As global aid is diverted to Ukraine, children are starving in Nigeria

The impact of war in Ukraine – and the diversion of global humanitarian funds to help those fleeing – is having an impact in northern Nigeria, where agencies are warning of soaring malnutrition.

Iza Ali’s family is an example.

At 3 p.m., her five children are still waiting to eat. It is not the first day the family has been without food since fleeing extremist violence in northeast Nigeria six years ago.

She and her husband earn US$3 a day, but that’s rarely enough. Often they scavenge for greenery outside the Jere IDP camp where they live on the outskirts of Maiduguri.

“If we don’t see food, we drink water,” the 25-year-old mother said. “Only God can help us.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, right, walks alongside Borno State Governor Babagana Umara Zulum in Maiduguri, Nigeria on Tuesday. Guterres said reintegrating extremist rebels who defected from the Boko Haram group is “the best thing we can do for peace”. (Chinadu Asadu/Associated Press)

Aid agencies are warning that families like hers are increasingly at risk from declining food production in Nigeria this year and the diversion of global humanitarian funds due to the war in Ukraine.

Acute malnutrition has risen from 1.4 million children in northeast Nigeria to 1.7 million last year, according to Priscilla Bayo Nicholas, nutrition specialist at the UN children’s agency in Borno State in Nigeria. In 2017, the number was only 400,000.

“If we don’t deal with them, we will lose these children,” she warned.

This is an aerial view of the Jere camp for people displaced by Islamist extremists in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Aid agencies warn that acute malnutrition is on the rise in northeastern Nigeria. (Chinadu Asadu/Associated Press)

UN chief calls for additional investment

Northeastern Nigeria has suffered for more than a decade from an Islamist insurgency that has forced more than two million people from their homes.

People living in displacement camps say the Nigerian government is not providing them with enough food.

Attacks by extremist group Boko Haram and its offshoot – the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – killed more than 35,000 people in Nigeria and neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. At least 2.1 million people have been displaced, according to UN figures.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with displaced Nigerians last week while in Maiduguri, as he wrapped up his tour of three West African countries with a “visit to solidarity with the victims of terrorism”.

“I saw smiles. I saw enthusiasm. I saw hope,” Guterres said. “And that’s where we need to invest,” he added, calling for an additional $351 million as part of the overall $1.1 billion plan for the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Nigeria.

Nigerian government food aid does not last

In many IDP camps in Nigeria, government agencies provide food while aid agencies mainly focus on education and health needs. But the amount that comes in from the Nigerian government’s relief agency every two months rarely lasts more than a few days, said Jere camp chairman Mala Bukar.

The country’s humanitarian affairs ministry did not respond to a request from the AP.

Iza Ali, 25, sits with her daughter at Jere camp on Wednesday. (Chinadu Asadu/Associated Press)

Nigerian authorities have begun closing some of the camps for the displaced as part of efforts to return people to their home towns. The country’s leader, President Muhammadu Buhari, said last week that the war was “nearing its end”.

More than 50,000 Islamist militants have surrendered, according to the Nigerian army. However, the International Crisis Group said the most dominant faction, ISWAP, is “consolidating its grip on new rural areas”, in parts of Borno state.

Ali wants the violence to end there so that she, her husband and their five children can return home and farm again. However, impending attacks haunt her, so she remains out of place.

“We want to go back,” she said. But only “if the bush is cleared and there are no members of Boko Haram who will kill us”.