There was a conservative estimate of at least two million internally displaced persons in Nigeria by the beginning of 2015. This is in addition to the over 500,000 Nigerians living as refugees in neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Central African Republic. Majority of these people were driven away from their homes mostly from the North East by Islamist militant insurgents Boko Haram. Others were those driven out of their land by marauding Fulani herdsmen in mostly Middle Belt states. At that time, Boko Haram insurgents occupied over 30 local government councils in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states across a land mass bigger than the entire Belgium.
Good enough, Nigerian military combining efforts with some special forces dislodged them from most of these areas thus paving way for the 2015 general elections to be held in most parts of the country. It must be admitted however, that elections in some local government councils held far away in displaced persons’ camps in state headquarters. Between February and early April of the year, the illusory headquarters of Boko Haram caliphate in Gworza fell back into the hands of Nigerian military. Gworza is (was?) the location of hitherto legendary Nigerian Police Mobile Force Training School. The institution fell to Boko Haram with all the heavy arms and ammunitions seized and scores of policemen unaccounted for till this day.
Thus a combination of direct insurgent attacks, fear of attack, hunger and starvation forced most residents of Borno State living outside Maiduguri, some parts of Yobe and large areas of Adamawa to flee to internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps in their state capitals, other parts of the north including Abuja and as far flung places as Lagos, Ogun, Edo and in fact, most states of Southern Nigeria.
Since President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in and particularly since he replaced military service chiefs however, honest and persistent onslaught on insurgents’ locations have reduced their influence and power. In the course of the past eight months, thousands of abducted men, women and children have been rescued from Boko Haram thus further indicating that the insurgency has been degraded. Just recently, scores of the terrorists voluntarily surrendered citing increasing hunger and starvation in their camps. Nonetheless, the war is far from being won as Boko Haram terrorists continue to carry out sting operations, attacking soft targets like churches, mosques and markets, staging guerilla attacks on isolated communities and deploying women and children as suicide bombers.
The upper hand gained by the military against Boko Haram has encouraged governments to be moving to return displaced persons to their communities. This thus calls for caution.
Agreed: it is the globally accepted norm to seek to resettle displaced persons as soon as practicable. However, while every effort must be made to dismantle camps and return displaced persons to their homes quickly, emphasis must be on as soon as practicable. IDPs should not be allowed to develop a permanent sense of dependency on philanthropic handouts; at the same time, they must not be desperately rushed back to communities that are still vulnerable to terrorists’ attacks. Repeated attacks and displacements may result in permanent phobia for particular communities and victims either become permanently traumatised beyond counselling or even permanent wanderers.
There is also the practical need to make communities resilient to invasions and attacks before fleeing members are hoarded back. It is only unfortunate that despite the billions expended annually on emergency management in Nigeria, the country is yet to fully emerge from the era of relief system. Disaster risk reduction methods are yet to be engrained in our disaster management system. At a time when insurgency, terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery and the likes have emerged as part of normal daily living, there is the need to adequately prepare citizens for them to be able to withstand and/or even resist the bad guys. Unfortunately, 17 years after the NEMA Act was promulgated, most local government councils are yet to establish their Local Emergency Management Committees (LEMC). Although many states have now formed their State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMA), such bodies are either underfunded, understaffed, or denied the necessary statutory powers to function effectively. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the central body saddled with the responsibility to coordinate emergency management on the other hand, continued to be enmeshed in allegations of being administered in a cult-like manner, nepotism, under-the-table recruitments, fraud and competency issues from time to time.
In modern times, emergency management is a partnership between private and public sectors with government supporting civil society organisation (CSOs), community based organisations (CBOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide needed expertise. Many years ago, NEMA asked interested organisations to register with it. Since then however, not much collaboration has been seen between NEMA and such bodies.
And even if and when community members eventually are trained to resist insurgents it would only be a first aid measure as they will only be able to hold forth until help arrives from the military. There is the need to beef up Nigeria’s military personnel to such numbers that will be able to provide adequate security throughout the length and breadth of the vast country. It is said that there are presently over 1,000 unmanned entry point into Nigeria.
And finally, as schools are being reopened in the North East, all efforts must be made to adequately implement the United Nations Safe School Initiative. In an area where some religious extremists frown at the formal school system and once brazenly abducted over 200 secondary school girls in Chibok, it will be grossly inexcusable to allow any future recurrence.
Sanya Adejokun is National Coordinator, Journalists Against Disaster Initiative (JADI) [email protected]