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Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
Borno state holds the most displaced people in Nigeria.
BLAME GAME

Nigeria’s president has accused the UN of exaggerating the scale of an imminent famine

By Yomi Kazeem

For months, the United Nations and its agencies have warned of the possibility of a famine in Nigeria’s troubled northeast. Mired in a devastating insurgency led by terrorist group Boko Haram for the last seven years, the region has seen millions of people displaced from their homes and villages destroyed. With critical amenities like schools and clinics also shut down in some areas, internally displaced people (IDP) in the northeast have been housed in overcrowded camps.

In June, a Doctors Without Borders report described the state of an IDP camp in Borno, the state with the most displaced people, as a “catastrophic humanitarian emergency.” The report’s claims were corroborated by UNICEF which pegged the number of malnourished kids in Borno state at quarter of a million in July.

Most recently, the UN projected that up to 5 million people could face “serious food shortages” in the coming year. But, in response, the Nigerian government says international agencies are exaggerating the scale of the problem in a bid to attract funding. “We are concerned about the blatant attempts to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation by some aid agencies, a type of hype that does not provide a solution to the situation on the ground but more to do with calculations for operations financing locally and abroad,” a presidential spokesman said.

While admitting the “effect of the Boko Haram terrorism” in the region, the government says it does not “see the reason for the  theories and hyperbolic claims being made ostensibly to draw donor support by some of the aid agencies.” The statement also describes “the hype, especially that which suggests that the government is doing nothing” as “uncharitable and unnecessary.”

To its credit, president Buhari’s administration has made gains in the fight against Boko Haram. Territories have been regained as life is starting to return to normal in former terrorist strongholds. The government has also recorded success rescuing thousands of abductees including some of the Chibok girls whose kidnap, in 2014, made global headlines. But repeatedly, reports about the state of some IDP camps are grim and Nigeria’s government seems more concerned with its image as well as the perception of the president. For its part, the government has worked with groups to ease the strain on the IDP camps but the general consensus is that those efforts have not been enough. Also, strikingly, President Buhari, since taking office, has not visited any of the IDP camps in Borno, the worst affected state.

“All over these IDP camps from Bama to Yola, it is UN agencies that have stepped up where the government has not and picked the mantle of feeding these people,” Eromo Egbejule, a freelance journalist who has spent the past three months covering IDP camps in Borno, tells Quartz. “Rather than pick holes in their work, the federal government should be more interested in complementing their efforts.”