Aid under attack

Briefing: Boko Haram and humanitarian access

Naomi Cohen

Freelance journalist based in Istanbul

Few aid agencies operate in Nigeria’s volatile Borno State, where a faction of extremist group Boko Haram executed Hauwa Liman, 24, this week. A midwife with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), her killing underscores the dangers faced by humanitarian groups serving civilians in the region.

Liman was one of three local aid workers kidnapped in the town of Rann in March by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of Boko Haram. Another ICRC employee, Saifura Hussaini Khorsa, was killed last month. The third woman, Alice Loksha, a nurse with Unicef, is still being held. During the March raid, at least four other humanitarian workers were killed, causing the UN and Médecins Sans Frontières to withdraw staff.

The ICRC is known for its caution when deploying workers in conflict areas. But the Aid Worker Security Database listed Nigeria as the fifth most dangerous country for humanitarians last year.  

Boko Haram has been launching attacks in the area since 2009, ranging from suicide bombs to raids to kidnapping women and children. The group says its goal is to overthrow a corrupt state and swap Western education for Islamic law. Clashes with the military, whose tactics have drawn criticism, have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.

The region is under tight government control, and aid workers struggle to serve the 7.7 million people in need of assistance in the worst-affected areas. That number continues to grow as the conflict spreads into parts of Cameroon and Niger. Meanwhile, humanitarian access to Boko Haram-controlled areas is still limited as these are largely inaccessible to outsiders.

Across Borno State, local and international organisations are investing in projects for deradicalisation, peace building, and reconciliation - both to help Nigerians heal and to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Boko Haram had previously targeted aid workers before the raid in March and bombed camps for internally displaced people (IDP), which typically have a heavy military presence. But this appears to be the first time ISWAP has executed aid workers after demands for ransom failed to be met.

Speaking after Khorsa’s death last month, Edward Kallon, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, said: “This incident demonstrates the severe challenges that Nigeria continues to face, but will not deter the international community from providing aid to millions of Nigerians caught up in the conflict in the northeast.”

The UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) estimates there are about 3,000 aid workers on the ground in the north-east, most of them Nigerian nationals. Local employees like Liman and Khorsa often face compounded dangers; globally, local staff comprise about 80 percent of aid workers killed, kidnapped, and seriously wounded. In a statement released after the killings, ISWAP said they had targeted the women because they considered them “apostates” for working with non-Muslim aid agencies.

Rann, a remote town near Borno’s state capital Maiduguri, is the site of an accidental airstrike by the Nigerian military, which last year mistook an IDP camp there for a Boko Haram base. Dozens of people were killed.

 

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated: "The UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) has about 3,000 aid workers on the ground." OCHA is the source for an estimate of 3,000 aid workers in the north-east. 

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