Nigeria’s most vulnerable population is under threat as thousands of displaced children living in underserved and under-defended internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Benue State are battling with hunger, death and malnutrition. HANNAH OJO who visited some of the camps in Benue reports.
THE pains of a withering finger and the sight of a child with flaccid penis has sent Mseer Agabi’s mind on a rapid decline. Agabi’s sedentary life took a detour when she fled herdsmen attack in her home town on January 2. The 19-year-old farmer is among the 24,019 people seeking refuge in an overcrowded IDP camp at a primary school in Ghajimba, Guma Local Government Area, Benue State.
Living in dire sanitary conditions with barely enough to eat, Agabi contracted a disease that rendered the middle finger in her left hand sore and swollen. Left with no medical help, Agabi is left to surrender to a cruel fate that limits her ability to care for her yet to be circumcised 17-month-old baby boy. With no money to buy pain reliefs or analgesics, she dresses the affected finger in leaf and herbal ointment, which only provide temporary relief. The pains often return more forcefully, causing her sleepless nights.
Struggling to hold the young lad as she made to clean mucus from his nose with the edge of her torn skirt, she uttered: “I’m afraid I won’t be able to give him the delicate care he deserves if I circumcise him now. I’m not feeding well and I can barely use my hand. Even now, I’m depending on other people to help nurse him whenever the pain becomes unbearable.”
Not far from Agabi’s section of the LEA Primary School premises in the Gbajimba IDP camp is Terna Egba, a middle-age woman with a gaunt frame. Wearing an oversized shirt, her face still bears the grief of an impoverished life caused by the discomfort of a lost homeland. The millet farmer lost her husband in June to food poisoning. Faced with the task of raising five children alone, Terna ekes out a living from the pittance she makes from weeding people’s houses. Her six-year-old son who has rashes on his body walks around half clad with a protruding tummy and a skinny face.
Her youngest child, a two-year-old, wears a black thread with the locket of the Holy Mary around his neck. “He often complains of stomach ache,” she complains. “I’m helpless when my children fall sick. I can’t even buy soap to wash them properly. The last time we got food in the camp was two months ago, and I barely make enough to feed my children,” she said in a tone of lamentation.
Interrupted childhood, lost innocence Benue’s most vulnerable demographic is under threat. As at March 2018, the Benue State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) registered more than 80,000 children scattered in various camps across the state. These children, who left their homelands with parents and guardians to escape herdsmen attacks, now live in underserved and underfunded IDP camps.
Schooling has been interrupted and cases of hunger and malnutrition are rife since food supplies have ceased from the government for some weeks. Findings revealed that the last consignment of food supplied to the seven recognised IDP camps in the state was in May.
With the gear of hunger set in motion, many of the IDPs go into town in search of jobs but often return with no luck. The women go into the forest to cut firewood, dry them and sell, earning between N300 to N500, sums that are barely enough to feed their children.
On one of such trips to the forest in search of firewood, Nyieryila Lorakpen came back to meet her 16-month-old baby, Aondofa, surrounded by a crowd. Poor baby Aondofa was playing around an open cooking area when he staggered into the fire and got his buttocks burnt two weeks ago.
With no medical care in sight, the mother dresses the burns with leaves, slowing down the healing process. The baby no longer sleeps at night and spends the greater part of the day on the shoulders of him mum. Their case is worsened since they reside in an uncompleted staff quarters in Makurdi with some other IDPs who left the Abagena/Agan Camp in Daudu, where 34,986 people scramble for space in an uncompleted school building.
“We are in an isolated place. Nobody remembers us. I can’t go out to work and there is no food. Even if I get medicine for my children, do I administer it on empty stomach?” the disgruntled mother asked in frustration.
In the same location where Baby Aondofa got his buttocks burnt, five other children have died between May and July. The first one died at birth. About two died of shortage of blood, the other one died of convulsion. They were aged between one and seven.
A mother of one of the deceased children, Alaam Doosuu, a 25-year-old woman from Torkula village in Guma Local Government Area, has fought hard to remember the circumstances surrounding the loss of her child.
“He started purging but we waited two weeks before taking him to the hospital because there was no money. Doctors said he had shortage of blood. When we finally gathered money and took him to a private clinic, he was no longer responding to treatment. My baby died, and I have been suffering.
“I don’t even have food to eat. I don’t have anything,” she said, wiping off tears as she relived her ordeal.
“Our houses have no doors and we don’t have mosquito nets. There is no clinic here and our children can’t go to school. We have to go to the stream to fetch water, except for the raining season when we collect water in kegs and bowls,” Emmanuel, leader of displaced persons in the camp where the children died said.
Deaths and more deaths
Sickness and ill health have been the lot of many displaced persons, especially women and children. As it stands, a total 175,070 displaced persons across the state are scattered in 14 IDP camps (both the recognised and the unrecognised) in three local government areas.
Infrastructure in all of the camps are in dire straits, forcing many to sleep in open spaces while children are exposed to danger and mosquito bites. Present within the premises of some of the camps are environmental hazards which have not only left scars on some children but led to the death of others.
At the Abagena/Agan Camp, which has the second highest population of 34,986 displaced persons, a six-year-old girl fell from the topmost floor of an uncompleted building in the camp. She died on the spot. It was the same fate of death and fatal injury at another camp located in an area known as ‘Heavy Duty’ in North Bank Makurdi. There, the IDPS, numbering about 100 persons, occupy an uncompleted building which was initially designed as a guest house. The building has four uncovered pits covered with dirt. A child died in the pit two months ago while another one, a three-year-old named Emmanuel, survived a fall in the pit with a scar on his face.
Banke Abel Ebe, a member of the coalition of NGOs who educates the IDPs on hygiene, said the ‘Heavy Duty’ camp is not recognised and has received no help from government. “We are making arrangement to see if we can get people to help them with aid,” he said in a tone laden with uncertainty.
Located in the middle belt region of Nigeria, Benue State, renowned for its fertile soil, is the food basket of the nation. With a large body of rivers that nourishes the soil, making it yield easily, majority of the state’s inhabitants are farmers who profit from the pact between earth and hoe.
Often times, clashes arise when herdsmen come from arid areas to graze their cattle, not discriminating between wild lands and farms. Conflict has escalated over the last few months, leading to indiscriminate massacres as herdsmen armed with superior weapons attack communities with no warning.
A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) stated that clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Nigeria have killed more people than Boko Haram in 2018.
“At least 1,500 people have been killed in clashes between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers in central states since September last year. More than 1,300 Nigerians died from the farmer-herder conflicts between January and June this year, while the death toll from Boko Haram’s rebellion was about 250,” the group said.
The report added that the quoted number is said to be six times higher than the number of people estimated by the United Nations to have been killed by Boko Haram in the same period.
Hunger pangs and declining revenue
Adjusting to a life of dependency where food is rationed is a hard reality to bite for many of the displaced persons. Many of them are keen to return to their homelands, but their lands are not safe as marauding herdsmen have taken over some of the lands and farming fields. Those who have dared to go back to reclaim their lands were killed while the women among them were raped with sticks inserted into their private parts, the natives relived.
Agricultural production has stalled and food insecurity appears to be gaining a terrifying momentum as a result of the crisis.
Before now, the displaced persons commanded attention, as they attracted visits by prominent individuals and private companies who donated food items. It is now seven months since they have been camped but the visits have waned. Donor corporations have moved on and the government has withdrawn food supplies, citing lack of funds.
Few humanitarian agencies such as Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross are helping to provide clinical services and drugs to treat simple illnesses in some of the camps, but the impact is low because the people have no food to aid the digestion of the drugs.
At the Gbajimba camp where Red Cross runs a clinic, 93 children were enrolled for a Community Management of Acute Malnutrition programme in July, out of which two of them later died.
“The most prevalent ailment at the camp during the dry season was diarrhea and cough. When the rain started, people started coming down with malaria. Due to insufficient food intake, some children were not healthy as required,” Gbawuan Godwin, the officer in charge of the clinic in Gbajimba told The Nation.
An official of SEMA, who pleaded anonymity, told The Nation that the last supply of food and toiletries brought to the camp was done in May. “There is no food in the camp. The store is empty, and we are helpless,” the SEMA official intoned.
Confirming development in the IDP camps, Mr Emmanuel Shior, the Executive Secretary of SEMA, cited paucity of funds from the federal allocation as the reason for the lack of supplies to the camp.
Mr Shior, who added that the state government had managed to keep IDPs in camp for over seven months, decried the lack of attention to the humanitarian crisis in Benue State on the part of the federal government.
He said: “I want to use this opportunity to draw the attention of the federal government and international partners to the humanitarian crisis in Benue. The state government cannot do everything; there is need for intervention.
“The problem in Benue is similar to what is happening in the Northeast, and I am surprised attention has not been given to the Benue humanitarian issue.
“I am also surprised at the attitude of NEMA. NEMA should be at the forefront to ensure the way for IDPs but NEMA has only been here twice. When the Vice President visited with the DG of NEMA, the DG promised to return to Benue State in two weeks to provide shelter and additional food, but nothing has been done till date. Why is the federal Government not paying attention to what is happening in Benue State? Is Benue State not part of Nigeria?”
About 67 per cent of Nigerian young children are at risk of poor development according to a Nurturing Care Framework developed by WHO, UNICEF and partners. With the burden of the humanitarian crisis in Benue, it appears the percentage is set to increase.
As the reporter made to depart the Gbajimba IDP camp in Guma, her eyes met that of Ukenyo Gbosu, the oldest person in the camp who is said to be 117-year-old. In the light of the herdsmen attack, Ukenyo made it to the camp transported on a motor bike.
Speaking through an interpreter, she described her experience in the camp as difficult. In her home, she plays with her grandchildren and they give her yam to eat, but now the yam is no more.
She has also missed eating swallow and describes the unavailability of her choice delicacy as a challenge. Ukenyo gave birth to an only son, Udende, a prominent yam farmer in Ukyongu village who married three wives and has birthed 25 children.