The humanitarian community has strongly condemned the murder of two aid workers abducted in Rann (far north of Borno state) in March and killed between March and most recently in September. Like many around the world the announcement of the killing of the 24-year-old midwife has given me sleepless nights. More so because I met women like these 4 years ago when I served as the Head of the HAT where I facilitated at least 3 assessments to these regions, and can attest to their courage and selflessness in service.
A few months after I took up my assignment as the head of the UN humanitarian advisory team, nine women were shot dead on February 2013 while taking part in a polio vaccine drive and giving oral drops to children in northern Nigeria. A year and a half prior, on 27 August 2011 to be exact, at least 18 people were killed in a suicide bombing at the United Nations Headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. In the attack that happened on a Friday morning, a car crashed through two security barriers ramming into the reception building before exploding. I was reminded of this tragic event daily as two of the UN staff severely injured in the attack were part of my team.
These events - the bombing of the UN compound and the killing of the vaccine workers, close to the time of my deployment to Nigeria made me deeply aware of the growing security threat to aid workers at the onset of my assignment. As the Nigeria’s northeast terrorism crisis unfolded I was faced with the responsibility of monitoring the growing crisis including fatalities and displacements. By early 2013 it became urgently necessary to conduct an assessment which would be the first inter agency assessment mission into the region; preparation for these missions gave me sleepless nights.
As a first step I recruited a consultant, a female who understood the language and culture of the region to visit one of the three affected states to gauge the level of threat. Her preliminary report provided some background information on which we undertook the first assessment into the region. I also ensured adherence and compliance to all the UN security rules and updates.
The UN has taken steps to put many security measures in place for the security of aid workers while prioritizing aid delivery to affected communities. The Programme Criticality (PC) Framework is a component of the UN Security System which is used to determine levels of acceptable risk for programmes and activities implemented by the UN in high and very high security risk environment. I represented my organization at the Working Group on Programme Criticality for Kenya as the security context became volatile in 2011 and 2012. I was able to apply this informally in Nigeria in managing my teams’ missions to the northeast at the onset of my assignment. To complement the Programme Criticality Framework, the UN Humanitarian motto has been To Stay and Deliver, which stresses the primary goal of humanitarian partners to manage security risk to ensure continued aid to affected populations.
The United Nations has also dedicated August 19 is the World Humanitarian Day in recognition of humanitarian workers who lost their lives for humanitarian causes. Notwithstanding these preventative and protective security measures, the uncertainty and unpredictability of terrorist attacks continues to pose a significant security threat to aid workers serving in such contexts.
Since 2009 at least 500 aid workers have been killed in the line of duty. In 2017, 139 aid workers were killed while doing their jobs and another 174 aid workers were kidnapped or injured in serious attacks. This 2017 figure jumped by 30 per cent from 2016. Over 90 percent of the fatalities are local and national staff. The reason for this is that most times they understand the local language, culture and can blend in.
The recent killing of the 24-year old Nigeria midwife and the almost 500 aid workers killed or injured since 2007 raise questions, many questions. Beyond strongly condemning the killings, what more can we do?
Are there new perceptions of neutrality? Perhaps is this time to rethink traditional notions of neutrality? Do we need to review our approach to the use of armed escort? Are we perhaps operating in new conflict dynamics with old and outdated humanitarian models?
Do we also want to reconsider how we brand aid delivery, product and the presence of humanitarian agencies in conflict prone regions or zones? Are we putting aid workers at risk when we brand humanitarian action visibly in conflict regions?
Six of the most dangerous countries for aid workers are in Africa and none of these countries are facing sudden onset conflict situations. Some of these countries have been dealing with terrorism, insurgency and armed non-state actors for decades or more. Are we using isolated humanitarian action in contexts requiring more integrated approaches because we are numbed and exhausted by the protracted status of the crisis in these regions? How are we balancing security assistance with the provision of humanitarian assistance?