For months, a humanitarian crisis of truly staggering proportions has been brewing in the Lake Chad region of West Africa. At the convergence of four countries ravaged by long-term poverty, climate change and the Boko Haram insurgency – Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger – a devastating famine is threatening the livelihoods, and lives, of millions of people. In total, 9 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 568 thousand children who are acutely malnourished. More than two million people have been displaced by the crisis. The population of Maiduguri in the Nigerian state of Borno has ballooned from a million people to upwards of 2.5 million. The crisis is so big it is now the Red Cross’s second largest humanitarian project after Syria, with its budget doubled since 2015. UN agencies have categorised it at the worst possible crisis level, giving it equal priority with the Syrian Civil War. The situation is so critical that unless there is a dramatic upscaling of emergency relief very soon, tens of thousands will certainly die; many already have.
The crisis is compounded by the tense and complicated security situation in the region, where only this year the Nigerian military recaptured 17 of 20 towns occupied by Boko Haram. Keenness by the Nigerian military to retain their control of the area has resulted in serious restrictions to freedom of movement for the local population, with disastrous consequences for nomad herders and IDPs separated from their farmlands. This is a trend replicated across the Lake Chad Basin. The recapturing of these towns has allowed NGOs to restart their work in these regions, where only now the true scale of the crisis has been revealed. With internal displacement leaving more than a million young people out of school and with few prospects, there are serious concerns that this could create the conditions for an extremist recruitment bonanza.
Despite this, the Lake Chad crisis has largely been absent from Western media, and has remained virtually ignored by the international community. So far donor funding has been lacklustre; of the conservative $484m requested by the United Nations, a dismal 22% has been proffered. As an Oxfam representative told me, Western donor agencies claim to believe that sufficient funding has already been supplied, particularly to UN agencies. Previously, donors also believed that the Nigeria state could do more to help the starving, but as the IMF have made clear, the oil price collapse has left the African giant sliding into recession and barely able to pay public sector wages. Considering the circumstances, the UN and humanitarian organisations have praised the response of the Nigerian government, despite disagreement over extensive militarisation in the region. Nevertheless, it has been made clear that only external funding will be sufficient to avert even greater disaster.
If dying children aren’t enough to get aid money flowing from the global North, then mass migration pressures from Africa to Europe should be of grave concern to European policymakers. The Lake Chad region is currently home to 22 million people, millions of whom have already upped sticks from their homes and are internally displaced or else are refugees in neighbouring countries. Yet the population of the Lake Chad Basin is set to double every twenty years if population trends continue and donors aren’t forthcoming in supporting projects that could ease this pressure. In a region faced with serious food insecurity and dismal infrastructure, a population explosion would certainly fuel a greater crisis and mass-migration northwards towards Europe. The further the region plunges into chaos and disaster, the more desperate people will begin to look further afield for sanctuary. Already Agadez, a regional hub in central Niger, is seeing 7000 migrants converging every week, a dramatic increase on previous numbers. These pressures are only set to continue unless a serious international effort is implemented immediately to resolve the region’s multi-faceted crises.
The crisis is Lake Chad can be solved, but this will require a concerted international effort and, as always, money. MSF reports that where they have been able to target relief, the percentage of children with severe malnutrition has dropped from 15% to 5%, but these programs desperately need to be upscaled to have a permanent impact. Coordinated vaccination programs also have the power to eradicate easily prevented diseases from spreading like wildfire through IDP populations. In the meantime, while policymakers dither and aid is not forthcoming, there are plenty of things you can do to help. Contact your local MP demanding a concerted action from government. Set up a small (or large) regular donation to agencies like MSF, Oxfam or the ICRC who are present and responding to this crisis, even when governments aren’t. Lake Chad represents a triple-pronged disaster; the spread of violent extremism, a surge of desperate migrants, and millions of lives potentially lost. If that’s not enough to make Western governments stand to attention, I don’t know what is.
This blog was written in response to the Chatham House event ‘Preventing Catastrophe? Responding to the Humanitarian Crisis in North-East Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin’. Speaking were Dr Mercedes Tatay of MSF and Toby Lanzer, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel.