Home Opinion IDPs: Refugees in their own country, By Kazeem Akintunde

IDPs: Refugees in their own country, By Kazeem Akintunde

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A friend, who is a deputy director in one of the federal ministries has a building project in Kuje Area Council of Abuja. Though the house – six two-bedroom apartments – has not been completed, it has been roofed. He was looking for money for the plastering phase when he discovered that the house has been ‘taken over’ by displaced refugees from Borno State. He was shocked but there was nothing he could do to eject the unwanted guests on his property. That was in 2017.

He had to appoint a leader among the men, whom he tutored, on the need to ensure that the surroundings are kept clean while open and indiscriminate defecation was checkmated. Due to the harsh economic condition in the country, he has not been able to raise enough funds to continue the project and ejecting his ‘uninvited tenants’ has become a herculean task.

In Kuje and most of the satellite towns around Abuja, any uncompleted building that has been roofed is most likely to be taken over by Nigerians who have been displaced from their homes due to the activities of the dreaded Boko Haram sect in the North East or the marauding activities of terrorists and bandits in the North-West and some parts of the North-Central.  Gradually, many Nigerians have been turned to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their own country. 

As of the last count, there are over three million Nigerians, according to the figure provided by the UNHCR, internally displaced Nigerians living within the country while another 778,000 are taking refuge in Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. That figure was recorded as at December 2020. 

These are people that have been forced to flee their homes to escape death with no hope of returning soon as all their lifelong properties have been destroyed. While some find solace in uncompleted buildings scattered around the satellite towns in the FCT, many are in camps designated for internally displaced persons by the Federal Government. 

In Abuja and neighboring satellite towns, there are four camps for Internally Displaced Persons. These are the new Kuchingoro IDP Camp, Lugbe IDP Camp, Area One IDP Camp and Kuje IDP Camp. The new Kuchingoro IDP camp, a ramshackle, squalid, barely habitable cluster of tents ‎made of tarpaulin, zinc and fabric, sprang up in 2014,  in what was hitherto, undeveloped hectares of land filled with cashew trees. Up till now, the residents still lack the most basic amenities. Yet, this is a camp that housed over 2,000 IDPs who are mostly refugees from Borno and Adamawa states, who have been displaced from their homes by Boko Haram. 

Life in the camp is hellish for the residents. Their constant companions are hunger and diseases. During the lockdown, officials of the National Emergency Management Agency gave them two buckets and liquid soap so that we can wash their hands to prevent coronavirus disease from spreading in the camp. Though those items were collected, they made it known to the officials that what they needed the most was food. While able-bodied men and women were given palliatives, those in the IDP camps got nothing.

A visit to the camp shows utter neglect. Some old women sat on the floor, under the shade of trees while children, clad in dirty and torn clothes, ran about the camp, seemingly oblivious of their unfortunate situation. The few youths around ‎sat in clusters under another tree, discussing in subdued tones.

 As it was in Kuchingoro, so it is in many IDP camps across the country. The living conditions of many of the internally displaced persons in camps provided for them by the Federal Government is nothing to write home about. Many of them live in squalor, exposed to the elements, and the children have no hope of getting any formal education.

In the last 10 years, several Northern villages are now a no-go zone. Those living in those areas have either been killed or displaced. Several villages in the North still standing are at the mercy of the dreaded Boko Haram sect. Farming, which was the major occupation of those villages, have long been abandoned. No wonder the prices of most essential food items have hit the roof.

The anguish faced by many of those displaced has been exacerbated by conflict-induced food insecurity and severe malnutrition, which have risen to critical levels in Northern Nigeria. Despite the efforts of governments and humanitarian aid, some 12.5 million people remain in need of humanitarian assistance in the Lake Chad Basin region, with 5.3 million people remaining food insecure.

The challenges of protecting the displaced are compounded by the deteriorating security situation as well as socio-economic fragility, with communities in the Sahel region facing chronic poverty, harsh climatic conditions, recurrent epidemics, poor infrastructure and limited access to basic services. 

Although technically, Nigeria is not at war with any of its neighbouring countries, it’s been at war with itself as the Boko Haram sect has literarily declared war on the government and people which has forced millions of Nigerians to flee their residence. Worse, there hasn’t been a proper mode of looking after the refugees as the level of care they receive is appalling nor a proper reintegration into the society.

For residents of an IDP camp at Durumi, near Area 1, in Abuja Municipal Area Council, access to medical care is currently their biggest challenge, following the suspension of healthcare subvention hitherto provided for them by the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons. Most of the residents in the camp are natives of Gwoza LGA of Borno State, and they used to enjoy free medical care at the National Hospital, Abuja, upon the presentation of a letter ‎from the Commission, but lately, that is no longer the case. The National Hospital has stopped giving them free medical care owing to cessation of payment for their treatment.

Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – a UN agency with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people – stipulates that IDPs should be under the protection of their own government, the travails of displaced persons in most IDP camps in Nigeria suggest that governments at all levels are neglecting the highly vulnerable segment of the society. The situation is more worrisome as worsening insecurity is continuously turning more Nigerians into refugees in their own country.

‎Once in the camp, most of the IDPs are largely left to fend for themselves, without any support from the government. In all the IDP camps in the FCT and parts of Nasarawa and Niger states, IDPs bitterly complain of neglect by the government. To survive, many of them resort to farming while the females engage in prostitution. Many of those who are duty-bound to take care of the IDPs also take advantage of their precarious situation to cheat and further oppress them. 

While the IDPs are left in their helpless state, the Federal Government seems to have rolled out the red carpet to take care of repentant Boko Haram members who are now treated like kings. Indeed, ex-Boko Haram fighters are being rewarded with scholarships and employment as part of a ‘reintegration and de-radicalisation’ programme implemented by the Federal Government. If the government is taking care of the ex-Boko Haram fighters, it is only fair that government should also look after the IDPs who are victims of the Boko Haram insurgency. The ex-Boko Haram fighters being granted amnesty are the ones who put these IDPs in their precarious situation and deserve to be taken care of. It gives the dangerous impression that one has to become an enemy of State to be recognised.

An exemption, has however, been the Borno State Governor, Prof. Babagana Zulum, who has been at the forefront of taking care of IDPs in the hardest-hit North-Eastern state. Just recently, he supervised the distribution of N275 million to 90,000 households of internally displaced persons, who were also given bags of food, and textiles.

The Federal Government should also work out how to provide seed funds of at least N100,000 to each of the men and women in the IDP camps to enable them to start life afresh before they are ejected from those camps and should not be forced to return to their ancestral land where they might be attacked again by the marauding sect. With such funds, it would be easier for them to start petty trading while those interested in returning to the farm can do so ahead of the rainy season. Again, attention should be given to the children of these displaced people by enrolling them in schools to control an already alarming rate of out-of-school children in the country while those that are sick and malnourished should be catered for as a matter of urgency. 

For over three million Nigerians to be displaced inside their own country for close to 10 years, wasting away, destitute, does not speak well for the so-called giant of Africa that Nigeria is known to be. If we cannot take care of the weak and helpless in our midst, there is no reason why we should continue to lay claim to such appellation.

See you next week.

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