Families driven out of villages, farmers unable to tend crops, food stocks of entire communities raided: Boko Haram’s impact on the people of Western and Central Africa lingers long after the rape and slaughter.
More than 5.5 million people living in conflict areas in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, nearly half of whom have been displaced due to ongoing attacks by the Islamist militant group, don’t have enough to eat or else lack access to nutritious foods, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA.
“These are people who have seen guys with guns show up in their villages and kill their [families], or have had their villages torched and then they’ve fled,” Toby Lanzer, OCHA’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, told IRIN. “The impact has been devastating. They have no food. They’ve lost their livelihoods. They’ve been thrust out of their villages… and can’t get back to harvest.”
An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced in the region due to Boko Haram since May 2013. For most, it is an extremely challenging road back to self-sufficiency.
From ‘breadwinner’ to ‘beggar’
Some 234,000 people have returned to Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa State during the past four months, following the government‘s recent push for the displaced to go home.
For many, there is nothing to return to. Houses have been destroyed, shops looted, schools burnt and fields lie barren.
Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old farmer, recently returned to his village in northern Adamawa, only to find himself unemployed and doing menial jobs to survive. His field has been burnt to the ground and he has no access to seeds, tools or fertilisers to rebuild his life. Nor has he any money.
The loss of all these assets has had a severe impact on Mohamed’s self-esteem, especially as he can no longer provide for his family.
“We cannot afford to buy food from the market and we [now must] depend on the kindness of strangers to survive,” he told IRIN. “I was the breadwinner. Now I have become a beggar.”
Humanitarians warn that the trail of destruction left by Boko Haram, marked pervasive fear and insecurity, are hampering the efforts of returnees to rebuild their lives. Main roads are the targets of frequent attacks, obstructing markets, and supply and trade routes.
“This means that the resumption of livelihoods in areas of return has been stalled,” Kasper Engborg, head of OCHA’s Nigeria office, told IRIN.
According to Oxfam’s country director in Nigeria, Jan Rogge: “Our assessments indicate that 90 percent of the displaced across all the three (affected) states have lost all assets they possessed before the insurgency. Currently, only 10 percent of the respondents have indicated they possess some assets such as motorcycles, mobile phones, radios and jewellery, and mainly depend on their relatives and friends.”
Nothing to eat
While small villages in the countryside are most affected by the conflict, a recent assessment by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said people in towns and cities also had little or no access to land and are forced to buy their own food. For the most vulnerable, who cannot afford rising market prices, there are few options but to seek help from friends, the wider community, or beg.
Nigeria has been the worst hit. Some 2.1 million people have been forced to flee their homes and 4.6 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to OCHA.
“The ongoing insecurity in the northeast means that farmers cannot access their fields to plant and harvest crops,” Engborg said. “Food and productive assets have been lost due to attacks and displacement, and raids on farms for food by Boko Haram insurgents are still ongoing.
“This is a situation that is not just affecting the displaced people, but the whole population of northeast Nigeria. Host communities in particular are seeing their vulnerability to food insecurity increasing.”
Displaced families have already exhausted their own resources and with thousands of farmers not able to grow staple crops, the main harvest season that begins in October will be below average for the third consecutive year, FEWS NET says.
As a result, much of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states could face a severe food crisis, while some areas, including Maiduguri, will experience emergency (Phase 4) acute food insecurity.
Cecile Barriere, deputy country director of Action Against Hunger, warned: “If we don’t do anything, the needs are going to be massive.”
Not just Nigeria
As Nigerians flee and Boko Haram increasingly widens its campaign across the border, Chad, Niger and Cameroon have also been affected.
In Cameroon’s Far North Region, for example, more than one in three people are food insecure and one in 10 are severely food insecure, according to the UN’s World Food Programme reports. This means they often have insufficient food and certainly lack nutrition in their daily diet. OCHA says an estimated 545,000 people overall are food insecure in the region, a number that is three times higher than in 2013.
“Crop failure is expected this year as a result of the widespread insecurity,” Elvira Pruscini, WFP’s deputy country director in Cameroon, told IRIN. “Many of these farmers have been pushed away from the border and no longer have access to their land and livelihood means.”
In Chad, where some 140,000 people are in need of food aid, according to the WFP, the price of millet, a key part of the staple diet, has risen by as much as 20 percent compared to the five-year average. This is attributed to cross-border trade disruptions with Nigeria due to Boko Haram.
“There are issues with border closures, which means no free movement,” said WFP’s programme advisor in Chad, Nitesh Patel. “Small-scale agriculture for host populations has been disturbed and now [farming] activities won’t be able to continue until the next harvest season.”
Additionally, for those displaced Chadians who normally depend on fishing, moving inland away from the lake has meant a loss of their traditional livelihoods.
In Niger’s Diffa Region, where the majority of the country’s Boko Haram refugees have settled, an estimated 340,000 people are now going hungry.
The effect on malnutrition is already being seen across the region, with global acute malnutrition rates exceeding 12 percent in Cameroon, according to UNICEF, and 22 percent in Chad, according to the WFP.
“The situation is quite bleak, as whole populations have been affected,” Patel told IRIN. “The biggest challenge right now is having enough funds to respond to all those in desperate need and provide assistance.”