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Published: January 21, 2015

Difficulties of delivering aid in Northeast Nigeria: Boko Haram, vigilantes and other challenges

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Jessica MacLean was the Research and Projects Assistant at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). In 2013, Jessica graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) with an undergraduate degree in Development Studies and Politics. Prior to joining GISF she spent six months working in Sierra Leone with men on the prevention of violence against women and the promotion of sexual reproductive health rights. During the summer of 2013 Jessica was a communications, legal and policy research intern at the Fahamu Refugee Programme, a refugee legal aid online platform in Oxford.


Fighting to establish an Islamic ‘Caliphate’, Boko Haram hit the UN compound in Nigeria’s capital Abuja in 2011, killing 18. After the UN attack, President Goodluck Jonathan ‘reaffirmed his government’s “total commitment” to combating terrorism.’ In early 2013, Boko Haram gunmen killed nine polio workers, one of the deadliest attacks against aid workers in the region. Recent attacks in Baga and Doron Baga, where approximately 2,000 civilians were killed have further increased security difficulties for humanitarian organisations. Located in the Northeastern tip of Nigeria, humanitarian agencies have been unable to reach the destroyed towns since the attack due to the unstable situation.

Founded in 2002, Boko Haram, meaning ‘Western education is forbidden’ in Hausa, a language spoken in Northern Nigeria, started off as a group preaching extreme Islamic theology. Their founder and leader Mohammed Yusuf died at the hands of Nigerian soldiers in 2009. Abubakar Shekau then took over and led the group to more brutal insurgent actions in the Northeastern Nigerian states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno.

The Nigerian Government declared a state of emergency in the three operational states of Boko Haram in May 2013 increasing the amount of troops in the region. Two months ago, in November 2014, the House of Representatives and Senate rejected Jonathan’s appeal for an extension on the state of emergency. Boko Haram mainly targets civilians, police and government officials, although the volatile security situation has made it almost impossible for many non-governmental organisations to operate securely in Northeast Nigeria, without becoming targets.

A vigilante task force

Government indifference and the lack of support to their own soldiers gravely effect the security situation and the ability for aid organisations to run their programmes securely.

Soldiers flee alongside civilians when attacks take place. The Nigerian army, stricken by corruption, does not provide its soldiers adequate equipment to fight against Boko Haram, who has a larger amount of weapons and ammunition. At the beginning of January 2015, a Nigerian soldier stated to CNN, ‘Boko Haram has anti-aircraft guns, which he says are accurate up to three-quarters of a mile. All the Nigerian military has, he says, are AK47 small machine guns, accurate up to a few hundred meters.’

Attributable to the lack of government commitment to the security of their own soldiers, vigilantes have stepped up to help fight the violent insurgents terrorising their homes. The Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), often commended by the Borno state government, is the main group with over 8,000-armed volunteers. These vigilantes, armed with homemade weapons or old guns, hunt Boko Haram fighters and attempt to protect civilians. Vigilantes, whilst they are one of the only sources of protection, have also been accused of extrajudicial arrests, detentions and murders.

Other challenges

Aid workers also face other risks in Northeast Nigeria. Roads are in such a state of disrepair; many affected communities are extremely hard to reach. Communications in general pose a number of obstacles. Mobile phone reception is frequently cut out due to fighters attacking phone towers, or the government cutting mobile phone reception themselves. Without access to mobile phone connection, aid organisations must rely on satellite phones, although at one point the Nigerian army banned those as well.

Lack of clear information about the security situation and the inaccessibility in the region only serves to muddy already murky waters. Mostly recently the numbers from the Baga town attacks vary from 150 to 2,000 dead which poses the question of who can or should be trusted, a question that has wider security implications. There is an obvious need to help the 912,000 internally displaced persons in Northern Nigeria, the affected communities, and the rising numbers of refugees who have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The question to pose is not if will aid be forthcoming but how aid can reach those in need whilst mitigating the security risks aid organisations’ staff might encounter.



Boko Haram May Have Displaced Over a Million in Nigeria: IOM, Relief Web, 20 January 2015 http://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/boko-haram-may-have-displaced-over-million-nigeria-iom

Nigerian military disorganized, under-equipped in battle against Boko Haram, CNN International, 15 January, 2015 http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/15/africa/nigeria-military-families-boko-haram/

Nigeria: Satellite images show horrific scale of Boko Haram attack on Baga, Amnesty International, 15 January 2015, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/nigeria-satellite-images-show-horrific-scale-boko-haram-attack-baga-2015-01-15

Boko Haram crisis: Why is it hard to know the truth in Nigeria, BBC News, 13 January 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-30794829

Nigeria: “There are only two doctors in the whole of north Borno State,” Medecins sans Frontieres, 13 January 2015, http://www.msf.org/article/nigeria-%E2%80%9Cthere-are-only-two-doctors-whole-north-borno-state%E2%80%9D

Nigeria: MSF assists survivors of deadly Boko Haram attack, Medecins sans Frontieres, 12 January 2015, http://www.msf.org.uk/article/nigeria-msf-assists-survivors-of-deadly-boko-haram-attack

House of Reps rejects extension of emergency rule in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, Premium Times Nigeria, 20 November 2014 http://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/171569-house-reps-rejects-extension-emergency-rule-adamawa-borno-yobe.html

Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram, The New York Times, 5 November 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/magazine/inside-the-vigilante-fight-against-boko-haram.html?_r=1

Nigeria: Gruesome throat-slitting footage implicates military in mass atrocities, Amnesty International, 5 August 2014, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/nigeria-gruesome-throat-slitting-footage-implicates-military-mass-atrocities

Nigerian army bans satellite phones in Borno, BBC News, 20 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22984219

Military’s shutdown of NE Nigeria telecoms disrupts trade, IRIN, 11 June 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/report/98207/military-s-shutdown-of-ne-nigeria-telecoms-disrupts-trade

Nigeria: Goodluck Jonathan declares emergency in states, BBC News, 15 May 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22533974

Background reading:

Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis, Chatham House, 1 September 2014, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20140901BokoHaramPerousedeMontclos_0.pdf

Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram, The New York Times, 5 November 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/magazine/inside-the-vigilante-fight-against-boko-haram.html?_r=1



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