AT A tiny air force clinic in Bama, a town in north-eastern Nigeria, a military doctor is trying to insert a drip into a starving child. He gives up on the two-year-old’s arms and labours with a needle just above his brow. But that vein has collapsed too, and blood seeps through the pinprick. Half-dressed and dirty, the baby is bundled off to a quieter room. “He’s going to die if I can’t get it in today,” the medic says, following him out.
Scenes like this are common in Borno, the state worst-affected by Nigeria’s insurgency, Boko Haram, which is affiliated to Islamic State. In Maiduguri, its capital, camps for the internally displaced are teeming with bloated-bellied babies. Their shoulder-blades stick out like wings. When a bereaved mother collapses at a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières, a non-governmental organisation, staff barely blink: they see hundreds of underfed children every day.
All told, the UN estimates that 240,000 children in Borno are suffering from severe acute malnutrition—the deadliest category of it. More than 130 will die each day without assistance. Across the wider north-east of Nigeria, a population equivalent to New Zealand’s is in need of food aid. In Abuja, the country’s sleepy capital, humanitarian co-ordinators compare the crisis to those of South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Unlike them, Nigeria cannot excuse itself as a failed state. It is Africa’s second-biggest economy. Things should never have got this bad.
That they did is largely because of Boko Haram. The jihadists want to establish a caliphate in Nigeria: until early last year they occupied a territory the size of Belgium. But they are hopeless administrators, skilled only in violence. Rather than wooing neglected villagers, they pillaged food, stole cattle and poisoned water. Instead of using farmers to feed their fighters, they held them under lock and key. “They wouldn’t allow us to come and go,” says one woman, who fled to Bama’s 10,000-person camp. “Only if your husband was with Boko Haram did they give you food.”
Mercifully, the insurgents have been pushed out of most big towns in the north-east over the past 18 months, though they still strike smaller villages, and camp out in the bush. Soldiers say that landmines litter farmers’ fields, making it dangerous to grow food. Borno is now entering its third season without a harvest. Where food is available, prices have soared. Vendors in Maiduguri’s Monday market, a favourite of the suicide-squads, say that the prices of some staple grains have trebled. Those who can find supplies at all are the lucky ones.
Nigeria’s government mutters about sending displaced people home, but many reclaimed towns are still in lockdown. There is hardly a building standing or a soul on the street in Bama, once a city of 250,000 people: only roofless walls covered in Arabic scrawl, and fallen power lines. Its closed-off camp depends entirely on food aid, like many others in the state. But Borno’s roads are often raided, so aid is in short supply. Soldiers in Bama were sharing out their rations before international help arrived in May.
The Islamist desolation
In other areas, the army is accused of exacerbating the food crisis by closing markets (which could be bomb targets) and blocking the passage of supplies (which could be destined for Boko Haram). At one outpost in Maiduguri, farmers say that when their sorghum grew “too much like a bush” they were ordered to chop it down. Starving out guerrillas is one thing; but it will kill civilians too. More culpable is the Nigerian government, which underplayed the crisis as Boko Haram lost territory last year. International partners fume that it did not want Nigeria to be stereotyped as “another African conflict country”, and therefore denied that help was needed.
Months ago, the UN ought to have declared a “Level 3” emergency—the highest level, reserved for the likes of Syria and Yemen—to raise funds and mobilise personnel. Instead it pandered to politicians’ vanity and told humanitarian agencies that “the government would not tolerate it.” Many NGOs have been slow and ineffectual, too. Of the roughly 20 international non-profit organisations that together hand out 90% of the world’s aid, only half are present in Nigeria’s north-east, according to Toby Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. Nigeria’s own relief agencies are more used to dealing with floods than food crises, and are also accused of stealing supplies.
Faced with an emergency which it can no longer deny, the government has at last grown more ready to accept help. Donors are also beginning to pay more attention: by the end of this year, their allocations should be roughly double what they were in 2015. But the worst is not yet over. The numbers needing aid will grow as new towns open up: there are perhaps 750,000 hungry people in the north-east who currently cannot be reached at all. Some aid agencies think that most insecure parts of Borno are now in full-blown famine, which would suggest that 30% of people there are acutely malnourished.
To help humanitarians, Nigeria’s army must secure major roads and push forward into smaller towns, instead of sitting on its haunches. The UN says that discussions about proclaiming a top-level crisis are “really happening”, although it will probably make the call internally, rather than in public. Either way, it must not dally: eight months into the year, its campaign is only a third funded. Then it will need more (and better) partners, and require the snail-paced government to speed up its response. “What we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” says one aid worker in Abuja. “It’s going to be one Bama after another as Borno opens up.”