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Breaking: UN Says 7 million people in Northeast Nigeria are in urgent need of lifesaving assistance

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(Abuja) – Aid agencies are unable to respond effectively to the crisis in northeastern Nigeria due to worsening insecurity and stifling operational requirements imposed by military and civilian authorities. Such restrictions give the impression that the organizations are not independent, making them vulnerable to attacks by Boko Haram.

The humanitarian crisis in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states is among the world’s most severe, with 1.8 million people internally displaced and over 7 million people in need of urgent lifesaving assistance, as a result of the 10 year insurgency by Boko Haram.

“Nigerian authorities should ensure that aid agencies can deliver timely and effective help to people affected by the conflict,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Undue restrictions are intensifying the suffering of vulnerable people in dire need of life-saving assistance.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed two senior military officials and 19 aid workers from nine organizations working in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria, and in Abuja, the capital, between November 2019 and February 2020. The aid workers said that the amount of control the Nigerian military now has over their activities prevents them from reaching millions of people and causes safety concerns as other parties to the conflict may view aid groups as taking the government’s side.

“We are not working where or how we want to work,” the country director of one aid organization said. “Any pushback can escalate to hostilities with the military with dire consequences.

For years, military authorities have restricted aid organizations from operating outside of government-controlled areas based on the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act, 2013, which criminalizes engagement with groups the government lists as terrorist. Military authorities have reinforced this ban with threats of arrests.

Since 2019, after a resurgence in fighting, government and military officials have also required aid organizations to undergo lengthy processes to obtain compulsory authorization for moving personnel, cash, and cargo carrying relief materials in the northeast region. The military mandated using armed escorts on some routes, banned certain types of goods, and limited the amount of fuel the agencies can use in the field.

Some aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the restrictions have only intensified the very real threat of abduction and execution aid workers face. In July, fighters from a Boko Haram faction killed one aid worker and abducted six, all staff of Action Against Hunger. Five of the six were later killed. On January 18, 2020, suspected Boko Haram insurgents attacked a United Nations facility housing several aid groups in Ngala, Borno State. At least 20 internally displaced people waiting for assistance at the facility were killed, media reports said.

Twelve aid workers were killed in 2019 alone, double the number in the previous year, while two others remain in captivity. In August, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Nigeria announced that 37 aid workers had been killed since the onset of the conflict in 2009.

A senior military officer in the army’s 7th Division, the unit at the forefront of the war against Boko Haram, who asked to remain anonymous, said the restrictions are needed to ensure military efforts to guarantee national security and protect citizens and aid workers.

In September 2019, the military closed three Action Against Hunger and five Mercy Corps offices in Borno and Yobe states for two months following accusations, which have not been proven, of corruption or support to insurgents. Both agencies strongly deny the allegations. The report of a military board of inquiry set up to investigate the allegations is yet to be made public.

The two-month suspension of both organizations left up to 400,000 people without access to aid. The humanitarian affairs minister temporarily lifted the suspension in October, saying that the government would take new steps to vet and monitor all humanitarian groups working in the region.

In November, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development held a workshop, which included senior government and aid group officials, focused on improving civil security cooperation in humanitarian intervention in the northeast. But this led to vague new oversight and control procedures, including new vetting procedures for vendors, additional reporting processes, and regular field visits by the authorities to project sites.

In December, Borno State passed a law that increases registration and reporting requirements for development and aid groups operating in the state. The law also requires prior approval for projects and introduces new controls over the locations and categories of beneficiaries, aid groups’ activities, and the staff they can hire in line with the state’s development plan.

Failure to comply with the new law may result in the cancellation of an organization’s registration, and organizations or individual aid workers may face a fine of “not less than one million naira [about US $2,800] or up to a year in prison, or both.”

On February 24, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that his administration will establish a National Humanitarian Coordination Committee to “oversee all humanitarian actions in Nigeria.” The committee will be co-chaired by the humanitarian affairs minister and the national security adviser with members including the United Nations resident coordinator in Nigeria and representatives of other federal and state government agencies. It remains unclear whether this new committee will facilitate greater independence and access for humanitarian agencies, or merely expand the military and government’s restrictions and controls, Human Rights Watch said. 

While Boko Haram and its breakaway factions remain a serious threat, limiting access for humanitarian organizations, the new government-imposed restrictions and requirements appear to run contrary to the humanitarian principle of independence. International humanitarian law states that all parties to armed conflicts “must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction.”

“The cumulative impact of the regulatory requirements and restrictions on humanitarian agencies operating in northeastern Nigeria is a serious cause for concern,” Ewang said. “The United Nations and government agencies, including the humanitarian affairs ministry, should work to support the efforts of the aid groups to save lives in line with the principles that guide them.”

The Northeast Humanitarian Crisis 

In 2019, at least 600 people were killed during renewed fighting between security forces and Boko Haram factions. The ongoing conflict continues to trigger new displacement, deepening humanitarian needs and protection-related concerns.

In Borno State, the epicenter of the crisis, 23 out of 27 Local Government Areas (LGAs) are in severe need of humanitarian assistance, according to a joint message presented by the humanitarian community, including the United Nations, international nongovernmental organizations, and civil society organizations, to representatives of the Borno State government. By their estimates, 19 LGAs, including Bama, Gwoza, Kala Balge, Moba, and Monguno, are facing “extreme severity” with Kala Balge at the top of the list. Kala Balge is reported to have entered phase four of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which global organizations, including the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have created for food security and humanitarian analysis. Phase four features severe lack of food access with excess mortality, very high and increasing malnutrition, and irreversible loss of livelihood resources.

The four others are reported to be in IPC phase three, featuring highly stressed and critical lack of food access with high and above usual malnutrition and fast depleting livelihood resources. There are reported disease outbreaks and protection issues related to security incidents, including missing children, psychosocial – mental health – distress, abductions or disappearances, restrictions on freedom of movement, and forced displacement.

Aid agencies cannot reach an estimated 1.2 million people, a 30 percent increase since 2018, according to Edward Kallon, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria. In terms of territory, 85 percent of Borno State is considered inaccessible by humanitarian agencies, with four LGAs completely inaccessible. Access to seven others is limited to the perimeter of one or two towns, reachable only by helicopter. Access to rural populations is limited to a few areas around Maiduguri, along some main roads, and in the southern part of the state.

According to UNOCHA, nutrition screenings in reception centers for those arriving from inaccessible areas reveal that the nutrition situation of children in these areas is significantly worse than that of children in areas currently receiving assistance. Kallon has said that preserving humanitarian access to vulnerable communities presents the most critical challenge in the northeast humanitarian response.

The situation is due to several factors, including the way the military has restricted assistance to the garrison towns under their control, the limited ability of organizations to negotiate expanded access, and restrictions humanitarian agencies have placed on themselves following recent targeted attacks, including abductions and executions of humanitarian workers.

Military and Other Requirements Affecting Access

Aid agencies are restricted from operating outside of government-controlled areas based on the Nigerian Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act, 2013, which criminalizes engagement with groups the government lists as terrorist without exempting humanitarian operations. Military authorities have reinforced this ban in verbal communications and with threats of arrests, including at weekly meetings of the Humanitarian Civilian Military Coordination Forum organized by UNOCHA, and more recently at the Civil-Security Cooperation in Humanitarian Interventions in the North-East Workshop organized by the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry in November.

Obtaining military clearance is also a prerequisite for humanitarian cargo and staff movement in the northeast region, while clearance from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), a law enforcement agency charged with investigating and prosecuting financial crimes and military notification is a prerequisite for moving cash for staff salaries and vendors or to finance essential services in remote locations.

Getting clearance takes about five days, with organizations required to submit notifications for approval by the military about a week in advance of travel. For humanitarian cargo and fuel, the process begins by submitting movement notification forms to the UNOCHA Logistics Sector office on Wednesdays and ends the following week on Tuesday with the issuance of travel approval letters from the military.

Movement is also often subjected to unpredictable delays. Human Rights Watch learned that in June 2019, for example, the military suspended all cargo movements out of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, to various communities for about 10 days based on a decision to review the format of the military clearance process. This suspension, which was not communicated to those affected in advance, created a backlog of about 400 shipments of critical, life-saving assistance in about 600 trucks, including food items and shelter materials. 

An aid worker told Human Rights Watch that the process presents a serious bureaucratic impediment made worse by inefficiencies in the system. The aid worker said that notifications sent for approval are sometimes lost, and that approval is sometimes delayed. Another person said that the approval process gave the military control over humanitarian aid against humanitarian principles. “At first we were only required to notify the military of our movements and area of operation, but with this system requiring stamped approvals, it is no longer a ‘notification’ but ‘authorization,’ without which we can’t operate,” he said. 

The military currently mandates using armed escorts for humanitarian cargo and civilian movement along at least three routes from Maiduguri to some major towns, including Ngala, Rann, Banki, Pulka, Gwoza, and South Damboa. Aid workers said that the reasons for designating these routes are not clear and do not appear to be informed by ongoing risk assessments because other major routes with similar or greater security risks are not designated for mandatory military escort.

They also raised concerns that the use of military escorts compromises the aid agencies’ operational independence and run contrary to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Non-Binding Guidelines on the Use of Armed Escorts for Humanitarian Convoys’ principle of last resort. The principle of last resort states that military convoys can only be used where no other option is available to facilitate access and the timely delivery of humanitarian supplies, protection, and personnel required to meet critical humanitarian needs. The principles require agencies to exhaustively explore all other options to reduce risks and ensure timely aid delivery and to determine that they are not viable before using military escorts.

When military escorts are required, they take at least one week on average to arrange, but in some circumstances, such as from Maiduguri to Ngala, it can take three weeks, making it difficult for organizations to respond rapidly to new situations.

In August, UNOCHA and the International Non-Governmental Organizations Forum – a member organization which provides a collective platform for international aid groups to efficiently and effectively coordinate interventions – worked with the EFCC on guidelines to facilitate the movement of cash used in the field for the payment of salaries, humanitarian transfers, and other miscellaneous expenses. This stemmed from persistent accusations by government officials that humanitarian organizations were funding terrorist activities.

Under the guidelines, the aid groups are to submit a Profile and a Cash Movement Notification form for approval by the commission, which is to inform the military when organizations have been approved to move cash to the field. But aid groups still encounter problems due largely to the military’s lack of awareness of the process and failure to respect the guidelines.

The military’s decision to limit the amount of fuel available to each agency has also caused reduced activities or total shutdowns, especially for agencies providing life-saving assistance, including medical care, agencies have told Human Rights Watch. Fuel is needed to run vehicles and generators to power hospitals and medical centers in areas without electricity. The new limit imposed in July 2019 allows only 1,000 liters of fuel each week in each area of operation. The limit had been 10,000 liters in 2017 and 5,000 in 2018. The reduction was made without consultation or notification, allegedly to avoid diversion of fuel to the armed opposition groups.

“We have to put a limit on how often and where our vehicles can go, and when we can turn on our generators and turn them off,” the country director of an aid agency said. “It is a serious administrative burden.”

In June 2019, the Office of the National Security Adviser banned the transportation and use of fertilizers considered “dual use items,” which could be diverted and used by insurgency groups to make explosives. Only certain types of NPK liquid, organic fertilizers, have been approved for use in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. Humanitarian organizations providing livelihood and food security support to affected communities said, though, that military officers have even prevented the movement of liquid and organic fertilizers. In one case, the military seized trucks of approved fertilizers for several months, making it impossible for farmers to use them in the rainy season, when they were needed to cultivate crops.

The military also requires humanitarian organizations to vet local businesses they hire to transport or provide food and other relief items in communities where they work, to ensure they have no ties with armed groups. Aid agencies have introduced internal vetting measures, including proof of mandatory registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission, operation of valid bank accounts with established institutions, and checks on various platforms that gather information on organizations or individuals financing terrorism in Nigeria.

The military has, however, come down hard on organizations for using vendors accused of flouting military regulations and has recently proposed requiring all humanitarian organizations to use only eight military-approved vendors. Agencies told Human Rights Watch that they have concerns about the eight vendors’ capacity to meet their needs, as well as about the military or political control or involvement with the approved vendors.  

Government Blocks Impartial Humanitarian Response

Aid workers said that the military exerts control over where and when humanitarian organizations can deliver aid through their numerous requirements. One aid worker who works on logistics said that the requirements have made the humanitarian response heavily reliant on the military in an unusual way that compromises the aid agencies’ independence and appearance of neutrality.

Organizations currently do not operate in population centers outside of military or government control and are prohibited from negotiating access with armed opposition groups, even if this were feasible. Military officials, including high ranking officers, consistently say that the principles of humanitarian action in war do not apply in the northeast conflict. One humanitarian worker said that, “the army will say openly to us that it is not an armed conflict; it is an insurgency so humanitarian principles do not apply here.”

Another aid group’s country director said that: “operationally, the activities and programs of the agency are not neutral because everything is under the control of the military. The military is imposing a non-neutral response on us because we only go where they want us or approve us to go.”

“Our independence guarantees our safety,” said the advocacy director of one group that provides lifesaving medical assistance. “Any action, whatever it is that indicates humanitarians are on a certain side of the conflict, makes us vulnerable and puts us at risk.”

Aid workers also said that the military’s unsubstantiated accusations that some humanitarian organizations were providing support to Boko Haram creates a negative rhetoric that could alienate workers from the communities they serve and put them at risk in these communities.

“The army does not want to hear of neutrality,” another humanitarian worker said. “Saying to the military that you are neutral is saying that you are supporting Boko Haram.”

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