An estimated 50,000 children are facing death by starvation in northern Nigeria this summer as a result of the Nigerian government’s faltering campaign to defeat Boko Haram Islamist militants, aid agencies are warning.
Aid experts say the humanitarian crisis caused by the seven-year conflict between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram militants has left an estimated 500,000 people homeless in northern Nigeria, the majority of whom are in urgent need of food, shelter and medical care.
Of these, 244,000 are children, and the French charity Doctors Without Borders, which has set up a network of emergency camps in the region, warns that one in five will die in the coming weeks if they do not receive urgent treatment and food supplies.
Western aid officials have also raised concerns about the Nigerian government’s handling of the crisis, with accusations that President Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s Muslim president, is not doing enough to confront the threat posed by Boko Haram’s Islamist militants.
Britain’s Department for International Development contributes an estimated £870 million to Nigeria to support the government’s ability to fight Boko Haram, which has been responsible for a number of terrorist outrages, including the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.
But Western officials are worried that Mr Buhari is using some of the aid to persecute Christian political rivals instead of tackling Islamist militants.
Mr Buhari was involved in an embarrassing diplomatic row with Downing Street earlier this year after David Cameron was overheard remarking to the Queen that Nigeria was one “of the most corrupt countries in the world” ahead of an anti-corruption summit in London.
But while Mr Buhari denied his government was involved in corruption, aid officials are becoming increasingly concerned about his handling of the campaign against Boko Haram, which could now create Nigeria’s worst humanitarian disaster since the Biafra conflict in the 1960s.
The latest refugee crisis is centred on Borno state is north-eastern Nigeria, and aid officials say around 244,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition. “Some 134 children on average will die every day from causes linked to acute malnutrition,” said a spokesman for the children’s charity Unicef.
Last month aid workers reported that more than 1,200 people had died from starvation and illness at one refugee camp in northeast Nigeria – of these 480 were children.
Yesterday (Friday) the UN said it was suspending aid to dangerous areas of Borno state after Boko Haram ambushed a humanitarian convoy on Thursday.
But while Western governments are keen for Nigeria to continue the military campaign against Boko Haram, which claims to have close links with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), there are growing concerns that Mr Buhari’s determination to crush his political opponents is diverting vital resources away from the military effort.
In recent months Mr Buhari, a former military dictator, has intensified his efforts to give key government appointments to Muslim political allies at the expense of Christian officials. This has resulted in increased tensions between the government and southern Nigeria, which is predominantly Christian, where in May the military killed 15 people during a peaceful Biafran protest.
But while Mr Buhari has been concentrating his efforts on tackling political unrest in southern Nigeria, U.S. military officials involved in the campaign against Boko Haram report there has been a sharp increase in terrorist attacks carried out by the group in recent weeks.
“One of the reasons we have this humanitarian crisis in northern Nigeria is that Mr Buhari is diverting vital resources away from the campaign to pursue his own political agenda,” explained a senior Western official. “The Nigerian government, which is receiving significant amounts of foreign aid, needs to understand that its main priority is to deal with Boko Haram, and also to make sure Nigeria does not suffer the worst humanitarian disaster in its history.”
By Con Coughlin, this report was first published in the Telegraph