Heart of Arts

Do We Have a Humanitarian Crisis?

Toyin Falola

On June 28, 2023, I released a piece, Àdán: Let the Poor Live!

(https://www.premiumtimesng.com/opinion/607118-adan-let-the-poor-live-by-toyin-falola.html) warning about impending crises. The prediction has come to pass. Nigeria now has a humanitarian crisis. It has been the experience lately that anytime the topic of ‘Nigeria’s state of affairs’ comes up, Nigerians, wittingly or unwittingly, brace up for a tale of woes. Unfortunately, this occasion is no exception as it has become impossible to ignore Nigeria’s existential humanitarian crisis, which becomes even more alarming given the allegations of corruption involving successive ministers in the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (FMHDS).

As the reader will come to appreciate, the concern here is not simply about “just another case of official corruption.” Even if it implicates successive ministers of a barely five-year-old humanitarian ministry, this is hardly enough reason for an ‘alarming’ use of “humanitarian crisis,” or is it? Also to be appreciated is why the news of the EFCC’s (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) involvement, as well as the president’s suspension of the embattled minister, might inspire little confidence in the general populace.

The phrase “humanitarian crisis” invokes images of great human suffering: conflict/insecurity, hunger, destitution, disease epidemics, and deaths. In its literal definition, a humanitarian crisis is “an emergency that affects an entire community or a group of people in a region, which involves high levels of mortality or malnutrition, the spread of disease and epidemics and health emergencies.” Humanitarian crises are mainly of two types: natural disasters and human-made disasters or complex emergencies—labeled after their root cause(s). In the case of natural disasters, these take the form of earthquakes, famines, and flooding, while human-made disasters include crime, civil disorder, terrorism, war, disease epidemics etc.

Nigeria has been fortunate enough not to suffer from natural disasters—except for flooding, which can also be blamed on human negligence. However, the same cannot be said of human-made disasters or complex emergencies where the country has met almost every criterion to be declared a humanitarian crisis. To affirm Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis, therefore, three critical areas/indices would here be considered, including conflict/insecurity, access to fundamental needs like food, clean water, safe shelter, medical care, and education, and the commitment of responsible authorities to remedying the situation.

Today, Nigeria is facing more security challenges than it ever has in its history. A look at Nigeria’s (in)security situation reveals over a decade and a half of unabated insurgency/terror attacks, incurring huge loss of lives and properties all over the country, particularly in the northeast. Until recently (about eight or so years ago), it was the north-east that bore the brunt of Nigeria’s insecurity as Boko Haram insurgents wreaked havoc on the inhabitants of the region, recording thousands of deaths with millions displaced in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. In fact, as of the end of 2022, Nigeria had 3.9 million IDPs, with 1.9 million living in long-term displacement in the north-east. Abuja, the national capital, alone has four IDP camps at Lugbe, Area One, New Kuchingoro, Kuje and Wassa. To compound this crisis is the noticeable collapse in the country’s security architecture symbolized by the resurgence in armed militancy, growing cases of kidnapping for ransom, illegal mining and mineral theft, farmer-herder clashes and many other unexplained (‘‘unknown’’) gunmen attacks on communities (the 2023 Christmas-day attack on communities in Jos, Plateau State being the latest case in point) and places of worship. Together, these have presented Nigeria as some sort of theatre of massacres.

Turning over to the issue of access to fundamental needs like food, clean water, safe shelter, medical care and education, the experience in Nigeria replicates a country involved in open conflict. In the matter of access to food, Nigeria was (in 2022) ranked 107th out of 113th nations of the world by the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), suggesting that it accounted for about 12.9% of the global population living in ‘‘extreme’’ poverty. In the following year (2023), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) projected that 25 million Nigerians—the equivalent of eight smaller African countries—would be at risk of food insecurity. Regarding access to clean drinking water, World Bank estimates put 70 million Nigerians out of reach of clean drinking water and another 114 million lacking access to sanitation. In the case of access to safe shelter, the International Human Rights Commission (IHRC) said in 2023 that the number of Nigerians lacking access to decent and affordable housing was 28 million, a figure the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN) corroborated. When it comes to education, beyond the issues of underfunding, which has undermined the nation’s tertiary institutions, the number of schoolchildren in Nigeria was 20 million in 2023.

The crisis in Nigeria’s health sector gets special focus here as one subject that hardly gets the attention it requires, prompting the belief that all is well. The first and most easily noticeable problem with Nigeria’s health sector is its underdeveloped infrastructure and shortage of medical staff, both of which limit access to proper medical care to the rich who usually seek it abroad in Europe (successive Nigerian presidents included). The fallout from this, apart from the number of avoidable deaths that go unrecorded or even acknowledged, is the growing number of helpless Nigerians on the internet pleading for public intervention in a slew of health emergencies. Second is the existing malaria epidemic, which hardly gets any coverage.  Nigeria accounts for 27% of malaria cases in the world. In 2021 alone, 68 million cases of malaria and 194 thousand deaths from the disease were recorded in Nigeria, where the average Nigerian suffers from malaria at least twice to three times yearly. A third and very critical aspect of Nigeria’s health sector deficit is recorded in its maternal mortality ratio, where the country ranks third with1063 deaths per 100 000 live births.

For those at the receiving end of Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis, it has been a case of self-help or hopelessness for the many without means. In the area of security, thousands of Nigerians yet lose their lives yearly because of issues ranging from terror attacks to bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom. As if this wasn’t enough burden for the average Nigerian to bear, the economic impact from insecurity was further compounded by the removal of energy and other subsidies without any cushioning measures, either in the form of palliatives or a pay rise. In the health sector, where there is very little to no subsidized healthcare and health insurance, many Nigerians die from treatable ailments. Access to food and other necessities has also become a huge task, given high unemployment and inflation rates that are further exacerbated by the departure of many foreign employers (companies) owing to an impossible economic environment. As it stands today, many Nigerians go to bed hungry. Hence, it is against the backdrop of this ongoing humanitarian crisis that we must view the implications of theft or misappropriation of meager funds earmarked for Nigeria’s humanitarian needs.

Indeed, the allegations of misappropriation of billions of naira—582 million, 44billion and 37.1 billion, respectively—meant for the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs by the trio of Betta Edu, Halima Shehu and Sadiya Umar Farouk are worthy of the outcry which greeted its revelation. However, this should not, in any way, be misconstrued to be the usual public outcry against theft by the same public officials meant to safeguard the interest of the Nigerian masses as the implications run deeper. As explained above, Nigeria is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Therefore, the conduct of these public officials—like that of their counterparts in other ministries and government agencies yet to come under scrutiny—either betrays a lack of knowledge of this reality and its implications or proves they just don’t care, which is the conclusion many an average Nigerian is arriving at. This is why the news of a mere suspension of the culprits and the promise of investigation for retrieval of funds by the government and its anti-graft agencies does little to assuage the anger and disappointment of the Nigerian masses.

To appease the anger of the Nigerian masses and restore some confidence in the government of the day therefore, the president must do more to show that it is on the side of the people and that it will not be business as usual for corrupt public officials. Achieving this feat will not only require making an example of those involved in stealing Nigeria’s commonwealth—both in the immediate past and present dispensations—but, perhaps even more importantly, accepting that we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands which requires a practical and discernible plan that would resolve the challenges in these critical sectors and bring succor to the Nigerian people. Anything less will be construed as playing to the gallery.

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