Conflict in northeast Nigeria increases child malnutrition


Maiduguri, Nigeria (AP) — Iza Ali’s five children are still waiting for a meal at 3pm. It’s not the first time a family has been left without food in the wake of extremist violence in northeast Nigeria six years ago.

She and her husband were raking in $3 a day, but it wasn’t enough to feed a family of seven. Often, they hunt for vegetables outside the Jere refugee camp, where they live on the outskirts of Maiduguri.

“If you can’t see food, you drink water.” 4-month-old baby tugging on her clothes, 25-year-old mother says. She said, “Only God can help us.”

Aid agencies are warning this year that families like her are increasingly at risk as Nigeria’s food production declines and global humanitarian funds diverted as a result of the Ukraine war.

According to Priscilla Bayo Nicholas, a nutrition expert at the United Nations Children’s Agency in Borno, Nigeria, acute malnutrition has risen from 1.4 million children in the northeast to 1.7 million last year. In 2017, that number was only 400,000.

“If we don’t treat them, we will lose these children,” she warned.

Like Ali, many people in northeast Nigeria have destroyed their livelihoods since 2009 when extremists revolted in Africa’s most populous country. UN statistics show that more than 35,000 people have been killed and at least 2.1 million displaced in Nigeria and neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon in attacks by Boko Haram and its branch Islamic State in West Africa.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met Nigerians who had become refugees after a tour of three West African countries in Maiduguri last week in a “solidarity visit with victims of terrorism”.

“I saw a smile. I saw passion. I saw hope,” Guterres said. He added that an additional $351 million would be required as part of the total $1.1 billion for the United Nations’ humanitarian response program in Nigeria.

But displaced people say that hope is fading day by day.

At the Banki refugee camp near the border with Cameroon, UN staff are caring for more than 50,000 people displaced by violence. The camps are surrounded by heavily armed soldiers and are full of women and children with an uncertain future.

Children who suffered acute malnutrition from bandages and visible wounds were placed in beds under the supervision of mothers and guardians within the camp nutrition center.

Here, 20-month-old Mbolena rubs her tiny body and her swollen belly hanging from visible blood vessels. His mother, Isa Ali, at least “feels better now,” says she’s grateful. At his bedside, Maryam Hassan passionately hugs a seriously injured baby.

More children are trapped in places out of reach of humanitarian workers because of security risks, Nicholas told The Associated Press.

Gomezgani Jenda of Save Children International’s Nigeria office said the conflict is exacerbating problems already faced by children in the area.

“The humanitarian situation affecting children in this area continues to be challenged by an even greater pressing need than ever before,” said Jenda.

In many camps for displaced people in Nigeria, government agencies provide food, while relief agencies focus primarily on education and health needs. But every two months, money from Nigerian government aid agencies seldom lasts more than a few days, said Jere camp chairman Mala Bukar.

Humanitarian aid did not respond to the AP’s inquiry.

The Nigerian government has begun closing some refugee camps in an effort to return people abandoned by the war to their homes.

According to the Nigerian military, more than 50,000 Muslim militants have surrendered. However, the International Crisis Group said the most dominant faction, the ISWAP, was “increasing its grip on new rural areas” in parts of the Borno province.

Ali hopes the violence will stop there and her husband and five children can return home and start farming again. However, her imminent attack haunted her, so she continued to be kicked out.

“We want to go back,” she said. But “only if the bushes are cleared and there are no Boko Haram members to kill us”.

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