to make a new start. Three urgent priorities stand out.
First, aid donors need to commit now to the $1 billion needed to reach around seven million of those in need. An effective humanitarian response requires predictable and assured funding to underpin the necessary investments in nutrition, livelihoods and food security. As one of the conveners of the conference, Germany should be working with other major donors – notably the United Kingdom and the United States – to broaden and deepen humanitarian support.
Second, the Nigerian government has to step up its efforts. There are encouraging signs. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has placed one of its most able ministers, Zainab Ahmed, at the head of the humanitarian response team. Despite the economic recession, the authorities have also pledged to allocate around $1 billion of humanitarian support for the northeast. It is critical that it acts on this commitment – and that it puts in place the programs needed to end the region’s persistent marginalization.
Third, the neglect of education must end. Borno’s governor, Kashim Shettima, an Islamic scholar and self-professed beneficiary of what he describes as “Western education,” has made reconstruction of the sector the state’s single largest budget priority this year. To its credit, the World Bank has also put in place a $100 million facility to support education recovery in Nigeria’s northeast. Yet UN agencies and donors have effectively scripted education out of the humanitarian appeal.
It’s tough to think of a more shortsighted approach. Given that the denial and destruction of economic opportunity has been at the heart of the insurgency, there is no better way to deliver a peace dividend than to invest in education. That is why the UN’s special envoy for education, Gordon Brown, has rightly called for the creation of a new global facility to support education in conflict-affected countries.
Ensuring that children like Bintu Mustapha survive is the most immediate priority. Giving them a chance to thrive through education is the only sound foundation for a lasting peace.
Kevin Watkins is the CEO of Save the Children UK.