In 2014 as the increase in the number of people fleeing insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria gained international attention, a top Government official convened a meeting of head of UN agencies, donors, NGOs and Government-line Ministries leading the response.
The international actors at the meeting expressed concerns that the low figure of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) was due to over 90 percent of the displaced living with families and host communities. The international actors called for `well organized IDPs camps’ to ‘pull’ these IDPs hosted by families and communities into camps for humanitarian assistance.
The Nigerian Minister was livid at what she saw as a derogatory representation of the African extended family system: these were her words “Yes we know you are here and must package the issues in ways you understand but note that this is not a question of humanitarian and humanitarian principles, but our culture. You focus only on the single family but for us family extends as widely as possible, this has been our traditional means for disaster mitigation, resilience and recovery. We don’t want to lose it.” For her the displaced living with family and hosted by communities was not a default, `but a solution to be commended.’
Until 2013, before the northeast insurgency crisis escalated, Nigeria did not have a protracted IDP situation. People were displaced by intercommunal conflict and recurring floods, but they were sheltered short term in hostel-like camps. In 2012, a year before this meeting took place, Nigeria faced a major flood crisis that left 2.2 million people displaced. The response was led by the National Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation chaired by Nigeria’s Billionaire Aliko Dangote.
The private sector led committee raised over 200 million USD to respond to the flood including facilitating the resettlement of the 2.2 million flood displaced people within three months. Members of the committee took on visits to affected states and communities to ensure affected and displaced peoples were resettled. To this day, the committee continues to lead the response for flood displaced people through the construction of `IDP’ hostels to temporarily shelter people displaced by flood, and the provision of cash to support the return and resettlement of the displaced.
As the insurgency attacks gained international attention leading to the increased presence of international actors, the call for ‘well managed” IDP camps in the northeast of Nigeria grew. The concern raised by international actors at the 2013 meeting for an increase in camps to curb displaced people living with families or community members was quite uncomfortable for Nigerians present at the meeting.
In the wake of major sudden onset disasters, displaced people cannot be absorbed within communities and families. Camps are required for sudden onset disasters with mass displacement for the short term. Perhaps the over reliance on camp sites to address IDP situations outside innovatively exploring other options is fostering an IDP crisis in many countries in Africa way after the cause of displacement has subsided.
The 2018 Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) on May 16 last year noted that internal displacement associated with conflict rose sharply in 2017. I am projecting that the figure will increase for 2018. The African extended family system is a coping mechanism and development strategy that we must not undermine and erode in our process of providing humanitarian assistance.
Alexandra Bilak of IDMC says that the persistently high number of internally displaced people (IDPs) worldwide shows that `the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection is not, and never will be, enough to significantly reduce the phenomenon in the long-term.’ Bilak rightfully argues that to `truly address internal displacement, the countries most affected must be in the driving seat. The rhetoric on displacement must shift to acknowledge the full spectrum of issues it creates for individuals and for states. IDPs' rights must continue to be at the centre of our thinking, but we should also recognize that displacement is more than a humanitarian issue, and that incorporating it into national budget, poverty reduction and disaster risk planning has significant benefits.” Absolutely right.
In the provision of humanitarian assistance, we must discern the appropriate cultural practices of the affected people we can leverage to mitigate their long-term presence in temporary camps. The African extended family system is a coping mechanism and development strategy that we must not undermine and erode in our process of providing humanitarian assistance. Sometimes it is more dignified for the displaced to live with a relative than to be in IDP camps. If an IDP camp is the last resort, so be it, but it cannot be an option that eclipse and overwhelms Africa’s extended family system and communities’ care for its own.
The goal for African countries using protracted humanitarian response to address IDP situations should be to eventually get to the stage where, like Europe and North America, destitute families can go on welfare (cash response). But IDP camps cannot be a long-term solution. Having well-coordinated sites and camps for sudden onset disasters and for people fleeing conflict is a critical life-saving assistance but keeping them there without equal investment in facilitating their returns is not a humanitarian assistance.