Once again Nigerians are facing a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale.
No conflict is simple and every conflict produces its own trauma. After independence in 1960, Nigeria struggled to keep the peace as members of the Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic group dominated the North and Christian-Animist Igbo and Yarubo divided the resource-rich South.
Nigeria’s first prime minister after independence was the euphoniously named Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. A man of democratic leanings for whom human rights were sacrosanct, he was murdered on 15 January 1966 during a military coup. The circumstances of his death are unclear.
News of his assassination spurred violent riots throughout Northern Nigeria that resulted in a series of military coups in July 1966 and the execution of Nigeria’s political leaders. A new government was set up, ruled by the northern military leader, Yakubu Gowon. Months of rioting and reprisals followed as northern fighters targeted Igbo army officers and roving mobs slaughtered tens of thousands of Igbo civilians.
In response to the massacres, on 30 May 1967 a military officer named Odumegwu Ojukwu established an independent Republic of Biafra for the Igbo people. The following month civil war erupted lasting three years and sparking a massive humanitarian crisis. Thousands of Nigerians starved to death or perished from preventable diseases. An international outcry followed with grim stories and photographs of starving children on television and in newspapers.
Now, in an echo of fifty years ago, the United Nations is warning of a parallel situation in the north-eastern state of Borno, where more than 120,000 people, most of them children, are at risk of starving to death next year in areas of Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.
In “Tens of thousands of children at risk of starvation in Nigeria crisis” (The Guardian, 25 November 2016), Patrick Kingsley and Sarah Boseley write that:
“At least 55,000 people in north-east Nigeria are in a famine-like condition… According to UN classifications, these people are at the fifth and worst stage of food insecurity. A further 1.8 million people are at the fourth phase, which is defined as a crisis, while 6.1 million are at the third phase, which constitutes an emergency. UNOCHA expects both figures to rise to 2 million and 8.3 million respectively within the next year.”
The Western world is currently focused on the antics of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and Le Pen, as well as the war in Syria and the displacement of millions of migrants and refugees. But West Africa and North Africa are facing their own massive disruptions, which will have consequences for an already fragile geopolitical stability and require long-term political and economic remedies. With Trump in the White House, the rise of ominous right-wing parties in Europe, and a general malaise when it comes to helping our neighbours, we are in for a rough ride.
The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a supporter of Biafran independence and, as starvation and violence took its toll, he vociferously appealed to the people of Europe and North America for aid. Later, in Anthills of the Savannah (1987), about a military coup in the imaginary West African country of Kangan, Achebe wrote:
“Charity is the opium of the privileged; from the good citizen who habitually drops ten kobo from his loose change and from a safe height above the bowl of the leper outside the supermarket; to the group of good citizens like yourselves who donate water so that some Lazarus in the slums can have a syringe boiled clean as a whistle for his jab and his sores dressed more hygienically than the rest of him; to the Band Aid stars that lit up so dramatically the dark Christmas skies of Ethiopia. While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”