Human Rights Watch warns worsening insecurity in Nigeria northeast and army restrictions stifling aid efforts and threatening staff safety in region hit by Boko Haram Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 27, 2021

Aid agencies are unable to respond effectively to the crisis in northeastern Nigeria due to worsening insecurity and stifling operational requirements imposed by military and civilian authorities, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. Such restrictions give the impression that the organizations are not independent, making them vulnerable to attacks by Boko Haram.

The humanitarian crisis in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states is among the world’s most severe, with 1.8 million people internally displaced and over 7 million people in need of urgent lifesaving assistance, as a result of the 10 year insurgency by Boko Haram.

“Nigerian authorities should ensure that aid agencies can deliver timely and effective help to people affected by the conflict,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Undue restrictions are intensifying the suffering of vulnerable people in dire need of life-saving assistance.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed two senior military officials and 19 aid workers from nine organizations working in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria, and in Abuja, the capital, between November 2019 and February 2020. The aid workers said that the amount of control the Nigerian military now has over their activities prevents them from reaching millions of people and causes safety concerns as other parties to the conflict may view aid groups as taking the government’s side.

“We are not working where or how we want to work,” the country director of one aid organization said. “Any pushback can escalate to hostilities with the military with dire consequences.”

For years, military authorities have restricted aid organizations from operating outside of government-controlled areas based on the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act, 2013, which criminalizes engagement with groups the government lists as terrorist. Military authorities have reinforced this ban with threats of arrests.

Since 2019, after a resurgence in fighting, government and military officials have also required aid organizations to undergo lengthy processes to obtain compulsory authorization for moving personnel, cash, and cargo carrying relief materials in the northeast region. The military mandated using armed escorts on some routes, banned certain types of goods, and limited the amount of fuel the agencies can use in the field.

Some aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the restrictions have only intensified the very real threat of abduction and execution aid workers face. In July, fighters from a Boko Haram faction killed one aid worker and abducted six, all staff of Action Against Hunger. Five of the six were later killed. On January 18, 2020, suspected Boko Haram insurgents attacked a United Nations facility housing several aid groups in Ngala, Borno State. At least 20 internally displaced people waiting for assistance at the facility were killed, media reports said.

Twelve aid workers were killed in 2019 alone, double the number in the previous year, while two others remain in captivity. In August, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Nigeria announced that 37 aid workers had been killed since the onset of the conflict in 2009.

A senior military officer in the army’s 7th Division, the unit at the forefront of the war against Boko Haram, who asked to remain anonymous, said the restrictions are needed to ensure military efforts to guarantee national security and protect citizens and aid workers.

In September 2019, the military closed three Action Against Hunger and five Mercy Corps offices in Borno and Yobe states for two months following accusations, which have not been proven, of corruption or support to insurgents. Both agencies strongly deny the allegations. The report of a military board of inquiry set up to investigate the allegations is yet to be made public.

The two-month suspension of both organizations left up to 400,000 people without access to aid. The humanitarian affairs minister temporarily lifted the suspension in October, saying that the government would take new steps to vet and monitor all humanitarian groups working in the region.

In November, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development held a workshop, which included senior government and aid group officials, focused on improving civil security cooperation in humanitarian intervention in the northeast. But this led to vague new oversight and control procedures, including new vetting procedures for vendors, additional reporting processes, and regular field visits by the authorities to project sites.

In December, Borno State passed a law that increases registration and reporting requirements for development and aid groups operating in the state. The law also requires prior approval for projects and introduces new controls over the locations and categories of beneficiaries, aid groups’ activities, and the staff they can hire in line with the state’s development plan.

Failure to comply with the new law may result in the cancellation of an organization’s registration, and organizations or individual aid workers may face a fine of “not less than one million naira [about US $2,800] or up to a year in prison, or both.”

On February 24, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that his administration will establish a National Humanitarian Coordination Committee to “oversee all humanitarian actions in Nigeria.” The committee will be co-chaired by the humanitarian affairs minister and the national security adviser with members including the United Nations resident coordinator in Nigeria and representatives of other federal and state government agencies. It remains unclear whether this new committee will facilitate greater independence and access for humanitarian agencies, or merely expand the military and government’s restrictions and controls, Human Rights Watch said. 

While Boko Haram and its breakaway factions remain a serious threat, limiting access for humanitarian organizations, the new government-imposed restrictions and requirements appear to run contrary to the humanitarian principle of independence. International humanitarian law states that all parties to armed conflicts “must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction.”

“The cumulative impact of the regulatory requirements and restrictions on humanitarian agencies operating in northeastern Nigeria is a serious cause for concern,” Ewang said. “The United Nations and government agencies, including the humanitarian affairs ministry, should work to support the efforts of the aid groups to save lives in line with the principles that guide them.”

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