Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: The Humanitarian Crisis in North-East Nigeria–A Time to Act

Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: The Humanitarian Crisis in North-East Nigeria–A Time to Act

[Jared Miller is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University focusing on governance, peacebuilding, and anti-corruption in Nigeria.]

“By the time a famine is declared, it’s too late. . . it means people are already dying of hunger”

World Food Programme, 4 May 2021


In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari appeared on the BBC and declared a ‘technical victory’ over Boko Haram, yet six years later, the insurgency rages on, and the resulting humanitarian crisis has reached historic heights. The UN estimates that as many as 5.1 million people in North-East Nigeria are currently at risk of becoming critically food insecure during the next lean season (June to August 2021), a scale not seen since 2016-2017 when parts of the North East experienced famine.  In 2018, Nigeria was one of the ‘four famine countries’ that prompted the UN to adopt UNSC Resolution 2417 recognizing the link between conflict-induced food insecurity and threat of famine, and launch a global call for action. The humanitarian response in Nigeria, however, continues to face major constraints in reaching at-risk populations, a lack of security for operations, and insufficient data to determine the full extent of the crisis. While the challenges are significant, the last six years of this manmade crisis demonstrate that famine can be prevented, and food security can be improved.  Doing so, however, will require the Nigerian government to live up to its newly declared mantra of cooperation.

UNSC 2417: The Conflict-Crisis Nexus

The humanitarian crisis in North-East Nigeria, and now northern Nigeria more broadly, epitomizes the connection between conflict and humanitarian crises described by UNSC 2417. The North East crisis is the direct result of a brutal 12-year Boko Haram insurgency (and splinter groups such as the Islamic State in West African Province) and government counterinsurgency campaign that have collectively caused over three million people across the region to flee their homes and claimed more than 33,000 lives. This is a manmade tragedy, but political entrepreneurs have also turned it into a lucrative opportunity. As the crisis deepens, prompting massive security and humanitarian spending, along with the increasing promise of future funds to rebuild, for certain individuals, the ensuing crisis economy has become more lucrative than the peacetime economy.  The past years of military and humanitarian operations have been plagued by reports of government diversion of security funds and humanitarian aid intended for communities. At its worst, this was epitomized by the 2015 Armsgate scandal in which top Nigerian security officials are believed to have embezzled more than $2.1 billion intended to purchase military equipment for the counterinsurgency campaign. Corruption also undermines the effectiveness of aid on a daily basis. In a 2020 survey, participants said one of the key reasons aid does not reach them is because ‘government officials took it.’ This is not a new dynamic, but it is an ongoing challenge. The crisis has brought massive resource flows intended to stem the violence and provide life-saving aid to communities, but for some, these became lucrative opportunities, and the crisis became profitable.

From Famine to Permanent Crisis

The large-scale humanitarian response began in 2016 in response to evidence of a growing humanitarian crisis, and as would later be discovered, conditions of famine.

In August 2016, the first conditions of famine in Borno were reported by Cadre Harmonisé. Their assessment estimated that 4.5 million people across the northeast faced acute food insecurity and required immediate assistance. In addition, they found that evidence that 65,000 individuals had been in famine-like conditions in Borno and Yobe, but at the time, their data did not meet the threshold to declare a famine in those areas. A key challenge was that only a few of the Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Borno were accessible at that time to emergency teams. FEWS NET would later report that famine likely occurred in Bama and Banki towns during 2016 and that an estimated 2,000 famine-related deaths may have occurred between January and September 2016. FEWS NET also reported that famine may have also occurred and may have been ongoing in inaccessible parts of Borno during 2016, but that not enough information was available to determine whether it was or not. This reflects both the ongoing access challenges, and the continued challenge of accurately assessing the crisis with insufficient data. Over the next four years, millions across North-East Nigeria would continue to experience food crisis (CH Phase 3 and up) with humanitarian actors providing lifesaving aid. 

Currently, an estimated 5.1 million people in North-East Nigeria are at risk of being critically food insecure during the next lean season (June to August 2021). While the situation is not as dire as in 2016-2017 when famine-like conditions occurred, the Global Report on Food Crises, warns that it could quickly worsen, especially given the access constraints. An estimated 3.2 million people across Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe are in partially or completely inaccessible areas due to a combination of security threats, unsecured roadways, and government access restrictions. While famine is not currently predicted, seven local government areas in Borno state are expected to experience emergency levels of food insecurity (CH Phase 4) during the coming lean season. If the security situation continues to deteriorate limiting access to food, income sources, and/or humanitarian assistance for an extended period of time, famine could be possible.

In their analysis of the current crisis, The Global Report on Food Crises makes an important point: this is not the first time Nigeria has faced these conditions and widespread famine was avoided in the past due to the massive humanitarian response. Currently, however, the UN has raised only $155.5 million (less than 16 percent) of the estimated $1.01 billion needed in order to provide 8.7 million people across northern Nigeria with lifesaving humanitarian assistance in 2021.  Unfortunately, raising the needed funds is only part of the problem.

Humanitarian Challenges: Access, Insecurity, and Insufficient Data

The UN launched its first major fundraising appeal in 2016 in response to reports of the growing humanitarian crisis. Since 2016, the humanitarian response has massively scaled averaging over a billion dollars in humanitarian aid each year. While humanitarians have been largely successful in preventing famine, they have faced three key challenges in providing much-needed aid: access, insecurity, and insufficient data.

Access to at-risk Populations

One of the key challenges facing humanitarian organizations across most conflicts is being able to access at-risk populations and operate without government interference. Since 2016, the Nigerian government has limited humanitarian operations to areas under government control and officially prohibited organizations from negotiating with Boko Haram for access to at-risk populations. The Nigerian government has argued that this is to ensure the protection of the humanitarian actors and ensure that humanitarian aid is not going to support Boko Haram. The Nigerian government has even suspended organizations following allegations that the organizations had cooperated with members of Boko Haram. These allegations were later proven false and some argue they were done to send a message to organizations willing to criticize the government. Critics of these movement restrictions, however, argue that this has greatly limited the ability of humanitarian actors to operate effectively and independently, and has placed large segments of the at-risk populations out of reach. The Nigerian government claims to be in control of the majority of Borno state, and UNOCHA maps report being able to access part of 23 out of 27 local government areas, but some humanitarian actors report that this access is largely limited to garrison towns leaving as much as 85 percent of the state inaccessible. The consequence is that as many as 3.2 million Nigerians in the North-East at risk of food insecurity are in partially or completely inaccessible areas. Recent experience, however, has shown that even in government-controlled areas, humanitarian actors are not necessarily safe to operate.

Insecurity and Boko Haram Attacks

Recent headlines have been dominated by reports of multi-day attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) across northern Nigeria, with several attacks specifically targeting humanitarian actors and operations. Epitomized by the recent attacks on Dikwa and Damasak, humanitarian actors are operating within government confined spaces yet lack the vital government protection needed to operate. The Boko Haram attacks on Dikwa led the UN to temporarily suspend operations meaning 85,000 people in need of humanitarian aid were not able to receive it. Boko Haram and ISWAP attacks targeting humanitarian operations are not new, but their continued occurrence decreases confidence in the Nigerian government and has led humanitarian actors to rethink what they can safely do.

Politics of Crisis Analysis

One of the consequences of limited access and widespread insecurity has been that analysis of the humanitarian crisis, and specifically, the food insecurity crisis is likely understated and quickly outdated. As previously mentioned, the original food security analyses failed to predict famine in 2016 partly due to insufficient data. This is not a challenge unique to Nigeria, but it is a point worth emphasizing given the politicization of access. The challenges of early humanitarian analyses have been extensively documented by researchers, but they are issues that persist.  In 2020, partially due to the Army’s withdrawal to ‘garrison towns’, government control of territory shrank to a level perhaps not seen since before 2015. In addition, humanitarian actors are increasingly facing attacks on previously secure roads further limiting mobility. Given the government’s prohibition for humanitarian actors to go to areas outside government control without government escorts, this creates a major limit of accurately assessing the current crisis. At the same time, estimates of individuals needing humanitarian aid, and those facing food insecurity (CH Phases 2-5), continue to rise.

Operation Hadin Kai (Cooperation): A More than a Symbolic Shift?

In late April 2021, the Nigerian Army announced a renaming of the counterinsurgency operation to Operation Hadin Kai, meaning ‘cooperation’. Previously, it was named Operation Lafiya Dole, meaning ‘peace by all means’, which epitomized much of the military’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign and legacy of alleged human rights abuses. The Operation Hadin Kai renaming followed Buhari’s January 2021 replacement of the military leaders, something Nigerians and Nigerian politicians have long called for Buhari to do. Many hope that this name change symbolizes a larger change in tactics.

Locally, Borno State Governor Babagana Umara Zulum has also echoed these calls for cooperation. Governor Zulum, elected in May 2019, is the former Commissioner for Reconstruction and is seen by communities as understanding the humanitarian, security, and development challenges they are facing and having the technical experience to be an effective governor during this crisis. Since being sworn in, Zulum has been focused on rebuilding Borno state and restoring people’s livelihoods so that they are no longer dependent on humanitarian aid.  

Could these be two key positive shifts in line with a broader shift from opposition to cooperation with humanitarian actors and most importantly with communities?  Initial reports are optimistic, but only time will tell.


Current assessments of the crisis in North-East Nigeria paint an alarming picture.  As many as 5.1 million are predicted to be critically food insecure during the coming lean season, and as many as 3.2 million people will be in areas that are partially or completely inaccessible. This crisis is manmade, and it can be addressed.  The lean season is less than a month away, now is the time to act.

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