Nigerian officials have been accused of stealing food from desperate people who are living in camps after fleeing the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Camp residents, who fled their homes and have been living under flimsy shelters for years, have resorted to angry protests against “starvation”. They say trucks full of food have gone missing, and that government officials are diverting emergency food relief to their own homes.
“In the night they load up vehicles with food and take it away to their houses,” said one man, who was shot by Boko Haram before finding his way to one of the camps in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, a year ago. “But I can’t complain. [A local official] said that if I complain he will tell soldiers that I am a member of Boko Haram and they will kill me.”
The murder, rape, kidnapping and pillaging that the extremist group Boko Haram has unleashed in north-eastern Nigeria since 2009 has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes.
Nearly 4.5 million are urgently in need of food in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, of whom some 65,000 people have so little to eat that they have beenclassed as being in famine, the most extreme phase of food insecurity.
The country is on the cusp of “a famine unlike any we have seen anywhere”, Toby Lanzer, the UN’s assistant secretary general, said last week.
With nothing but rainwater to drink, “living conditions in this camp have been no different to being dead”, said leather trader Mohammadu Abacha, 81, a resident of Bakassi camp in Maiduguri.
Another resident, Gana Zannah, said: “There is no food. There are people in there who have resorted to begging to survive. There are others who just cook leaves and eat and sleep, for two weeks now.”
There have been mounting protests in recent weeks. According to local media reports, last week 6,500 people from one of the shelters, known as Arabic College camp, took to the streets saying they been given so little food that their children had died. Two weeks ago, several hundred angry protesters blocked roads and attacked cars.
Occasionally, small bags of semolina and stock cubes are distributed, protesters said, but not nearly enough to feed the many widows and children who make up the majority of the camps’ population.
Haruna Musa, a fish trader from Baga, said that as soon as Satomi Ahmad was appointed chair of the emergency effort in Borno, last September, “things went bad”. Musa said that, initially, the quality and quantity of food deteriorated – they often went without food for days, and when it was given out it was “as poor as a dog’s food”. Then things got worse.
“Now the camp officials divert food meant for us to their houses,” Musa said. “The officials collaborate with leaders in the camp to divert the food – they will give them money. Recently, we caught one of the camp officials with bags of rice in a vehicle trying to drive out of the camp. Pictures were taken and we reported it to the government, but nothing has been done. They are still stealing our food.” Some protesters have been expelled from the camps for making such accusations.
Hajiya Gana Adamu, a mother of eight, protested after the 18,000 naira (£43) she was given to feed her family for a month ran out after 11 days.
Her family were well-off farmers in Bama. But two years ago they were threatened by Boko Haram members as they harvested their crops. Adamu gathered her family and fled, and later heard that the family house had been burned down and their cattle slaughtered.
At first her family was treated well in the camp, she said, but then rations began to dry up and officials began giving out small amounts of cash rather than food.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, some 130,000 are living in Maiduguri’s 13 camps for displaced people. The town’s population, which was 1 million, has grown to 2.5 million, according to a conservative estimate by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as so many displaced people are living among the local community.
Conditions for people living outside the camps may be even worse. The government does nothing to help the 1.4 million internally displaced people who are not living in shelters, and most aid agencies are also focused on the camps.
MSF has two health centres in Maiduguri, and most of the people who go there are internal refugees from outside the camps. More than half of the children that they see are malnourished.
For months, MSF has been warning that hundreds of thousands of Nigerians could die of starvation, but so far the UN has only managed to raise 39% of the $279m [£210m] it says is needed to stem the crisis.
Even as the army claims to have made gains against Boko Haram, people continue to flee their homes.
Fatimah Mohammed was caught by members of Boko Haram two years ago in Bama. She was imprisoned with 20 other women, and the militants refused to give them any water to drink because, Mohammed said, “We [are] wives of infidels and we can go and die.”
She managed to escape with her four-year-old daughter, and walked for 18 hours to reach Maiduguri, where she found the rest of her family. The conditions in her camp were so bad, and the money she was given was so little to live on, that Mohammed said she would rather go back to Bama.
“If the government cannot take care of us, they should take us back to our town. It’s better to just face Boko Haram in our homes and die than suffer here like this,” she said.