How can the home of peace be restored? Humanitarian action vis-à-vis a retreating state and the protection of civilians in North East Nigeria

Author: Rebekka Goeke
Date: 20. April 2021


In 2021, the conflict in the North East of Nigeria entered its eleventh year and the country is making ever more gruesome headlines. The infamous non-state armed group Boko Haram and its splinter factions have stepped up their attacks against civilians and humanitarians in the North East, effectively controlling large parts of the region and notably targeting humanitarian workers and safe zones, with the latest attack onthe humanitarian hub in Damasak being the fourth this year.

Yet, there is no end in sight for the bloody conflict between the Nigerian government and armed groups that has already cost more than 40,000 lives. Civilians in the North-East find themselves more exposed to violence and humanitarians face the dilemma of whether to stay or leave. In either scenario, there is a need to hold the state accountable to ensure the protection of human rights and adherence with international humanitarian law (IHL). A glimpse of hope could be the recent attention by the International Criminal Court towards the crisis which might help provide the much needed impetus for national action.

A decade of conflict in the Lake Chad Basin

Fighting between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram has been going on since 2009, when Boko Haram started to gain foothold in Maiduguri, the regional capital of Borno state which still carries the motto “home of peace”, written on every licence plate registered. However, Boko Haram and its splinter factions’ extremist beliefs and the continuing armed conflict has put an estimated 8.7 Million people in the North East in need of humanitarian assistance today.

The crisis came to the attention of the general public following the abduction of 274 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April 2014. Western support in the form of humanitarian assistance soon followed. Coordinated by UN OCHA, Clusters were quickly activated and the first Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for the North East was published in 2016. With already high levels of abductions, forced recruitment, slavery, and trafficking, the crisis was swiftly framed as a protection crisis – putting civilians at risk of physical harm and “flagrant human rights violations”. This situation had left more than 3 Mio. people “trapped” in inaccessible areas at the time, following the assessment of the HNO of 2016.

In search of protection: the super camp strategy

This figure of people in hard-to-reach areas has been reduced to an estimated 1 Million people today. Those stuck in the area are forced to work in the war economy. Those who make it out soon find themselves in densely crowded camps which oftentimes function at the same time as humanitarian hubs protected by national security forces. Here, IDPs can access humanitarian services but hardly find any opportunity to avoid becoming aid dependent or to leave the camps again safely.

Sheltering in these so-called “super camps” thus entails other risks. Many IDPs and, increasingly, host communities in the area are relying heavily on external aid to serve their daily needs. However, this barely suffices and leaves individuals and families frequently without much choice than to stroll out of the protected areas to find firewood or harvest outside the camps where they are exposed to attacks. The only practical alternative to staying in the camps, voluntary returns organised by the regional government, has turned out to be rather limited. These tend to be politically motivated returns without adequate protection or accessible infrastructure into areas controlled by non-state armed groups.

Not taking over responsibility: an unable or unwilling state

Protection of IDPs in the ongoing conflict therefore does not seem to be the priority of the entity foremost responsible for its citizens’ safety: the Nigerian state. Despite the declarations by sitting President Muhammadu Buhari that Boko Haram was “technically defeated” in 2015 and again “substantially defeated” in 2019, little progress has been made to ensure safety for civilians and reinstall peace in the region.

Rather, the super camp strategy has been criticised as a fig leaf to obscure the Nigerian Army’s inability to defend critical infrastructure and military bases over the vast territory of the North East. Arguably, military successes in the past were largely possible thanks to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a unit composed not only of Nigerian security forces, but also soldiers from neighbouring countries. Chadian Forces, for example, constitute an integral part of the MNJTF and have provided safety to entire Nigerian communities in the North East. In addition, complaints from within the military about inadequate conditions are being voiced time and again.

On humanitarian issues, the state similarly shifted responsibility to address the needs of millions of people to the humanitarian actors. Working jointly with the national authorities, the survival and daily needs of the people affected by the conflict are largely met by multilateral donor organizations, UN agencies and programmes, the International Committee of the Red Cross, international NGOs, and local initiatives.

Unlike humanitarians, citizens cannot evacuate

However, the armed groups are gaining ground by destroying civilian infrastructure, looting military bases, and increasingly also targeting humanitarian activities and aid workers. The years 2019 and 2020 have seen peaks in violence against aid workers, with more than 15 humanitarians losing their lives and putting local aid workers at the highest risk of physical harm. Garrison towns like Damasak, Ngala, Dikwa, or Monguno with protected camps and humanitarian hubs have been attacked repeatedly in the first few months of 2021. The increase in violence has forced several organizations, including the UN, to withdraw their staff from the humanitarian hubs and field offices, eventually bringing life-saving activities to a halt.

With humanitarians on the retreat from the areas with the severest humanitarian needs, the population will be left even more exposed to violence and without a neutral observer of the humanitarian conditions in the region. Without the state being able to fill in for protection and humanitarian support, and armed groups like the Islamic State in West Africa Province (IWASP)  ready to step in, this situation is likely to spiral into yet another decade of deprivation, violence, and opportunities for armed groups to expand their territorial control and provide local governance.

What to do about it: Stay or go?

Hence, the situation in Nigeria embodies an old dilemma: Humanitarian action often takes place in fragile settings with a dire security situation and severely weakened state structures. The case once more illustrates that humanitarian actors depend on a minimum degree on protective structures themselves. This leads to a situation where third-party actors, in the case of Nigeria including humanitarians, foreign armed forces and civil militias, assume protective state functions. Consequently, the incentives for an already weak state to engage in costly but strongly needed processes, such as security sector reforms, further erode. The alternative however, withdrawing humanitarian actors from the scene, would effectively undermine live saving assistance to the 2.7 Million people in critical need.

One solution is for humanitarian action to be backed up by political and legal initiatives. Developments in other countries, such as Syria, show that these solutions may depend on a political consensus that can prove difficult to achieve. However, the intention by the chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open investigations on the crisis might be a silver lining to the rather dim prospects in the region. Just in December 2020 the ICC prosecutor declared her decision to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the different Boko Haram factions, but also included crimes by the Nigerian security forces in her observations. She found “a reasonable basis to believe” that both parties to the conflict have been committing grave human rights violations including murder, torture, rape, attacks on civilians, and forced movements of the population. Even though the decision is still up for approval by the courts judges, it has been welcomed by human rights observers and protection advocates as a step into the right direction.

Humanitarian actors in the region commenting on the developments mentioned above is not new. Calls by the resident and humanitarian coordinator Edward Kallon and observer groups such as Human Rights Watch have been made repeatedly, stressing the need for the protection of civilians and humanitarians and calling all parties to the conflict to adhere with international humanitarian and human rights law. However, these have rarely led to sustained action by the government. While providing life-saving assistance day by day, local and international humanitarian actors struggle to strike the balance between reliance on the Nigerian authorities and denouncing the lack of support.

Therefore, local and international calls for support need to have repercussion at the national political level. So far, the political will to pursue the human rights breaches nationally has been very limited. This is reflected in a lack of support for survivors. From the humanitarian perspective, people who have suffered from those crimes and the conflicts, have a right to legal assistance and should be supported by health and trauma care. At the same time, the state should engage in preventive measures to train its own security forces to adhere with international human rights and humanitarian law. It could team up with specialized humanitarian agencies to improve its own capacities and support ongoing projects. Further, it should support the needs of humanitarian agencies by seriously ensuring the protection of its last strongholds protecting IDPs in the North East.

Sadly, this seems to remain wishful thinking for the moment. Rather than taking sustained efforts to support the relief in the North East, the Nigerian government faces a range of other pressing security issues to deal with. From the longstanding conflict between farmers and herders in the Middle Belt, high levels of criminality by uncontrolled vigilante groups operating across the entire country, the Covid-19 pandemic and dropping oil prices, a severe food crisis and the resurgent conflict in the South East of the country, the Nigerian central government does not seem able to intervene for now. Humanitarians do not really seem have the choice to stop working in the North East in due time. Hence, after more than 10 years of conflict and suffering, peace remains unachieved. For now, it is solely a motto written on a licence plate.


About the Author:

Rebekka Goeke is a research associate at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) and a project manager for the academy of humanitarian action (aha). Her research interests include non-state actors, changing spaces, humanitarian protection and the ethics of humanitarian work. She lived and worked in Maiduguri from 2019-2020.