Growing pains for iNGOs in Nigeria

Policemen at a checkpoint in Nigeria. NGOs working in the country face security challenges. Photo by: jbdodane / CC BY-NC

After a surge in operations by militant group Boko Haram through 2014 has already forced nearly half a million people from their homes, Nigeria is now facing an impending food security crisis which threatens rural populations in the northern and central regions of the country.

Pushed out of their lands by the insurgency and its indiscriminate violence, an increasing number of Nigerian farmers have been left with no choice but to abandon their fields and find shelter in neighboring countries. The phenomenon is not new, as the nation experienced a similar humanitarian emergency situation just last year.

The support of international NGOs in mitigating the worst effects of the food crisis in affected communities will continue to be crucial. As the frequency of attacks continues to increase, iNGOs face complex security challenges when conducting their operations, despite a well-established presence in the country.

Sectarian conflict and fighting between government forces, Boko Haram militants and various armed groups thriving on Nigeria’s security vacuum have compounded the problems of a short rainy season and the lack of effective infrastructure. On top of the insurgency, communal tensions have also rekindled conflicts between the nation’s various ethnic groups, adding even more fuel to the instability. Residents have complained about the inadequate response from local authorities, who lack the capability to reach deprived areas in the northeast. The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has identified food security as a key priority in the restive states of Borno, Taraba, Yobe and Adamawa, which correlates directly with the high levels of violence witnessed in those areas.

While insecurity is the key concern influencing iNGO strategy in allocating and distributing resources, it continues to cause delays and disruption in the much-needed delivery of aid to the restive northern states, where foreign aid workers are regular targets of kidnapping.

Despite this, Nigeria remains one of the largest recipients of official development aid assistance — and major organisations are planning to increase their aid budgets in the country. ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department, has committed to spending $13 million this year to provide food and medical assistance to victims of violence. Government aid agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development regard the stability of Nigeria as crucial to wider regional stability and are working hard to mobilize further projects in the north.

Operating in many areas of northern Nigeria, despite the significant security challenges, is still possible, but must rely on a robust, intelligence-led risk management approach which is informed by — and which protects — the communities within which organizations operate.

Boko Haram militants have succeeded in halting many large aid projects in neighboring Cameroon by using actual and threatened violence. We believe it is inevitable that Boko Haram will increasingly use this tactic to target aid as a means of controlling communities and leveraging power. The expected increase in international efforts to respond to the unfolding food crisis is likely to amplify the security challenges presented by Boko Haram and other armed groups.

The notable uptick in spectacular and large-scale attacks throughout 2014 has overshadowed the long-term — but equally devastating — effects of disease and malnutrition among displaced or terrorized communities.

Ultimately, though, Nigeria’s domestic security issues are a reflection of the country’s poor governance. Major reforms to the political system and security forces, whose weaknesses have enabled Boko Haram to exploit existing tensions, social fractures and socio-economic conditions, will have to precede any discernible improvement in the security situation.

In the short-term, therefore, international support remains essential to any hope of regaining stability. But even if reforms do follow next year’s elections, the effects will not become immediately visible — and ODA flows to Africa’s economic leader seems set to continue for decades.

Faced with this scenario of a continuing, long-term commitment to a country with a worsening security environment, iNGOs need to consider robust security strategies which not only protect their staff and other assets, but also the disadvantaged communities increasingly reliant on them for support.

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About the author

  • Tim Jones

    Tim Jones is a risk and advisory manager focused on the Middle East and Africa for international consultancy firm Edinburgh International. A skilled manager, report-writer and security risk specialist, Jones has extensive experience managing projects, conducting analysis and delivering training in complex security environments.