LAST week US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power made a powerful call to the Security Council for urgent action to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad Basin region, triggered by Boko Haram. She touched on some infrequently explored facts and insights. A slightly abridged version:
IN 2016, a famine likely happened on our watch. Not in one of the places that dominates this Council’s agenda, but in the Borno state of northeastern Nigeria, in the area of Bama. A likely famine.
Severe fighting kept humanitarian agencies from reaching Bama for nearly 18 months. When they were finally able to access the town and assess the situation, they found that at least 2,000 people in Bama died from the effects of famine last year, mostly young children.
The situation in Bama has since improved somewhat with the arrival of aid. But right now, across northeastern Nigeria, there are far more towns that are not getting food assistance, where people are experiencing the most extreme levels of hunger.
As many as 800,000 people – 800,000 – are living just like the people of Bama last year, cut off from food aid; 800,000 people who are at acute risk – as we sit here – of literally starving to death.
Famines, as we all know, are not natural occurrences. Famines are manmade. The fact that anyone could be experiencing famine conditions in the year 2017 should spur this Council to do everything we possibly can to ensure that food assistance reaches those who are starving.
WORLD HAS ENOUGH FOOD TO SEND
The world doesn’t lack for food to send, but aid workers need more funding and they need greater security. And the Nigerian government at every level – federal, state, and local – must collaborate with UN humanitarian agencies and international NGOs to get aid out the door. If famines are manmade, that means that the solutions are manmade as well.
Now – to be clear, of course – it is impossible to overstate the savagery of Boko Haram.
The savagery of the group that has set in motion the events that have given rise to these conditions. The misery that they have caused around the Lake Chad Basin. This is a terrorist group that forces mothers with infant children and girls as young as nine years old to walk into markets and detonate suicide vests.
Boko Haram fighters systematically enslave and rape women and girls in camps deep in the forest, force marriages, brainwash defenseless victims to carry out more attacks.
They forcibly conscript boys, as well, to fight in Boko Haram’s ranks and they hold those boys in captivity – in virtual enslavement – against their will. The Chibok girls, kidnapped more than 1,000 days ago from their school, remain the most well-known example of Boko Haram’s brutality, with 195 of those girls in captivity to this day. They are among, though, just the thousands and thousands of people held by Boko Haram, as millions across the region live in fear that Boko Haram will capture them or their loved ones next.
THREAT TO INTERNATIONAL PEACE MAY GET WORSE
The deepening linkages between Boko Haram and the Islamic State are alarming and suggest – ominously – that this clear and present threat to international peace and security may get worse.
The statistics, as you’ve heard, are grim. According to OCHA, there are 1.64 million internally displaced persons in northeastern Nigeria alone. Because this area remains so insecure because of Boko Haram, 76% of IDPs fear going back to their homes where they could plant and take care of themselves and their families.
Across the entire Lake Chad Basin, 5.1 million people are food insecure, which includes 455,000 with what the UN system and others call severe acute malnutrition.
Severe acute malnutrition, in plain English, means that if these 450,000 kids do not get food rations and emergency nutrition interventions quickly, one out of five of that 450,000 will likely die.
Statistics alone, of course, cannot convey the human cost of this crisis or the extent of the brutality that drives it. Last spring, I visited refugee camps in the region, in Cameroon and in Nigeria, to meet with the victims of Boko Haram. I have seen many refugee camps over the course of my career. But meeting those who fled from Boko Haram was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
Virtually every single individual I met described for me either a close relative who had been slaughtered by Boko Haram, or an experience where they had a child who was literally grabbed from their arms – either an infant child, or daughter, or a son – where these marauders just came in and stole their child.
Many of us here are parents, and just thinking about how a parent must feel, remembering the clutch of their child, the cries of their child as they are taken off by these savages.
Now, in the wake of crimes like that, these broken, shattered families are too frequently stuck in these squalid IDP camps with virtually no services – no healthcare, no education. These are the people now dying because assistance is not getting through fast enough. I would urge this Council to witness this up close – to travel to the region, to see this crisis, to meet these families yourselves.
Speak to men who have seen their wives and daughters dragged into the bush; women who have watched their sons gunned down before them. We must be emboldened by this. There should be more people in the Security Council chamber for this discussion. This kind of thing is not run-of-the-mill. It is an extreme crisis. And we need to draw more coverage to this crisis. But we also have to bring a greater sense of urgency to our deliberations.
Now, it is definitely the case that there are many in the Nigerian government – and I know we’ll hear from our Nigerian colleague – who are working tirelessly to save lives.
NIGERIA COULD HELP MORE
On the other hand though, we see reports again and again – including this week – of some disputing the magnitude of this crisis, saying that humanitarian agencies are exaggerating the statistics. And some have even maligned the role of the UN in delivering life-saving aid.
It is extremely important that UN officials are able to get in there and visit people in need, so they can ascertain in an impartial way what the needs are. And the Nigerian government – part of what is motivating I think some of the access issues, is a concern about the rampant insecurity.
A concern about Boko Haram. And that is a very, very legitimate concern of course, and it’s something that preoccupies the humanitarian aid workers, as well, in the region.
Nearly every time the humanitarian agencies acquire access to a new location that had previously been off-limits, the needs prove far worse than had been imagined before. For example, when UN agencies and other NGOs arrived in the town of Rann, Borno State, on December 22, just a couple weeks ago, aid workers discovered around 400 fresh graves – people who had just died from hunger and untreated illness.
So what more can this Council do? To defeat Boko Haram, the international community generally has to pour far more resources into supporting a more effective, regionally-led military response.
And here, too, there are positive signs. Together, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin are slowly but steadily improving regional military coordination.
Boko Haram controls a fraction – a small fraction –than it did back in 2015. Their military operations deserve our collective support, and the United States is dispatching advisers, sharing intelligence, and providing training, equipment, and logistics support to our partners.
But there is no separating the imperative of defeating Boko Haram from the need to address the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding.
That means that governments must facilitate access for humanitarian organisations. And I can’t say this loudly enough: access, access, access.
Humanitarian organisations are ready – they work in warzones all the time. But they need permission to move. And in some cases, security is still fragile, so those aid groups can only reach communities through armed convoys that must be coordinated with the Nigerian military.
Unfortunately, coordinating aid with the availability of armed convoys is turning now into a serious bottleneck, a serious impediment. So the government and the UN will need to work together on expediting aid delivery.
Donors need to far more, as we’ve heard. The Lake Chad Basin has become one of the world’s greatest overlooked crises.
And again, I think we see it in the modest-level of interest in today’s session. The UN 2016 humanitarian appeal ended up just half funded. UN Member States need to move quickly to donate to the $1 billion that the UN has requested for this year.
What we are discussing today is a trans-national counterterrorism challenge involving one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. And the region’s desperate humanitarian needs are the result of Boko Haram’s monstrous actions.
So the situation in the Lake Chad Basin is the textbook definition of a threat to international peace and security – it is what this Council is on this Earth to address.
Lets help to re-integrate victims of Boko Haram’s violence, too many of whom, as we heard, carry a stigma when they are freed or manage to escape. Or after discussing the importance of sustaining peace, let’s work on rebuilding institutions in this region.
The need could not be more urgent. In an interview last week, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor talked about what it was like to visit camps in Borno, Nigeria. She said, “When I go to the field, I’m used to being surrounded by a lot of kids.” But in Borno, “the kids, especially children under five, were missing. Most of them had, unfortunately, already died.”
A 31-year-old mother in Cameroon named Dayo told an aid worker that she was sometimes so hungry that she was losing her senses. “When somebody spoke to me,” Dayo said, “I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman.” Or, finally, Awa Mudu, stranded in another IDP camp.
She was interviewed coming back from a nearby forest, carrying some leaves to eat. As Awa said, “the leaves are not enough to live on, but that is all we have.” This Council can help give the people of the Lake Chad Basin – people like Awa – more to live on. But we must do far more.