I have received one average performance appraisal in my career. This was in 2015 in connection to my assignment as the Head of the Humanitarian Advisory Team in Nigeria. I did because I was committed to implementing the UN humanitarian principles to the letter in supporting the country to respond to flood, intercommunal conflict and northeast insurgency.
The rationale for my poor performance appraisal according to my immediate supervisor from Europe, I was supportive of the government and national authorities. As the Deputy Head of Office, I differed with him the Head of office on how international humanitarian presence should function in a mid-income African country like Nigeria, my concern was that our presence should strengthen national capacity and not undermine and subsume it. I also differed with the Head of office from Europe on who should be the main and first partners in the response. The Head of Office felt our first client should be donors and external actors including coordinating the response according to their desire. This was hard for me to implement or follow, I could not report/highlight needs, challenges and developments to international actors without first supporting the Government to respond to these.
Having acted as the Officer-in-Charge for years before the Head of Office was appointed, he ran into roadblocks in implementing an approach in Nigeria that did not operate through the national authorities. Seeing the confusion that was unfolding and his desperate need to save face through the blame game, I requested a transfer. I have watched since then as all my efforts to empower the country’s systems to respond to the crisis has been subsumed by the louder international humanitarian architecture and presence.
The Face of International Humanitarian Footprint in Nigeria Today.
Barely a year after I left my assignment, a 2017 Globe and Mail article reads: `The world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years has been declared in three African countries on the brink of famine, just as President Donald Trump's proposed foreign aid cuts threaten to pull the United States from its historic role as the world's top emergency donor.’ The article went further to say that `The conflict-fueled hunger crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan have culminated in a trio of potential famines hitting almost simultaneously. Nearly 16 million people in the three countries are at risk of dying within months.’ I cringed in embarrassment.
Six months prior, Nigeria’s President Mohammed Buhari had berated international humanitarian actors regarding alleged claims of possible starvation in the northeast. According to him, “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,” the president said.
The number of African countries appealing for humanitarian aid globally have been increasing annually. According the Global Humanitarian Report for 2019, `The number of crises surpassing the $1 billion mark in humanitarian funding requirements has increased from three in 2014 (Iraq, South Sudan and Syria) to a record eight in 2018 (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).” African countries make up 70 percent of the list.
Nigeria has no business being on that list. Nigeria should be funding its own humanitarian needs because it can. When I bring this up to the Government and national authorities in Nigeria the reason given is that Nigeria's GDP went down in 2016, with a worse economic decline recorded for the first time since 1991. The decrease was facilitated by a fall in oil prices and shortening in the oil extraction, but it still does not add up vis a vis Nigeria unable to fund its humanitarian needs. Two years prior, the rebasing of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product figures in April 2014 ballooned the country’s economy by 89%, making it Africa’s largest economy. So how did Africa’s largest economy not able to fund its humanitarian assistance to its affected population two years later?
The United Nations humanitarian assistance principles say that a country must lead its response, only when it is unable to do so should international humanitarian assistance kick in. In my time leading the international coordination effort, there was no time I found Nigeria unable to meet its humanitarian needs. I found a very strong disaster response system, and my supervisor was right, I worked against undermining this structure. Sadly, I failed, I left this position in late 2015 and I have watched as the country has become a standing member of Africans countries appealing for aid globally every year.
Today the northeast of Nigeria and Abuja are milling with international humanitarian actors. Like the impact of protracted international humanitarian footprint in many African countries, pseudo economies have emerged around the northeast: including the bloated cost of living that the locals cannot afford. Rather than focusing on long term development issues affecting the north, international humanitarian assistance is now used to address gaps in the provision of basic services. Regions and states that were the bread basket of Nigeria and the Lake Chad region are now increasingly depending on food aid. Most Nigerians are unaware of this, but the emergence of Nigeria on the humanitarian radar is the main crisis in the continent today.
I can say this passionately, and undoubtedly because I witnessed the expansion of international humanitarian presence in Nigeria. There are certain issues that are so monumentally critical that they must be mentioned twice; having Nigeria beg for humanitarian assistance every year is a major embarrassment to Africa and a loss to the continent. Nigeria is proving that misapplied international humanitarian assistance or presence can subvert and undermine national capacity which we should be expanding and building in the first place.
Impact on Nigeria’s National Response Capacity and Leadership
When I arrived in Nigeria to head the UN Humanitarian Advisory Team in 2012 I met a thriving disaster management structure in the country administered through the National Disaster Response Agency (NEMA). A federal structure with connecting state emergency agencies, NEMA was investing resources to build the capacity of the SEMAs to ensure decentralized capacity for humanitarian action across the country.
The emergence of an International humanitarian footprint two years later in 2014 created a parallel structure rather than strengthening the existing national structures. It was clear to me from the onset that Nigeria was not aware of how international humanitarian systems work or unfolds in a country because Nigeria had not had a long experience with a full-fledged international humanitarian architecture in the country. I saw this as a positive sign, thinking perhaps this was an opportunity for the country to design a national led and driven humanitarian response that could be a model for the rest of Africa.
Nigeria was able to lead its humanitarian response including bilateral funding to neighboring Africa countries because it is a rich country, what the country needs are technical support. Perhaps technical support in the logistics on food distribution across the country to areas affected by insecurity, and stronger law and order in place.
I have often found the Oxford Business Group description of Nigeria one of the most accurate representations of what and who the country is and can be. It says ‘The most populous country and arguably the largest economy on the continent, Nigeria is widely regarded as an African powerhouse. With abundant natural resources and a young, dynamic population, the country has long played an important role on the continent and it has the potential to be a wider global player in the coming decades.’
A senior UN staff shared a story that many years ago a major international non-Governmental Organization wanted to establish a presence in Nigeria and the then President Olusegun Obasanjo refused. The ex-president knew what would and could be the consequence of allowing the implantation and/or fostering of a humanitarian footprint in a country like Nigeria. That organization has since then fully established itself in the country.
Nigeria’s continued presence in global appeals; Implications for Country’s Future.
So, what needs to happen for Nigeria’s participation in annual international humanitarian appeals to end? Nigeria should decide to stop. It is that straight forward, the country should stop. Joining countries appealing for humanitarian aid each year does not make Nigeria look good. Image matters. Nigeria’s presence amongst the countries appealing for international humanitarian assistance is an insult to countries and peoples who need it. International humanitarian presence in Nigeria today meets every need except the needs of those affected by insurgency in the northeast because what the people affected by the northeast need is security and law and order. Not food aid. Borno, the epicenter of the northeast crisis is the breadbasket of the region and the country. Security would ensure that the affected people can go about the livelihoods providing food for the state and the country.
If Nigeria focused on doing what it needs to do, there would absolutely be no need for international humanitarian actors in the country. Nigerians are some of the most educated, resourceful and resilient people on earth, but all that does not matter if the country goes begging every year alongside newly formed states like South Sudan. Nigeria’s presence on the list of countries appealing for international humanitarian aid is like stealing food from a baby’s mouth.
I have worked in the international humanitarian field for over a decade. Watching my office currently rally support for the response to the humanitarian impact of Mozambique’s cyclone is a current reminder of why I joined my humanitarian organization in the first place and why I am proud to be part of it. The international humanitarian system was created for crises like these: sudden onset unforeseen disasters and/or crises that clearly overwhelms national response capacity. Nigeria could solicit for technical support and advice on how best to address the needs of those affected by the northeast insurgency, and then fund the response from its national budget. Even if international humanitarian funds are required, it should be provided without Nigeria subjecting itself to annual appeals with countries who obviously need such funding.
The danger for Nigeria is this. The more an international humanitarian footprint stays in the country the deeper it is enshrined within the national landscape, encroaching on development space. This international humanitarian architecture becomes self-serving and to do this it must rationalize its existence. This means every hazard is scaled up as a crisis. Disaster is projected as part of the annual planning and becomes part of the global image and presence of the country.
It is no coincidence that Nigeria has been sliding down the scale of the countries in Africa most attractive for foreign direct investment since it started appealing for international humanitarian assistance. With the right reforms and investments, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy can live up to its economic potential and bring more Nigerians out of poverty. Nigeria should be striving to reach its full potential of an annual GDP which could exceed $1.6 trillion in 2030, this would it one of the top-20 economies. Appealing for international humanitarian aid annually does not foster this potential.
The Nigerian government should be more vested in restoring and/or at the least strengthening investor confidence and not undermine it by sending out the message that it is not able to curtail the northeast crisis and/or address the humanitarian needs arising from it. Most of all, the country run the risk of relying on international humanitarian assistance as a tool of addressing the provision of basic social services in the north instead of addressing the critical issue of development and poverty alleviation.