In spite of the best efforts of government, persons displaced from their homes by Boko Haram insurgency suffer hunger and other deprivations in IDP camps in the North East
By Samuel Malik
Zainab Yusuf (not real name) had just given birth at the Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, camp inside the Arabic Teachers College, ATC, in Maiduguri, Borno State capital. But the poor woman was in an embarrassing situation that nursing mothers hardly ever find themselves. She could not fulfil the first duty of motherhood which is to feed her new baby because she had no milk in her breast.
Looking at the new mother, she too looked greatly in need of a good meal. At about noon when this reporter met her, a visibly hungry looking Yusuf was yet to eat breakfast and was forced to feed on gruel, popularly known as kunu in Hausa.
For her new baby, Yusuf had to resort to feeding her with powdered milk, sold for less than N50, even though the mother knew her baby was too young for such a meal.
“I could not watch him cry because of hunger, so I had to give him the milk,” she said. By now, the little baby was fast asleep in his makeshift bed – a wrapper spread over an old mat – under a mosquito net while the mother drank from her pot of gruel under the watchful eyes of her other roommates.
At the camp, there is no facility for maternity or delivery services, so Yusuf was delivered of the baby the traditional way, helped by other women. In fact, it was gathered that the camp secretary was not even away that she had delivered a baby. So, no provisions were made for the mother or the baby.
Yusuf and her child are not the only ones who suffer hunger in IDP camps in the Boko Haram ravaged North east. Feeding is one of the major challenges discovered in the camps as the government tried to cope with providing for an ever increasing number of displaced persons.
At all the camps visited in two states of Borno and Yobe, as a standard, displaced persons eat only twice a day, with breakfast not available before 11am. And the diet is boringly repetitive – rice mixed with oil, salt and seasoning. Occasionally, however, beans is added.
“It is rice in the morning and rice in the evening,” Umaru Yaga, a camp secretary at the ATC IDP camp, told our reporter, adding that although the people have no choice, they would prefer a more balanced diet. “The only difference is that some days there is beans in the rice, which is better.”
Monday, July 29, 2015, was one of the days when the IDPs were fortunate to enjoy the luxury of beans in their rice. According to them, that day’s food was the best they had been served for some time, not only because of the beans but also the vegetable oil used in cooking the food.
“We prefer vegetable oil because it does not taste like the palm oil they most times use, which is usually not properly fried or cooked,” one of the women said.
Despite the delay in getting breakfast, when the food eventually arrives, it is severely inadequate and sometimes does not go round. Our reporter witnessed the sharing of food at one of the women’s hostels at the ATC camp. This particular camp is made up of sub camps which take care of IDPs from different local governments. The sub camps are made up of hostels, which in turn are made up of blocks of living quarters (rooms) for the displaced persons.
Food was delivered to each block in a basin, which was then dished into smaller containers and plates belonging to members of that block. Each plate or container of food belonged to a minimum of four persons, while a small aluminium pot was said to serve 15 people.
The woman tasked with sharing the food said the basin of food was meant for 174 people.
“This is the basin the food was brought in and it was barely full,” she said, pointing to a nearby steel container. While the food was shared, a woman from a different block came to see if she could get some food for her child. According to her, those in her block were not lucky enough to get food that morning.
“We were told that food was finished and you can hear children crying because they are hungry,” she explained. But nobody even listened to her. The food was not even enough for members of the block to which he had come to beg.
Another day, at the Dalori camp, along Bama road in Maiduguri, by 1pm when the reporter visited, they were yet to eat breakfast. A camp official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said sometimes they eat their first meal of the day around 3.00 pm and even so, the food is hardly enough.
“Those buckets you see there are used in serving food and 12 people share a half full bucket,” the official said.
“They eat twice a day and it is always rice, sometimes mixed with beans, like today.”
A cook at the kitchen said it is very challenging to prepare food in the camp because it is difficult to have everything required in place at the same time.
“It is either there is no firewood or there is no water. When one is available, the other will be missing and that is why there is always delay in preparing the food,” she explained before breaking into laughter when asked if there was meat or fish in the food.
“We cannot remember when last we ate meat,” one of her colleagues said.
The only source of protein available to the IDPs is beans and this is usually in small quantity. Fish and meat, they said, were luxuries they could only dream of. According to them, the last time they ate meat was Eidel-Fitr, when the state governor, Kashim Shettima, gave them two cows. “Throughout Ramadan, we did not eat fish or meat,” one displaced person said.
The food crisis in refugee camps, it appears, is not limited to Borno State as visits to the two IDP camps in Adamawa State, both in Yola, the capital, showed that the displaced persons are also fed daily with rice. Although the movement of people was more restrictive in the IDP camps in Yola, our reporter still managed to access the camps and observe conditions there.
Although no feeding went on during these visits, our reporter accessed the kitchen of one of the camps where he saw women cooking rice. One of the women told him that the only meal served in the camp was rice and that there had hardly ever been provisions made for meat or fish.
Camp officials accused of taking relief items out of camps at night
In Borno State, our findings revealed that NEMA delivers food items and other relief materials directly to the state government through a committee on IDPs set up by the government.
“Most items are brought directly to the state government and when they are brought, we have stores where they are taken to. And for each of the camps, the committee that is in charge under the deputy governor knows the total number of bags of food items that are required for each of the camps,” Isa Gusau, spokesperson to Governor Kashim Shettima, said.
The committee, first headed by the late deputy governor, Zannah Umar Mustapha, has the responsibility to ensure that the relief items received get to the IDPs camps based on their needs. At the camps, there are also stores where the items approved by the committee are stored, from where the IDPs are meant to get them.
According to Gusau, the committee knows the precise quantity of food needed in each camp over a period. This means that the committee members have to visit the camps and interact with the people to find out their needs.
However, the IDPs say the committee no longer goes to the camps because it (committee) did not like the way they complained.
“They say we complain a lot, so they stopped coming to the camps. We are tired of complaining,” Yaga explained.
The IDPs themselves see different relief items delivered to their camps but that is where it all ends. “We do not have access to the stores because the food items are given to us by the officials in charge of the stores,” a cook said.
Our reporter observed a truck belonging to the Borno State Emergency Management Agency, BOSEMA, offloading food items in one of the camps, including cartons of tomato paste and fish, two particular items one does not find in the IDPs food. Inside the store, there were bags of rice, sugar, cartons of vegetable oil, several jerry cans of palm oil, and cartons of noodles.
Despite these assorted food items, for the two days our reporter visited the camp, rice was the only food the people ate and when the reporter tasted it, there was just salt and seasoning in addition to the vegetable oil used in cooking it.
When confronted with this development, NEMA’s North east coordinator, Mohammed Kanar, told out reporter that his agency cannot be held responsible if these items are not given to the people, even though it is NEMA’s responsibility to supervise how the people are fed.
“We have a MoU with the Borno State government and we deliver all the food – rice, beans, maize, guinea corn. We do our part 100 per cent. So, it is their duty to deliver the food (to the IDPs),” he said.
Kanar added that fish is delivered on a monthly basis to the camps and wondered why the IDPs are not getting it. “I am sure there must be some problem somewhere but I do not know exactly. Every month we give them 900 cartons of fish. We have delivered 900 for last month (July) and as I speak to you we are sorting another 900 cartons to be delivered.”
A volunteer in a camp in Borno State told the icirnigeria.org in confidence that those in charge of the stores should be held responsible because they connive with other camp officials to gradually move these items out of the camps.
“They do not take the items out in large quantities so as not to raise suspicion. What happens is that when someone is leaving the camp at the close of work, they tell one or two of the boys in the store to put a carton of bottle water, noodles or any other item in their vehicle,” the volunteer said.
“It is not as if they pack everything in a truck and drive out of the camp in the full glare of people.”
“If the trunks of officials’ cars are inspected, especially in the evening when they are going home, you will be amazed what will be inside,” the official said before querying, “Why let the people see these items brought into the camps if you know you won’t give them?”
A government official, who did want his name mentioned, said earlier this year that he was at the BOSEMA offices and was shocked to see officials sharing items donated to the IDPs, including toys for children.
“You ought to see how they shamelessly behaved. They were so excited to get the items, including children’s toys,” the official said.
The Borno state government denies allegations of diversion.
While admitting that there are challenges, Gusau said he had never heard of diversion of relief items and said the allegations are “basically assumptions.”
In another twist, Gusau said someone once brought to his attention a list of alleged beneficiaries of diverted food items but after investigations it was discovered that most of the suspects were people that the governor said food items should be given to them because they had displaced persons staying with them.
But Gusau admitted that the committee on IDPs was constituted following the reports of spies who uncovered aberrations perpetrated in the camps when they were sent by the governor.
“The governor constituted a team of spies made up of some senior special assistants and assigned to them what we call special duties. One of these duties was to spy on certain things and give him certain information. So, I think there was a time some of these special assistants brought a certain report to him about developments in one of the camps and then the governor sent some people to other camps and I think about four camps were discovered to have this problem and that was why the governor reconstituted the committee and brought the deputy governor to supervise it,” he explained.
But the Borno State governor himself gave an indication that he had received reports of diversion of materials meant to IDPs on Wednesday when he threatened to sack any public officer caught diverting materials meant for IDPs.
The governor, who gave the warning in Maiduguri while swearing in 21 newly appointed commissioners and 27 local government caretaker chairmen, added that henceforth security agents, including the military, will be deployed to monitor distribution of items to the IDPs and report back to him.
“Let me warn all of you, I will not even think twice in removing any chairman and commissioner found wanting in the discharge of his duties. If anybody, be it a commissioner, local government chairman or member of the state House of Assembly or any government official tampers with foodstuff meant for the poor, he will incur the full wrath of the law,” Shettima said.
In Yola, Turai Kadir, project coordinator for Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment, CWAE, said a guard told her camp officials take items from the IDPs camps at night. “He (the guard) told me that people running the camps take these things at night.”
One of the security agents at one of the camps, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the icirnigeria.org that many officials leave the camp at night and that their vehicles are never searched. This is in spite of the fact that closing time for camp officials is 5.00 pm.
“We do not see any need to check their vehicles because they are in charge of the camps,” the security agent said when asked if the vehicles were inspected.
Inside the Malkohi camp store, our reporter saw different bags and brands of rice and other grains, cartons of bottled water, mattresses, sanitary pads, diapers, detergents, etc. Most of these items were from companies like Dangote, Honeywell, Faro, BUA, Indomie, Vitafoam etc.
The Vitafoam mattresses, which are of superior quality, were separated from other mattresses and it was obvious that these were not given to the IDPs. Blankets were seen spread over some, indicating that camp officials lay on them. The reporter saw children bringing into the store mattresses used by the refugees deported from Cameroon, who had since returned to Borno State, and none was a Vitafoam product.
While our reporter was at the camp, he observed as camp officials gave out five cartons of bottled water to security agents – police and army personnel got two cartons each while the civil defence officers got one.
This confirmed what Kadir said about IDPs drinking water from the tap while empty water bottles are seen all over the camp.
“We are yet to learn how to give good services to human beings,” Kadir complained. She went on: “There are enough grains to nourish the people. They can mix corn with groundnut and soya beans to make gruel for the people in the morning, which is good for a malnourished person, but they prefer to give them jollof rice on daily basis.”
Hygiene and medical condition
One positive thing observed in many of the camps visited is the availability of portable water and toilet facilities provided by government with help from NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, though the boreholes require electricity to pump water. This is no problem, though, as fuel is provided by camp officials.
However, the sanitary condition in some of the rooms where the IDPs sleep is really bad. The whiff coming out of the rooms is so terrible that a visitor is readily discouraged from going in. Children and young girls share rooms with older women and this makes the rooms more crowded than the men’s.
In one room visited, over 50 women and children were said to sleep there. In a hall converted to a room, 300 people were said to sleep inside, including children.
Women and their children also have to contend with mosquitos because of a lack of mosquito nets.
“Our major problem after food is mosquito nets for women and children and even when you have the nets, there are no places to tie them because they sleep on the floor,” Ahmadu Umaru, an IDP and a businessman, said, adding that he and his family had spent more than N50, 000 to treat malaria.
The IDPs also complain of lack of drugs at camps clinics, saying the only drugs they get is paracetamol.
“No matter you complaints, all you get is paracetamol and when we go to hospitals in the town, they ask for money,” one woman explained.
This explains why the IDPs sell relief items given to them and when they do not have items to sell, they improvise, according to Yaga, by drying the food they are served, especially when it is poorly cooked, as it is most times, sell it in the market and use the money to meet some of their needs.
NEMA is aware that IDPs sell relief items to meet some pressing needs, but the agency turns a blind eye.
“When someone does not have money, it is what they have that they use to raise some money to meet their special needs. So, sometimes they sell these things (but) we don’t mention it and when they need it, we give them again, even though we do not give room for items to be sold,” Mohammed Kanar said.
The inadequacy of clinics in the camps means some cases have to be taken to hospitals outside the camps.
When a nine years old girl, Hafsatu Adamu, was raped at the NYSC IDPs camp in July by 35 years old Dada Bakura, also a displaced person, she had to be rushed to a hospital outside the camp in spite of how late at night it was.
For other vulnerable IDPs, including children, who need specialist attention, the camps have no provision for them
There was a traumatised boy of about seven year, who camp officials said was found wandering around the camp. The boy could not speak and looked confused, refusing to associate with people.
According to the camp chairman named Khalid, the boy was taken to other camps to see if anyone recognised him but no one did, so he was returned to the NYSC camp. It is believed that the boy might have witnessed something gruesome, which affected his mind, though he is now gradually opening up.
The icirnigeria.org found out that no form of treatment or counselling was given to the boy.
There was also Ali Mai Gadi, an 80 year old man from Gwoza, who our reporter found in a very bad state. He was so weak that he found it difficult to sit straight at the ATC camp. Having survived 18 months with Boko Haram members, who invaded his village in Gwoza, Ali has seen it all. He depends on a little boy to bring him food daily at the camp and when the boy is unavailable, he either stays hungry or feeds on anything he can find, including food from several days before.
When the reporter met him, he had not eaten for almost a day because he could not find the little boy. By his side was a half – cut jerry can with rice inside, food from the previous day, which was left uncovered with flies all over it. Merely looking at it, the reporter nearly vomited.
“This is the food I will eat today,” the old man said.
His present situation, he said, reminded him of his time with the dreaded sect, when he had to rely on his grandniece, who was married to one of them, for food.
“They said they would not give me food but I told them I could not care less because there was no difference between being dead and alive in that condition, having lost everything. I told them they could kill me if they chose to,” he explained.
When the military liberated Gwoza and rescued Ali, he had a really good time because the soldiers took care of him for 17 days before he was brought to the camp.
“They gave me food, water and four injections but after 17 days they got tired of taking care of me because of their movement, so I was brought here,” he said, adding that since coming to the camp, he had neither been given medical attention nor any form of counselling.
Pretence by government officials
According to the Borno State coordinator of Women in the New Nigeria and Youth Empowerment Initiative, WINN, Lucy Yunana, the only time the IDPs get a good treat is when a dignitary visits because officials do everything possible to prevent the dignitary from seeing the real condition of the people.
“Once a dignitary is scheduled to visit, you see how they put everything in order but immediately the visit is over, it is back to the status quo,” she told our reporter after donating clothes and other non-food items to some nursing mothers at the ATC camp.
Few days after Vice President Yemi Osinbajo visited displaced persons camps in Maiduguri, pictures emerged from the camps showing the poor food given to the people and this prompted a pro-democracy campaigner and social media activist, Kayode Ogundamisi, to write an open letter on behalf of some whistle blowers in the camps, who felt the Vice President was not told the truth.
“The food provided is sadly insufficient and does not meet the requirements for proper growth and development of young children or the sustenance of adults,” Ogundamisi said in the letter.
The Vice President responded by assuring that the federal government was determined to solve the problem. “President Muhammadu Buhari is deeply concerned about the IDPs and the living conditions in their camps,” Laolu Akande, spokesperson to the Vice President, said, adding, “Restoring the dignity and material wellbeing of these citizens is a key objective of the Buhari presidency.”
Local NGOs worried while journalists are denied free access
Locally based nongovernmental organisations have continued to raise concern about the poor feeding and hygiene of IDPs and the nonchalance displayed by officials.
Thus, when the NGOs take items to the camps, rather than allow them to be taken to the stores, they prefer to distribute them directly to the displaced persons.
“Why should the items be taken to the store when the people they are meant for need them?” Kadir said, adding that her organisation gives items directly to displaced persons in Yola.
In Maiduguri, Fatima Kyari, whose organisation, Likeminds Project, focuses on providing relief materials to displaced persons in the host communities, said when she heard of the plight of the IDPs in camps, she had to break tradition to bring items to them.
“Our focus is the host communities but when I heard about what the IDPs go through in the camps, I had to personally come to make sure we bring relief materials to them,” Kyari said while monitoring the distribution of flip-flops and blankets to children at the Dalori camp, which reportedly contains 17, 000 IDPs. “Yesterday we donated food items given to us by Dangote Foundation to 2, 000 households.”
Journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to get access to the IDPs camps because officials are determined to ensure that whatever happens in the camps does not get out.
In Maiduguri, journalists are not allowed to enter the camps unless they have “full authorization”.
Recently, the Buhari Support Organisation in Borno state described as “unfortunate” the banning of journalists from the camps when it donated non-food items to IDPs. The group had taken with it some journalists when it donated items in some of the camps but the journalists had to wait outside while members of the group went in.
Speaking to the journalists after the donation, the group expressed its surprise to realise that the displaced persons’ problems go beyond non-food items.
“We brought these cartons of soaps, detergents and pomades to the IDPs because we have been receiving complaints on poor hygiene in the camps, but when we got here we found out that there is even serious problems in the form of poor feeding of the IDPs,” Muhammed Nuhu Idris, BOS director of finance, said.
“Most of them lamented barely eating once in a day. Many said they were being denied freedom to move out to the town to seek for means of sustenance.”
In Yola, journalists are not allowed free movement in the camps without at least one NEMA official accompanying them and they are prevented from taking pictures or privately speaking to IDPs. There was surprisingly a military officer of the rank of lieutenant, who was said to be the head of security at the NYSC camp in Yola, unlike other camps visited.
According to Kadir, the IDPs should take it upon themselves to ensure that items are not taken out of the camps by officials. “They are sometimes at fault. Why can’t they close the gates and prevent these people from taking their materials out?” she queried.
But Yunana believes the only way out is for visits by top government officials and others to be made unannounced as that would catch officials off-guard.
“When they are coming they should not let the camp officials know. From the airport, they should proceed straight to the camps and see for themselves how the people live,” she said.