August 19, 2020
IntelBrief: Northeast Nigeria’s Growing Insecurity Threatens Humanitarian Aid Workers and Civilians
Eleven years of conflict have ravaged broad swaths of the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY). Entire communities have been devastated, and according to the Aid Worker Security Database, at least 60 aid workers have been killed in this region during that time span. In the last 12 months alone, a total of 24 aid workers have been killed by non-state armed groups operating in the region. Despite claims by the Nigerian government, neither Boko Haram nor the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have been defeated. Both groups have suffered setbacks, but retain their capacity to target civilians, including health and aid workers. The most recent attack against humanitarians was recorded in July when five aid workers who had been kidnapped a month earlier were executed. A 35-second video of their execution was posted online as a warning to international aid groups. ISWAP insurgents made similar threats following a twin attack on June 13 against the town of Mongono, a garrison town and humanitarian hub where many aid workers are based. Vehicles were set ablaze and an unexploded missile was discovered outside the main humanitarian facility. The insurgents distributed letters to residents warning them not to work with the military or international aid groups. Similarly, in January 2020, ISWAP carried out a violent assault against an aid facility housing UN workers in the town of Ngala.
Attacks against aid workers in northeast Nigeria greatly impact the ability of organizations to provide life-saving relief to those in desperate need. Currently, nearly 11 million people out of the 13 million who live in BAY states need humanitarian assistance. However, in northeast Nigeria, the military has restricted aid organizations from operating outside of government-controlled areas and has shut down offices of international NGOs in an attempt to intimidate the aid community. In fact, aid organizations have only been allowed to intervene in garrison towns. Aid organizations have expressed frustration and view these restrictions as an infringement upon their humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality. These limitations are also turning aid staff into targets for non-state armed groups. ‘We feel trapped. On one hand, we have the obligation to operate only in military-controlled areas, and on other hand, armed groups see us as accomplices of the Nigerian military and government,’ according to the Country Director of an international aid organization operating in northeast Nigeria. While most aid organizations seek to access hard-to-reach areas in austere and rugged terrain, including those under the control of non-state armed groups, Nigerian authorities have dictated what the humanitarian space should look like. Since Nigeria’s military moved to a ‘super camp’ strategy – repositioning troops from the country to heavily-defended garrison towns – aid actors have had their zones of operation tightly restricted. ‘Geographically, the humanitarian space in northeast Nigeria is identical to the military space,’ says the same Country Director. Humanitarian access in the region is limited and aid workers fear that their access could reach levels as low as those experienced from 2015-2016.
The operational tempo of Boko Haram and ISWAP attacks in northeast Nigeria also concerns security experts. Both insurgent groups have demonstrated impressive resilience following military offensives and are seeking to expand their footprint outside of the territories they traditionally control. ‘The internal dynamics of these groups keep changing, but that doesn’t affect their military capability,’ Murtala Abdullahi, a researcher with HumAngle, an African daily newspaper focused on humanitarian and security issues, told The New Humanitarian. Against this backdrop, intercommunal conflicts, banditry, cattle rustling, and kidnappings have increased in central and northwestern Nigeria in recent years. In a video released in June, Boko Haram members appealed to people in those regions to join the group, including in multiple local languages. The recent killing of six French aid workers and two Nigerien nationals in Koure, Niger, might be the most recent confirmation that an arch of extremism is forming across the region.
Humanitarian access constraints throughout Nigeria remain daunting. In the northeast, affected by the Boko Haram crisis, the Nigerian military has restricted aid organizations from operating outside government-controlled areas, cutting off access to people in need living in insurgent-controlled areas. Insecurity caused by insurgents, with reported attacks on major road infrastructure, make the operational context unpredictable and volatile. Constraints on aid agencies’ imports and a cumbersome registration process are reported to be particularly challenging at both the federal and state level. Limitations on the import of lifesaving medication and regulations on fuel and fertilizer quotas to aid agencies, imposed by the military and security forces, further constrain access for humanitarian organizations, which already face serious obstacles from the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on movement put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.