(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.

      

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.

     

    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.

     

    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

     

    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.

     

    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)

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    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • Reporter’s Diary: Still on the trail of Boko Haram

    The city of Kano stands surrounded by 700-year-old mud-baked walls, constructed to deter foreign attackers. Yet the walls, completed in the 14th century to protect the people living in one of West Africa’s oldest commercial hubs – now Nigeria’s second largest city – couldn’t protect them from Boko Haram.

     

    Boko Haram is the latest extremist group in town; Nigeria has seen many in its troubled past. In 2014, the city’s emir – the second most important Islamic leader in the country – asked citizens to “acquire what they need” to defend themselves against Boko Haram fighters.

     

    In the following week, more than 100 people gathered at the city’s central mosque for Friday prayers would die in attacks.

     

    The extremist group, which formed in 2002 in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri and initially operated in the areas around it, had come south and westward, to places like Kano, where the attackers had hit several times earlier in the year.

     

    That July, reportedly under instruction from Boko Haram, girls and women detonated suicide bombs across the city, carrying out four attacks during the week of Eid.

     

    Two girls – one looked to be 11, the other maybe 18 – stepped out of a minibus and walked to a mobile phone market. The blast killed a reported 15 people. A girl believed to be 13 detonated a bomb outside a mosque. Another set off an improvised explosive on a college campus.

     

    In a neighbouring state, security agents arrested a 10-year-old girl with bombs strapped to her chest.

     

    Thursday afternoon that same week, I gathered with colleagues around a petrol station that had just been cordoned off with yellow tape. People stood on the curb watching uniformed men strut around. In answer to our questions, officials and witnesses told us a woman had asked an attendant for kerosene just before she blew herself up. It was the second bomb blast at a petrol station in Kano in less than five days.

    Four years later and the attacks haven’t stopped. Some schools remain closed, families are still displaced, and farmers are afraid to work in their fields – so hunger grows.

    My driver pointed to a spot on the ground, just past the shadow of the station’s canopy. A hand lay there, like a prop from a Halloween horror flick. It was her hand, with swollen flies creeping across the palm. Her five fingers, intact, were frozen in a gentle curve.

     

    The rest of her body was strewn in pieces around the gas pumps. My colleagues had turned away from the hand, shaking their heads. I kept looking at it, trying to attach it to someone: a name, a face, a story, a place, a birth, a family. That hand had been attached to a person. Why that person had decided to carry and detonate a suicide bomb, I will never know.

     

    After filing that story and dozens of others on Boko Haram for news outlets around the world since 2012, I still don’t know exactly what Boko Haram wants. For the past six years, I’ve been following the group’s trail, attack after attack.

     

    In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria had “technically” won the war against Boko Haram.

     

    Yet, here we are, four years later and the attacks haven’t stopped. Some schools remain closed, families are still displaced, and farmers are afraid to work in their fields – so hunger grows.

     

    Last month, insurgents hit two villages in Borno State.

     

    This month, days before the initial 16 February date of the presidential election, the so-called Islamic State-affiliated faction of Boko Haram, known as ISWAP, attacked the Borno State governor’s motorcade.

     

    When the group opened fire in a community near Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, on the morning of the scheduled election, the Nigerian army said Boko Haram was trying to disrupt the vote. Voters eventually went to the polls on 23 February. Buhari won the vote, ahead of his main challenger, Atiku Abubakar.

     

    “Boko Haram is everywhere”

     

    Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād, People Committed to the Teachings of the Prophet and Holy War, evolved into Boko Haram, a terrorist group sanctioned by the US government.

     

    The group began about 17 years ago as an ultra-conservative, Salafist organisation that wanted to protect what it felt was under threat: Islam. The members wanted to live in a society guided by a fundamentalist form of Islam rather than under Nigeria’s Western-influenced democratic government. In 2009, after the founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in the custody of state security agents, the members went underground to strategise and recruit. They quickly came back up to wage war on the Nigerian government.

     

    In the past decade, Boko Haram-related deaths have risen: 7,000, …10,000, …15,000, …20,000. The Washington, DC-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations calculated that as of 2018 more than 37,000 people had been killed, including civilians, government forces, and alleged Boko Haram fighters.

     

    Even when Boko Haram fighters are not visible, the group’s presence is felt. People rearrange their lives to stay alive, to stay out of the insurgents’ path.

     

    A few months ago, I was travelling by road from southern Borno north to Maiduguri. The daily military convoy that escorted me and hundreds of civilian commuters sped past villages abandoned after attacks, and the drivers in the cars alongside me kept up, swerving past freshly dug trenches and spiky tumbleweed.

     

    No one wanted to be left behind.

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    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force patrol a checkpoint in Maiduguri. The volunteer group provides intelligence to the military and hands over suspected Boko Haram members.

    “Boko Haram is everywhere,” Jamilah*, a peace negotiator who is both hailed and feared for her close relationship with Boko Haram, told me in September. A mother of three, Jamilah knew Mohammed Yusuf and his followers years before they turned to violence and she’s garnered what seems to me to be an unbreakable bond of trust with Boko Haram. These days, she finds ways to send money and food to their camps in the bushes. Without her, the insurgents often refuse to talk peace with the Nigerian government.

     

    We were driving through Maiduguri to a field where hundreds of families from attacked villages had set up straw tents. She told me the group’s roots are now so deeply planted in local communities throughout northeastern Nigeria that dislodging them is nearly impossible.

     

    She pointed to the clusters of clay-walled, zinc-roofed homes along the road, signalling those where she said Boko Haram sympathisers live: here and here and here. “Everywhere.”

     

    A network of sympathisers and informants in Maiduguri keep Boko Haram in action. Tuk-tuk drivers in the city are perfectly positioned to supply the extremists with information, an undercover security agent once told me.

     

    Jamilah knows some of those who do. They drive their tuk-tuks near her and give her a slight nod as a gesture of respect for her relationship with Boko Haram.

     

    On my computer I have a picture of a few dozen boys standing in a walled-in compound. Some wear flip-flops, others are barefoot. Their heads covered in turbans, they stand in military formation, clenching AK-47 rifles. Boko Haram supposedly released it on Twitter in 2015, taken at a militant training camp said to be in or near Cameroon.

     

    Every now and then, I pull up that photo to remind myself that Boko Haram isn’t going away any time soon; none of the boys in the photo look older than 14.

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    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Rebecca Sharibu is still waiting for her daughter after she was abducted in February 2018 from her high school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Dapchi.

     

    I think about that, too, when I remember Rebecca Sharibu, who is still waiting for her daughter Leah to come back after she was kidnapped last year from her school in Dapchi. And when I think of Rebecca Gadzama, an activist who is rebuilding the school in her hometown of Lassa, in southern Borno State, which Boko Haram fighters pass through on their way to carry out attacks in other parts of the state. Or Abba Aji Kalli, the Borno State commander of the Civilian Joint Task Force, or CJTF, a volunteer group that provides intelligence to the military and hands over suspected Boko Haram members.

     

    “A downfall for Nigeria”

     

    I started hearing about Boko Haram in 2011 when I lived in New York, where I worked for an online media outlet. We’d get text and email messages from people in Nigeria who had just witnessed, escaped from, or heard about a Boko Haram attack. Those tips always flickered my attention, but the spark never lasted long. The attacks were too far away for me to comprehend.

     

    Moving to Nigeria in 2012 forced me to pay attention.

     

    In the first weeks of September 2014, I monitored Boko Haram’s expansion. As the showers of the rainy season began to dwindle, towns in the northern nook of Nigeria’s Adamawa State, more than 700 kilometres southeast from Kano, fell one by one.

     

    In a place called Gulak, fields baked under the sun. Most farmers and townsfolk had run up to the mountains to hide after Boko Haram had moved in. But even before the group had raised their flag, the community had been on edge after a series of hit-and-run attacks in the months leading up to the takeover of their city.

     

    That July, I had spoken to a woman we’ll call Fatima*. Boko Haram fighters had sliced off her husband’s head in front of her, she told me. Her voice sounded like a dried leaf being crushed underfoot, thin and brittle.

     

    Beneath her hijab, her eyes looked fearful. The fighters had been there again not too long ago. She couldn’t walk beyond her front door, she was that afraid.

     

    After the capture of the lowlands, Boko Haram went into the highlands.

     

    In December 2014, more than 100 militants climbed up the mountains, from one terrace to the next, and entered the historic kingdom of Sukur. They slaughtered men, snatched women and girls, stole food and animals. Wooden houses collapsed under fires.

     

    In 2017, I travelled to Sukur, after the Nigerian army had reclaimed the area. The people of Sukur Kingdom, Africa’s first cultural landscape to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, were trying to rebuild.

     

    Quaint stone-paved walkways led to homes with toppled roofs; 500-year-old artifacts had been set ablaze.

     

    When Boko Haram came, they came with a mission to destroy us and erase our culture, the kingdom’s political and spiritual leader, Luka Gizik, told me. He pointed to the gaping holes in his palace walls – walls made of flattened rocks stacked mortar-less on top of each other generations ago and prized for their architectural ingenuity. He sighed deeply.

     

    Down below, the winding trail of Boko Haram’s devastation led to sprawling, overcrowded settlements that started springing up in 2013.

    Camps for the two million people uprooted from their homes, intended to support them for one or two years, have turned into semi-permanent communities with chiefs, classrooms, yearly budgets, clinics, and security forces. Some are government-sanctioned, others were set up by people who needed a place to sleep, eat, and let their children play in peace.

     

    After Boko Haram captured Gulak, and attacked Sukur and nearby areas, people who had lived in the mountains either ran east into Cameroon or headed more than 250 kilometres south, towards the Adamawa State capital of Yola.

     

    Some squeezed into a camp in Girei, 45 minutes north of Yola. When I visited in the first few weeks of 2015, camp officials were registering at least 100 people a day, just three weeks after opening. More than 4,000 people lived there.

     

    Organisations providing food and other aid included: the Nigerian National and State Emergency Management Agency; the Federation of Muslim Women of Nigeria; the Nigerian Red Cross; Oxfam; the Nigerian umbrella body of Muslim groups Jama’atu Nasril Islam; and the International Rescue Committee.

     

    Still, there was never enough.

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    Children in a displaced person camp around a cooking fire
    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    The insurgency has left thousands of children orphaned. Many of them end up in makeshift IDP camps where there is no government assistance.

    In fact, thousands of people were dying in northeastern Nigeria’s IDP camps, succumbing to starvation, malnutrition, and disease.

     

    In Girei, residents told me their “how-I-escaped” stories and cursed Boko Haram under their breath, refusing to utter their curses out loud. The men said they had never seen anything like Boko Haram, a throng of “demons” – as they described them – bent on wreaking havoc on everything in their path: Christians, Muslims, and everyone in between.

     

    An elderly, bearded man sat next to his wife Sarah, who bore a child in her old-age, like Sarah in the Bible. He set his Bible on his lap and showed me the gash on his legs where, he said, a Boko Haram fighter had slashed him with a machete. The men had killed their little girl.

     

    Across the yard, hundreds of children played in water, stomping and giggling when it sprayed in the air. I sat and watched them. Then I asked about their parents.

     

    Eight-year-old Jummai’s parents were dead. Her grandmother had brought her to the camp. Thirteen-year-old Fatimatu and her younger sister said they were fetching water when Boko Haram fighters drove into their village on motorbikes and killed their father. With their mother already gone, they were now orphans, like five-year-old Moses. The fighters had killed his mother, and when his father tried to bury her body, the fighters killed him, too. Rose, 25, was taking care of her 28-day-old nephew Ibrahim, also orphaned.

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    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    Rose takes care of her 28-day-old orphaned nephew Ibrahim, and five-year-old Moses, whose parents were killed by Boko Haram.

    A camp healthcare worker, Ahmed, told me: “It’s a downfall for Nigeria… these kids are losing their parents, and the president of Nigeria has not come here to console these orphans.”

     

    At the time, Goodluck Jonathan was in the middle of a fierce campaign, trying to keep his seat as president. Months before the general election, he had just made his first trip to the northeastern region since 2013, telling the displaced he cared about their plight.

     

    A week before the president’s visit, Boko Haram had razed the town of Baga, near Lake Chad, for four days – an attack so horrendous it even made international news headlines.

    “Boko Haram is still a threat to schools”

     

    Before Boko Haram began waging war on the Nigerian government, in 2007, eight million of the country’s primary school-aged children were not being educated. By 2015, in the thick of the insurgency, more than 10.5 million school-aged children weren’t in school, the majority in the north of the country. Today, that number has swelled to more than 13 million.

     

    Boko Haram members have disowned the phrase Boko Haram – coined by the media and Maiduguri residents because of the founder’s aversion to Western civilisation. They say the phrase, which can be understood to mean ‘Western education is sinful’, does not accurately capture their views. The group targets schools modelled on the Western-style, where subjects like art and literature are taught, secular views trump religious biases, and boys and girls sit in the same classroom.

     

    More than 1,000 schools have been severely damaged or destroyed, 19,000 teachers displaced, and 2,300 teachers killed since the start of the insurgency in 2009, according to UNESCO and Human Rights Watch.

     

    Following this strand of Boko Haram’s trail in March 2014, I drove through Buni Yadi town in Yobe State to visit a school that had been attacked a month before. When I got there, none of the townspeople wanted to accompany me to the school.

     

    It’s the scrap of a chequered shirt, wound around a shard of window glass and blowing in the wind, that I’ll never forget.

     

    The corpses had long been removed, but the blackened walls and empty bunk beds were still there. The stench of smoke lingered. Boko Haram fighters had overrun the boys’ school before sunrise, shooting, looting, and setting things ablaze. Fifty-nine boys died. Almost two dozen buildings were destroyed.

     

    The boys had been sleeping when the attack came. Some suffocated. Some ran out, with at least one tearing his shirt in the process. Parents later told me that among their dead sons were aspiring doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

     

    After the Buni Yadi attack, the federal government shut down five high schools in the northeast. Government-provided security was supposed to have been boosted under the state of emergency protocol, but that plan had failed.

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    A man stands talking to a group of boys and girls at a school
    Chika Oduah/IRIN
    A high school principal goes through safety guidelines at a morning assembly session in Maiduguri. He says five teachers have left the school in fear of Boko Haram.

    "It is unfortunate [that], up until now, they have not done anything for us in terms of providing some security measures to be taken in our schools,” Yobe State Education Commissioner Mohammed Lamin told me when I stopped by his office to see him again last year. He said the state was doing what it could to meet the federal government’s shortcomings.

     

    "Maybe they may come in the near future to start fencing some of the schools or providing some security equipment to us, but up until this moment nothing has been done. It is only the state government that has been providing all these things to our schools."

     

    Five years after the massacre, the Buni Yadi school is still closed. Reconstruction, managed by the federal government, started last year.

     

    Though the other schools in Borno State that were closed after the 2014 attack were reopened two years later, a high school principal told me last April: “Boko Haram is still a threat to schools in Maiduguri”. Five teachers had fled the school he heads.

     

    Fear and hunger

     

    Last year, I was able to get my hands on a couple of books that I’d been looking for: religious texts that Boko Haram uses. A vendor in the market was selling them for cheap. One, written by an Egyptian scholar, prescribes the harshest punishments for societal corruption and advocates for a violent jihad to protect “true Muslims”.

    With Boko Haram-approved texts readily available in the market, I wondered, how could the army ever defeat the militants?

    “This is the book they use,” Mustafa* told me. Mustafa, who had worked as an informer on Boko Haram for the government, and I spoke from time to time. He had spotted the books in a market and got them for me.

     

    Mustafa knew very well the religious books that Boko Haram members preferred. He’d once infiltrated the group, and the books he’d seen at the market, he said, were the same ones the insurgents read in the camps they lived in.

     

    With Boko Haram-approved texts readily available in the market, I wondered, how could the army ever defeat the militants?

     

    Finding those books drove home what the government won’t acknowledge: In many parts of northeastern Nigeria, even when you can’t see Boko Haram, their presence is felt. The fear is not going away.

     

    Fear has kept many farming and fishing families away from their land and their boats – contributing to a food shortage in the northeast. During the rise of Boko Haram, 90 percent of agricultural production was wiped out.

     

    With food production at dismal levels in northeastern Nigeria, humanitarian groups stepped in. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation began distributing fertiliser, seeds, and water.

     

    Within a year, the number of people facing acute food insecurity in the states hardest hit by Boko Haram – Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa – fell from 4.7 million in 2017 to 2.3 million in 2018.

     

    But today food insecurity is high again.

     

    Since November, attacks by Boko Haram have increased, disrupting food production during dry season – when food stocks are traditionally low – and also blocking access for humanitarian aid to be delivered.

     

    And this was after Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, had taken measures to revitalise agriculture.

    In many parts of northeastern Nigeria, even when you can’t see Boko Haram, their presence is felt. The fear is not going away.

     

    A specialist in agricultural economics, he distributed 270 tractors to farmers in June, hoping this would encourage them to return to their fields. They did. But after 12 farmers were killed by Boko Haram fighters while working their land on a single Saturday in October, the fields are again empty.

     

    Early this year, Governor Shettima wept when he met the Nigerian president in Abuja to discuss the upsurge in attacks.

     

    His tears said everything: Boko Haram is back and fighting.

     

    They never really left, though, despite the government’s repeated claims to have defeated the extremist group. In December, the insurgents overran a military base, taking ammunition, rocket launchers, and vehicles.

     

    In the northeast, when I’m on the streets of places like Yola, Damaturu, or Maiduguri, I hear people ruminating over conspiracy theories that blame Western multinational organisations for creating Boko Haram or local politicians for funding it.

    Whether those rumours have any nuggets of truth in them or not, it’s clear that the business of conflict has blessed some and devastated others. In Maiduguri, where it all began, government officials and wealthy businessmen are building expensive mosques and commercial plazas all over the city. The price of real estate has spiked.

     

    At the same time, many of the nearly two million Nigerians displaced by the insurgency still aren’t getting food.

     

    Earlier this month, frustrated IDPs marched out into the streets of Maiduguri. They said they’d been hungry for days and that the government had neglected them. In fits of rage, women and children knocked down political campaign posters.

     

    When the police came out to spray tear gas on them, they scattered.

     

    (*Name changed to protect identity of source for security reasons)

     

    co/js/si/ag

    How fear is shaping an entire generation
    Reporter’s Diary: Still on the trail of Boko Haram
  • Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates

    A wave of increasingly sophisticated militant attacks in northeastern Nigeria has forced almost 60,000 people to flee since November, the largest number for more than two years, raising fears from the UN and aid groups of a renewed Boko Haram crisis.

     

    More than half of those who fled escaped a series of Boko Haram attacks in the remote town of Rann, near the border with Cameroon, in January. The violence – which killed dozens of people – sparked two large waves of displacement across the border. Thousands of the Nigerian refugees were forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities.

     

    Since Boko Haram’s insurgency began in 2009, at least 35,000 people have been killed. Attacks across the wider Lake Chad region – which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria – have seen some 2.5 million people displaced, including 1.9 million internally in Nigeria and some 250,000 Nigerian refugees.

     

    Although the Nigerian government has regularly made claims that the jihadist threat has been minimised, evidence on the ground suggests otherwise, and there are concerns that Nigeria’s general elections on 16 February may make the situation worse.

     

    What happened in Rann?

     

    Boko Haram launched a 14 January attack that reportedly killed 14 people in Rann. Homes and buildings were destroyed, including Médecins Sans Frontières and UNICEF clinics, as well as compounds belonging to the International Organisation for Migration, the World Health Organisation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

     

    Regional troops fighting Boko Haram worked to secure the town, but when they withdrew more than 9,000 people fled, on foot, towards Bodo in Cameroon. About 1,800 of them – mostly women and children – managed to remain with host families in villages near Makary and Fotokol, according to David Manan, Cameroon director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. But the majority were forced out of Cameroon, with little choice but to return to Rann.

     

    About a week later, another 35,000 people fled Rann for Cameroon, fearing another militant attack. Most now reside in a makeshift settlement in the Cameroonian village of Goura, UN News reported, saying the refugees are safe and haven’t – for now – been asked to leave.

    msf258651high.jpg

    Zara Abicho/MSF
    Fearing further attacks, more than 35,000 of Rann's residents have sought refuge across the border in Cameroon.

    On 28 January, Rann residents’ worst fears were confirmed when at least 60 people were killed in the deadliest attack yet on the town by Boko Haram, who also destroyed hundreds of shelters for displaced people.

     

    Is Cameroon forcibly returning refugees?

     

    Cameroon, which hosts more than 370,000 refugees – 100,000 from Nigeria – turned back the first wave of refugees from Rann, in a move reminiscent of previous actions that saw tens of thousands of Nigerians forcibly returned between 2015 and 2017.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed immediate alarm, saying it was “gravely concerned” about the safety and living conditions of people who were returned last month. “This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

     

    Speaking to IRIN in Cameroon last week, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk was more diplomatic. “When a country receives 35,000 people just in a couple of days, you would have a big crisis in the country,” he said. “Sometimes the situations are very difficult, but it is very important for us to find the bridge between the true security interests of a country and the protection of civilians.”

     

    Cameroon fears infiltration by Boko Haram, who have mounted scores of attacks since 2014 in the country’s Far North Region – typically suicide bombings. Cameroon’s military has recently reported a resurgence in Boko Haram activity along its border with Nigeria and said there were five attacks in the region in January alone.

     

    After the second wave of 35,000 people fled Rann, aid groups, including the NRC, urged Cameroon to keep its borders open, emphasising the need to assist those fleeing. So far it appears that the Cameroonian authorities have kept the border open and no more forcible returns have been reported.

    Isa Sadiq Bwala/MSF
    A burnt market in Rann, Nigeria.

     

    “The situation in the northeast [of Nigeria] remains volatile and forced return is exposing these people to harm,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think-tank covering West Africa.

     

    What are the humanitarian needs?

     

    Across Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State and in neighbouring countries, existing camp facilities are overstretched. Having thousands flock to the same locations leaves people in dire need of shelter, food, and water, and can lead to unsanitary conditions and greater risk of disease outbreaks, Hassan told IRIN.

     

    Because of the “spike in attacks” and displacements in Borno State since November, NRC expressed concern about the resulting humanitarian crisis.

    "More than 100,000 people have been forced to flee, many for the second time," Eric Batonon, Nigeria director for NRC, said in a statement. “By denying assistance and protection to those fleeing, needs are exacerbated.”

     

    In Cameroon’s Bodo, MSF said it was assisting new arrivals with food, water, and medical care. In Goura, the UN and its partners responded to the sudden influx by providing basic services, including shelter and protection, in the makeshift settlement.

     

    UNHCR’s Türk said the priority was to “save the life of everybody who was able to escape”.

     

    “I have personally met Nigerian refugees in Cameroon,” he said. “Those people are traumatised. Things are happening in a very complex security context. So what we are trying to do is to marry the protection of people whose lives need to be saved... and identification of security needs that are legitimate.”

     

    Türk said while immediate emergency assistance is the main focus, it’s also essential to support vulnerable host communities and refugees who have been in camps for a long time – assisting them with access to education, health facilities, and social protection.

     

    How much of a threat is Boko Haram?

     

    Many of the attacks in recent months have been attributed to fighters from Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, a faction of Boko Haram that broke off in 2016.

     

    “Generally, there has been an upsurge in direct military confrontations since mid-2018, around the same time there was a leadership change within ISWAP,” explained Omar S. Mahmood, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, or ISS. “Since then, the group has been on the offensive, pushing back military units across much of northern Borno.”

     

    The Nigerian government is quick to downplay the potency of the militants, but renewed attacks on military outposts, aid workers, and civilians suggest they have grown more aggressive, and possibly also in number and strength. At least 100 soldiers have been killed since late December, according to a report seen by Reuters. IOM also noted the “increased sophistication” of the attackers.

     

    Matthew T. Page, a former US State Department official and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said Nigeria’s political and security leaders were unable or unwilling to devise a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. “Their piecemeal approach is not commensurate with the seriousness and complexity of the threat,” he said.

     

    In a war where cooperation between neighbouring countries is essential, the forced return of refugees could also hinder the battle to stave off threats from jihadists. “Many times we only see the military activity and issues of insecurity,” Türk said. “We should never forget that civilians are directly affected as they are caught in the crossfire, caught between the rock and the hard place when it comes to fighting and violence.”

     

    What next?

     

    International aid organisations are stepping up their response. A new $135 million humanitarian appeal was launched last week to assist Nigerian refugees and host communities in the three other Lake Chad countries, but last year only 42 percent of a similar appeal for $157 million was funded.

     

    UNHCR, which is coordinating the response plan, says recent violence has pushed people into “crowded camps or in towns in Borno State where they are surviving in tough living conditions”.

     

    But the threat of new attacks remains. And there are additional security concerns in light of the upcoming elections. Boko Haram ramped up attacks in the weeks leading up to the 2015 elections and may be doing likewise this time. Meanwhile, insecurity across northeastern Nigeria means the possibility of everyone voting in affected towns remains slim.

     

    Mahmood from the ISS think tank said a lot would depend on the outcome of the Nigerian elections and how seriously any new administration is about tackling the Boko Haram threat.

     

    “When President Muhammadu Buhari was first elected in 2015, he prioritised the Boko Haram conflict and made substantial gains,” he said. “Some of those have elapsed now, especially as the political season has taken over.”

     

    Central to stemming any recent losses would be coordination with neighbours like Cameroon, Mahmood said, adding: “The insecurity clearly has regional implications and does not adhere to political boundaries.”

     

    (Additional reporting by Mbom Sixtus in Yaoundé, Cameroon)

    (TOP PHOTO: After Boko Haram attacked Rann on 14 January, more than 9,000 people fled towards Bodo in Cameroon. Most were turned back by Cameroonian authorities. CREDIT: Silas Adamou/MSF)

    lu/si/ag

    Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates
  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.

     

    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it

     

    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.

     

    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.

     

    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.

     

    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.

     

    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.

     

    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)

    bp-il-as-si/wp/ag

    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?

     

    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.

     

    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”

     

    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.

     

    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous

     

    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.

     

    Forwarding hate

     

    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.

     

    Overheard in Davos

     

    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:

     

    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.

     

    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.

     

    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.

     

    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.

     

    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

     

    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.

     

    And finally…

     

    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire

     

    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.

     

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    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians

    2018 was a disastrous year for civilians caught in conflict.

     

    In most conflict zones around the world, the majority of those killed were civilians. Those who survived suffered myriad physical, emotional, and economic hardships.

     

    In the Middle East, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the body charged with maintaining global peace and security – conducted or supported military campaigns that massacred civilians.

     

    In Syria, Russia participated in the offensive on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, some through the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

     

    In Yemen, the US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, despite mounting evidence that airstrikes there have hit hospitals, markets, and school buses, and that the on-off blockade it imposed has worsened an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which nearly 16 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

    We have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

    In Afghanistan, insurgent groups increasingly targeted civilians, and the number of civilian deaths and injuries climbed steadily over 2018, reaching at least 8,050 by the end of September, according to the latest UN figures.

     

    In Africa, UN peacekeeping missions continued to fall short of their mandates to protect civilians. In the Central African Republic, for example, at least 70 civilians were killed in an attack on a displaced persons’ camp metres away from a UN base. In South Sudan, reports emerged of at least 125 women being raped as they made the multi-day journey to a food distribution site. In the Beni area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has failed to contain the killings of civilians, which some estimates put at 1,000 since 2014.

     

    Despite these discouraging examples, we at CIVIC have hope for 2019. Why? Because we have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

     

    In Yemen, the October murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spurred a renewed push to end external actors’ involvement in the war – one factor in December talks that declared a desperately needed (if not yet implemented) ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, it appears that a political deal has prevented – at least for the time being – a military assault on the province of Idlib, which would undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for civilians.

     

    The three-day Eid holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan last June offered a glimpse of what peace could look like, as Taliban fighters, Afghan military, and civilians mingled without fighting, despite two bombings in Nangarhar province, one claimed by the so-called Islamic State.

     

    At the international level, last May the UN General Assembly dedicated an entire week to discussing tangible ways to further the protection of civilians, and Secretary-General António Guterres called for all UN member states to adopt national policy frameworks on the issue.

     

    Just as we supported the Afghan government in its groundbreaking 2017 adoption of a civilian protection policy, we at CIVIC will continue to help governments around the world – from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine – looking to do the same: identifying potential improvements to their policies and laws; providing workshops to equip military and security forces to see their mission with a protection mindset; helping them to understand their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to account for civilian lives in their day-to-day operations.

     

    In South Sudan last January, UNMISS opened a base in Yei – an area devastated by violence in 2017 – to enable the UN mission to better protect civilians in the region. UNMISS is committed to using inter-communal dialogues across the country to prevent deadly conflicts between semi-nomadic cattle farmers and agricultural groups.

     

    In Congo’s Ituri province, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO responded to escalating violence against civilians in the first half of the year by rapidly launching mobile troop deployments to high-threat areas and initiating peace dialogues between communities. This move was possible thanks to collaboration between officials, community leaders, and UN mission leadership – and most actors in the region agree that the peacekeepers’ quick action halted ongoing violence and likely prevented an escalation in fighting.

     

    These two peacekeeping wins are particularly encouraging as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first specifically mandated UN mission to protect civilians: the formation of UNAMSIL in 1999 was in part a response to global outrage following the massacre of civilians in Sierra Leone.

     

    We’re also hopeful for 2019 because even when political will wavers, the will of civilians themselves does not. We’ve seen repeatedly how meaningfully engaging communities about their own protection yields tangible advances. In Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, community elders in two districts convinced the Taliban, at least temporarily, to remove and stop planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

     

    In northeastern Nigeria, when community protection committees in Bama notified the military that local militia were sexually exploiting women near an informal displaced persons’ camp, the military banned all militia members who did not have family members at the site from entering. These same committees also obtained regular military escorts for civilians leaving the site, allowing 3,500 people to farm and collect firewood without fear of being attacked.

     

    This sort of determination is encouraging, but it cannot stand alone. Ensuring the protection of civilians in conflict requires consistent, committed, and courageous support from leaders at all levels.

     

    With strong leadership at the international level, true commitment and political will by key states involved in conflicts, and meaningful engagement of affected communities, protection is possible.

     

    We call on leaders to muster the political will to make the possible a reality in 2019.

     

    Civilians trapped in conflict zones don’t have another year to spare.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced South Sudanese woman in a Protection of Civilians site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau, South Sudan. CREDIT: Phil Hatcher-Moore/UNICEF)

    Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)

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    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar

     

    COP24 opens with stark warnings

     

    The UN climate change conference, COP24, begins 2 December in Poland, and vulnerable countries and aid groups are paying particularly close attention. Negotiators are under pressure to hammer out the so-called “rulebook” that lays the ground rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord outlined broad commitments for tackling climate change – limiting temperature rise, financing to help lower-income countries, developing national climate strategies – but now negotiators must agree on how to make it all work. Nations most susceptible to climate change will be looking for consensus on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and for more concrete commitments to climate funding – Vanuatu’s foreign minister has pledged to “optimistically but aggressively” engage at COP24, challenging climate polluters and urging progress on the divisive issue of “loss and damage” compensation to vulnerable nations. Humanitarian groups are increasingly witnessing the effects of climate change in everyday aid response. Oxfam says governments at COP24 face “life and death” decisions. For more, read our reporting on the humanitarian impacts of climate change.

     

    Upsurge in Boko Haram attacks

     

    A spike in jihadist attacks against military and civilian targets in northeastern Nigeria is undermining claims that Boko Haram has been "defeated". Around 100 Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed in an attack on an army base earlier this month by Islamic State West Africa Province, a Boko Haram splinter group. AFP has reported at least 17 attempts to overrun army bases in the region since July. Speaking this week in Maiduguri, the birthplace of the insurgency, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said defeating Boko Haram was "a must-win war”, adding: "Our troops must not be distracted. They should be committed to the task of eliminating Boko Haram from the face of the Earth.” During the nine-year rebellion, more than 27,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage: Countering militancy in the Sahel.

     

    Fake humanitarians in Gaza?

     

    Remember that mid-November flare-up of violence in Gaza, said to be the worst since 2014 and eventually paused by an Egypt-brokered ceasefire? It all began with a botched Israeli operation in the Palestinian enclave, and reports in the Israeli media recently emerged (based in part on information from Hamas and limited by Israel’s official military censor) that soldiers may have been posing as Palestinian aid workers, having entered the strip with forged documents. We can’t (for now) independently confirm these reports, but it’s worth noting that with Gaza’s economy in steady decline, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, says 80 percent of the area’s 1.9 million residents depend on aid to get by. Just this week, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said a “slow-motion healthcare emergency is unfolding” in Gaza as the healthcare system is overwhelmed by the number of patients shot or injured by the Israeli army during ongoing protests.  

     

    'Sex-for-jobs’ scandal hits AU

     

    An internal investigation by the African Union has uncovered a de facto system whereby "young women are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs”. The findings, made public last week, found widespread reports of mistreatment, and said sexual harassment in particular was confirmed by all 88 women interviewed as part of the probe; youth volunteers and interns were found to be most vulnerable. The inquiry into harassment and gender discrimination was launched in May after three dozen women made allegations about what they called “professional apartheid against female employees in the commission”. In response to the findings, the continental body will establish a comprehensive sexual harassment policy – something that did not previously exist. Although the AU has made ‘women, gender and development’ a key part of its external priorities, internally, more needs to be done to protect victims and ensure perpetrators are called to account. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage on #MeToo in the aid sector.

     

    Women in disaster response

     

    Women face greater risks during and after disasters, but they’re often overlooked when it comes to participating in humanitarian responses – despite sector-wide commitments to boost the role of women and girls during crises. New research by CARE International, released during the ongoing 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign, examines what’s preventing more women responders from being included, and outlines potential solutions to the problem. Social norms and discrimination may be obvious barriers to participation, but aid groups and donors must also do more to ensure women take part, the report states. Sidelining women isn’t simply unjust – it’s also a “significant missed opportunity” to make responses better, it notes. Read the research here.

    In case you missed it

    Afghanistan: President Ashraf Ghani this week announced the formation of a 12-person negotiation team aimed at striking a peace agreement with the Taliban. But it’s unclear whether the militant group is open to direct negotiations with the government, which has not been involved in separate preliminary discussions between Taliban and US officials.

    Afghanistan: At least 23 civilians were killed in an airstrike in southern Helmand Province on 27 November, according to the UN mission. The US military said it is investigating. The UN says the number of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes this year – 649 through the end of September – is the highest in nearly a decade.

    Iraq: Heavy rains last weekend caused severe flooding, displacing thousands as tents were wiped out, homes destroyed, and an unknown number of people killed.

    Measles: In 2017, cases of measles increased 6,358 percent in the Americas (fuelled by an outbreak in Venezuela) and 458 percent in Europe (driven by “falsehoods” about the vaccine), according to a new study and press release from leading health agencies warning that the disease is in a “resurgence”.

    Vanuatu: The government of the Pacific nation is telling residents of Ambae to stay away from the island, which was completely evacuated in July due to an erupting volcano. It’s unclear when – or if – the estimated 9,000 or more residents will be allowed to return.

    Yemen: The US Senate voted on Wednesday to move forward with debate on a measure that would (if it succeeds, and that’s a big if) end American military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

     

    Coming up

     

    In Geneva on 4 December, the UN will appeal for humanitarian funding in 2019. The UN agencies, along with governments and many NGOs, put together annual plans to respond to the most urgent emergency situations. This year the Global Humanitarian Overview sought about $25 billion, to help 97 million people, and so far got about $14 billion. Donors are finding more to give, but needs keep rising. Things to watch: How big will Yemen's appeal need to get to ward off famine? Which countries will no longer need an appeal? Which will join the sorry ranks of the world's top crises? These giant funding appeals don't include all international efforts, by the way: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and MSF, for example, operate independently. While we’re digesting that, on 5 December, a beefy 330-page report lands, reviewing the sector over the last three years. ALNAP's sweeping State of the Humanitarian System publication is based on literature reviews, evaluations, original case studies, hundreds of interviews, surveys of recipients of aid and data analysis.

     

    Our weekend read

     

    Exposed: UNHCR's role in Uganda refugee aid scandal

     

    What do 15,000 solar lamps, 50,000 wheelbarrows, and 288,000 blankets have in common? It’s not a joke. Unbelievably, they are just part of the litany of waste the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, presided over in Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of civilians fled war and hunger in South Sudan needing every bit of help they could get. In February, when the scandal first broke, it was Ugandan officials in the firing line over a string of offences ranging from theft of relief items to appropriating land meant for refugees. Now, as IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker lays bare in our weekend read, it is very much UNHCR. An explosive audit by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services reveals a catalogue of errors and mismanagement totalling tens of millions of dollars. How and why could this happen? For clues, look at the vertiginous extent to which Uganda was being held up – during a period of rising xenophobia globally – as a model refugee-hosting nation. “Does that influence the oversight and dissuade UNHCR from digging a little deeper and uncovering corruption and mismanagement? Who has leverage on who?” asks one humanitarian insider.

     

    And finally…

     

    "They think I'm different"

     

    A 15-year-old boy is shoved to the ground by a bigger youth, who with one hand on his throat pours water on his face saying: "I'll drown you". A viral video of a sports pitch incident in northern England has led to police charges for the bully and an outpouring of help. In a TV interview, the boy, whose family are refugees resettled from Syria in 2016, said he and his sister had put up with a barrage of bullying and name-calling at school. "When I came to the UK, I felt I was going to be safe,” he said. While the school, police, and local authorities are facing questions over their handling of the case, a crowdfunding campaign has quickly raised about £150,000 ($190,000) to support the family.

     

    bp-si-as-il/ag

     

    Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders
  • IRIN Roundtable: Countering militancy in the Sahel

    The YouTube images are ubiquitous: angry young men brandishing guns, promising violence in the name of religion. What is so often unseen, obscured in the rush to condemn, is an understanding of what drives these (mainly) men to join militant movements – and of what may convince them to disengage from conflicts that have claimed tens of thousands of lives and left close to 11 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

    Over the past year, IRIN explored those issues as part of our reporting on the humanitarian impact of the interrelated jihadist conflicts in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Mali – and the possible paths to peace.

    Earlier this month we brought together three people who have had front-row seats on the rise of violent extremism in the region to discuss our recent reporting and next steps in slowing the rise of militancy and restoring stability to the region.

    Read more: Countering militancy in the Sahel

     

    To counter violent extremism, understanding its causes is key. “Structural factors” – poverty and government neglect – are often cited as laying the ground for jihadism to flourish.

    Read more: Why some Malians join armed groups

    What is often omitted, though, is the power an ideology has when a cause is framed as “sacred”. In northeastern Nigeria, the Salafist-jihad movement Boko Haram, draws on culture and history to portray its resistance to a “corrupt” government as a religious duty for all Muslims, in a region that has been a centre of Islamic learning for centuries.

    Boko Haram’s propaganda promotes an Islamic piety that is readily understood in the rural villages. As a result, they “are winning hearts and minds”, noted Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. The challenge for the government is to prove the benefits of democracy and constitutional rule.

    Read more:  Taking the fight against Boko Haram to the airwaves

    The panelists identified an overly militaristic response as likely to further fuel violent extremism. “The whole issue with a lot of these kinds of terrorism strategies is that they are treating the symptoms as opposed to the causes of radicalisation and extremism,” Ryan Cummings, a South Africa-based risk analyst who is co-authoring a book on so-called Islamic State, pointed out.

    A security-driven approach tends to overlook the complexities of the conflict, removes other options from the table, and serves to internationalise the fight, the panelists said.

    In Mali, for example, there are troops from France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, as well as a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, a five-nation regional intervention known as G-5, and an EU military training mission.

    Read more: A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

    And yet Mali is as deadly now as in 2012, when the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered a Tuareg rebellion, which in turn facilitated the growth of jihadist movements.

    Read more:  New violence eclipses Mali’s plans for peace

    How to move forward? There are growing calls to bring the insurgent groups to the negotiating table as part of a political process. But such initiatives are fraught with complications over finding the right channels to reach the jihadist leadership, and developing trust and the domestic conditions to enable talks.

    Read more:  Negotiations with jihadists? A radical idea gains currency in Mali

     

    Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have all launched amnesty programmes to peel away militants looking to surrender. But it is unclear whether these initiatives are not just another form of counter-insurgency rather than part of a genuine attempt at political settlement, the panelists suggested. Moreover, such programmes provide impunity for fighters who have carried out acts of violence, while their victims are ignored – receiving neither justice nor financial support to rebuild their lives.

    Read more:  Peace in northeastern Nigeria requires justice for military crimes not just Boko Haram atrocities

    And the panelists emphasised that local communities must be included in any peace and reintegration processes. More on that – and those cupcakes – below.

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, follow.

    The panelists

    • Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think tank covering West Africa.
    • Ryan Cummings, a director at the South African risk mitigation firm Signal Risk, and co-author of a book on the so-called Islamic State.
    • Chika Oduah, a multimedia journalist who has spent the last several years covering the conflict in northeastern Nigeria.  

    Moderator: Obi Anyadike, IRIN editor-at-large and a research fellow on violent extremism with Open Society Foundations.

     

    On the root causes

     

    Ryan Cummings: “The important aspect of it is – whether the violence is driven by ideology or a sense of marginalisation – there is a disconnect in the social contract between the communities affected [by radicalisation] and the state, and even within the communities themselves.”

    Idayat Hassan: “I think the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram is the future of the insurgency. In this sect you have very young people who are well trained and have a [firm] set of beliefs … They do not target people [preferring to focus on the military] and when they enter communities they are well received. Their emphasis is on winning hearts and minds, on making themselves a bulwark against the ‘wicked’ Nigerian government.”

    Read more:  The danger of a better-behaved Boko Haram

    On the mistake of militarisation

    Cummings: “You have communities that are being victimised by extremist groups but are also perceived as being sympathetic towards them, and so are also victimised by these counter-terrorism initiatives – carried out by foreign forces for the most part. [Military strategies need to be balanced] by a softer approach, with a focus on greater democratisation, building state capacity and focusing on development.”

     

    Hassan: “I think the biggest challenge we have is the militaristic approach, and this simplistic belief that most of these groups are not ideologically oriented; that they are mere criminal groups, or that most of the challenges are as a result of the underdevelopment in the Sahel [and are not political].”

    On the humanitarian toll

    Chika Oduah: “I think in Nigeria, this is probably the hugest humanitarian crisis seen since the 1967 civil war. What we're seeing is really of epic proportions, and it's way too much for the local government to handle; it's too much for the federal government to handle. And I think also perhaps the international community's becoming overwhelmed, because there are other crises competing for resources.”

    Read more:  In Nigeria, healing the scars of war might curtail its spread

    On paths to peace

    Cummings: “It’s a very difficult process, because ultimately there are certain conditions that need to be met for these groups to enter into dialogue. And within these groups themselves, you might find factions that are conducive to dialogue whereas others are completely resistant to it. [But] the minute that you do open a dialogue channel you are ultimately listening, as opposed to increasing the potential for radicalisation.”

    “To achieve a binding peace and that degree of social cohesion which is conducive to a binding peace… you do need to have a process that focuses on addressing the ideology behind the radicalised mindset, to create a position for those voices to be heard. But you must also moderate them to the extent where leveraging violence is no longer considered an option.”

     

    Hassan: “When you are focusing on a military approach, you are not dealing with the vital issue of accountability. You are not making governance work for the poor by delivering public goods and services. You are not building trust. It then becomes impossible to defeat the insurgency.  

     

    Read more:  How jobs can help Niger win the war against Boko Haram

    On reintegrating ex-jihadists

    Hassan: “There are no explicit frameworks in terms of carrying out these deradicalisation, rehabilitation, and reintegration programmes. And this raises challenges both in terms of international law [the terms under which the fighters are detained prior to release] and in moving forward to their reintegration.”

    “In the community, people do not have food, people do not have clothing, people do not have shelter. Yet the government is attempting to bring back ex-militants who have committed war crimes but have been treated better than the communities to which they are returning – they’ve even had vocational training.”

     

    “People in the community want to understand how a 16-week programme will actually deradicalise insurgents – some of them known to the community because they've actually bombed their house, killed their families, or maimed them.”

     

    Read more:  Boko Haram: Nigeria winning the battle but losing the war?

    On “conflict-preneurs”

    Oduah: “Unfortunately, there are many people in northeastern Nigeria who have profited from the Boko Haram insurgency – from the people at the top all the way down to the woman on the street who's selling groundnuts. They're benefiting from ‘foreigners’, like myself, who are coming to do reporting, they're benefiting from the aid workers who are there. There are accusations that soldiers are also benefiting. There are stories of them controlling some of the trade routes, especially the [lucrative] fish market in the Lake Chad region.”

    Hassan: “The humanitarians are also accused of benefiting. The locals say, 'Look, you guys should go, because, one way or the other, you are the ones that are profiting from this conflict – so you can have opportunities, so that you can do your research, so that you can bring food.’  So just for instance… you're talking in terms of vocational training for people, but in one IDP programme they are training them on how to bake cupcakes – cupcakes! For what? Here, people do not [have money to] eat. They definitely do not have money to buy cupcakes.”

    Read more:  Fighting violent extremism – humanitarians beware

    On gender

    Hassan: “I think it's very important to point out that women are not powerless, particularly in their involvement with Boko Haram. There's been so much focus on showcasing women as victims rather than actors in this whole insurgency. But there is another side. I have personally met women who were involved in the insurgency [who are now IDPs], and they want to go back to the bush and believe fervently in the doctrine.

    “So they are not helpless. They are not necessarily victims. Some are happy participants, and some of these women are even the ones who are building the next generation of Boko Haram.”

    Read more:  Coerced or committed? Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers

    On vigilante groups

    Oduah: “Vigilantes are filling the gap left by the security forces [but they have committed excesses]. I know of some vigilantes who have engaged in criminal activity alongside Boko Haram, and they're not being stopped. Many of the vigilante [leaders] are making a lot of money, and they're building huge houses across northeastern Nigeria, and they're looking for political positions as well.

    “It's something that we see often in Nigeria, where people who are supposed to protect the community become the terrorists. Right now there are no talks to find a way to engage these young people who have risked their lives. Many of them are literally sitting on the sidewalk smoking, getting high. So as long as they're out of school and unengaged, they're [a danger].”

    Read more:  Nigeria wakes up to its growing vigilante problem

    oa/js/ag

    One size doesn’t fit all. What works? What doesn’t?
    IRIN Roundtable: Countering militancy in the Sahel

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