Punch Editorial Board
President Muhammadu Buhari’s order for the arrest and prosecution of government officials alleged to have stolen food items meant for Internally Displaced Persons in the North-East of the country is an appropriate response to a situation that borders on a scandal. In fact, the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, should see the embarrassing issue as an act of criminality, which should be treated with dispatch, and in line with the laws of the land.
It is indeed sad that it has taken a protest by hungry women in the IDP camps for the untoward activities of criminally-minded public officials to elicit a response from the President, especially over an issue that is not completely new. Before the women took to the streets of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, on August 25, to protest the poor conditions in their camps, there were reports of a shootout between soldiers who were trying to benefit from the rice meant for the IDPs and mobile policemen bent on preventing the former from having their way. That no death was recorded in the incident is still a miracle, although a policeman and many IDPs were reportedly injured.
It actually took the intervention of a senior military officer to avert a tragedy even as the IDPs had to scamper for safety. This has once again put Nigeria in bad light globally, especially among those currently mobilising support for the victims of Boko Haram’s terror campaign in the North-East. The shameless diversion of food, which is not even enough to go round among the IDPs, is an act of corruption, which is not good for the image of a country described four months ago as “fantastically corrupt” by the immediate past Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron.
Apparently, the failure to fish out the culprits in the shootout incident has further emboldened other officials to continue to short-change the IDPs who are actually in dire need of good food to make up for their current nutritional deficiencies. It was reported that some branded rice meant for free distribution at the IDP camps were found being sold in the open market.
Of course, the Borno State Government has not helped matters by instinctively heaping the blame for all the ills in the camps on political opponents; that will not help in solving the crisis. If the government is really interested in getting to the bottom of the matter, all it has to do is to arrest the sellers of the food items and they will surely mention the sources of their supply. That nobody has so far been conclusively prosecuted over the criminal diversion is an indication of the government’s lack of interest in doing so.
It is only in a soulless society that privileged members will endeavour to profit from the misfortune of their less fortunate compatriots. At a time when the whole world has been rallying to alleviate the suffering of the victims of Boko Haram’s seven-year mayhem and draw attention to their plight, Nigerians have been busy trying to become rich by diverting their food.
Conditions at the IDP camps, which some people with perverted minds have been trying to take advantage of, have been quite horrendous. During a recent visit to the IDP camps, the United Nations Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, was moved to call on the government to “act urgently to ensure that food, shelter, medical care, water, sanitation and other essential services reach the IDPs without delay.”
According to the international medical humanitarian organisation, Doctors Without Borders, the camps are bulging with severely malnourished children in an environment of poor hygiene and hunger. The Head of the organisation’s mission in Nigeria, Ghada Hatim, said in June that the condition had led to avoidable deaths. “We were told (that) more than 30 people were dying a day due to hunger and illness,” said Hatim, who reportedly counted 1,233 graves dug within one year in Bama, one of the towns hosting the IDPs in Borno State. The group said that between May 23 and the day of its visit, 188 people had died in the camp, bringing it to six deaths per day.
Nigeria is said to be home to about 2.4 million IDPs, making it “the fastest growing displacement crisis in Africa,” according to the Head, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Kate Pond, in May. The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre Global Overview 2015 said crises in Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria helped to bring the total number of the IDPs the world over to a record-breaking 38 million. “In total, these five countries account for 60 per cent of new displacement worldwide,” the report said.
From what Hatim gathered during his visit, many of the deaths were as a result of starvation. This is a good reason for an urgent response from the government. Efforts should be made to provide clean water to the camps to avert the outbreak of an epidemic, especially of diseases such as cholera and Lassa fever, common yearly in that part of the country during the rainy season. There should also be enough medical facilities in case of any health emergency.
In particular, a better arrangement should be made to ensure that food supply gets to all those in need. Even though the Borno State Government said a new arrangement of giving food directly to the people had replaced the previous one, whereby distribution was done through a committee, it should be properly monitored to ensure that the change is working. But, above all, the government should ensure that in places where Boko Haram has been defeated, enough security is put in place so that the people can eventually return home, since there is no place like home.