Chidi Odinkalu, the executive director of the National Human Rights Commission, gives answers to a number of crucial questions about the mass displacement in Nigeria as a result of conflicts, particularly in the North East, environment and other factors.
In an exclusive interview with Testimonial Archive Project (TAP) he reveals how the internally displaced people (IDPs) were treated during the elections, gives an overview of displacement in Nigeria in the last few years.
He also talks about the commission’s work with media partners to bring to light sexual and other abuses of the IDPs, and how politicians in both of Nigeria’s major parties exploited them during the recently-concluded elections. Odinkalu calls for better inter-agency work with regards to the IDPs, and explains what support the government needs to provide for that to happen.
Read the abstracts of the interview below:
About the landscape of internal displacement in Nigeria
The landscape is varied, but the footprint is generally across the entire country. The density of the IDPs varies from location to location. If you look at the annual conflict barometer, for instance, of the Heidelberg Institute (Germany-based) which is one of the major bodies that monitors conflict across the world, the Heidelberg conflict barometer in 2014 reports that there were nine wars in sub-Saharan Africa in 2014, and of those nine wars, two were in Nigeria and three in Sudan. You might think to yourself, two? A lot of people would say, okay there is North East. But there is the North East, North Central and the middle belt. And we’ve had chronic inter-communal conflict in the middle belt for over 15 years; it’s getting closer to 20 years now.
Systematic and chronic internal displacement is occurring. The footprint of the internal displacement in the middle belt now takes in part of the North East up to Taraba state, with parts of Benue state, taking in much of Plateau North senatorial zone, with parts of Nasarawa state thrown in; that’s a very significant footprint with hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced as a result. Southern Kaduna is part of that. Plateau North has a boundary with Southern Kaduna, so Kaura local government area in Kaduna and Riyum local government in Plateau state have a common boundary, and these are all part of that footprint.
In fact, depending on how you construct it, you could take in Tafawa Balewa in Bauchi state, because there’s been tremendous internal citizenship conflict there for quite a long time as well, and there’s been internal displacement as a result of that. So that’s one conurbation and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.
In addition to that, you’ve got the Niger Delta. Inundation and bad oil field practice has displaced a lot of people, and we’re just speaking about, say, the Bonga oil spill in 2011 which displaced over 168,000 people in six local governments in Bayelsa and Delta states. If you add the great deluge of 2012 which displaced over four million people, of whom over one million are still to be returned to their communities, the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) based in Geneva estimates that Nigeria has an internal displacement population of somewhere in the region of 4.3 million and the footprint is this widespread across the country and covers somewhere in the region of four geo-political zones, at the minimum.
That’s a lot more than we hear about, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the conflict in the middle belt hardly ever gets any press… It never makes the front page. It’s almost like there is a sort of blanket, a shoving in the dark about that particular news.
But the reality is that the North Central is still a very major site of internal displacement, of chronic conflict, of violence, and that’s why you’ve got the STF (Special Task Force) [which is a military deployment trying to maintain law and order and restore the place to stability].
About displaced persons’ lives in camps and rights during the elections
Internal displacement had started occurring long before the elections; as a matter of fact, before the 2011 elections we already had a fairly significant population of internally displaced people. By the 2015 elections, by mid-last year, we had millions of IDPs and a country responsible about managing its demographics and dealing with its people fairly and responsibly should have had plans for dealing with internal displacement.
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People talk about camps as if they solve anything. I began life as an internally displaced person, and my earliest memories are of camp life in the aftermath of - [I mean] well after the Nigerian civil war - and I don’t wish a camp on my enemies. A camp is not life. I’ve personally inspected a few camps, and it’s the same - you know, this is a story that is as old as I am, in my experience. [You have] Women in camps being abused, sexual abuse of women in camps, malnutrition, gross malnutrition, insecurity, disease, all of the things you would expect.
We behave as if the only thing is what is called assistance in the technical expression which is take a few roofing sheets to them or get the churches and the mosques to donate some bags of rice; that is not nearly close to adequate or sufficient in terms of what persons in internal displacement need. Thinking of encampment as the standard response to displacement is in my view close to irresponsible.
About positive examples of federal and state level interventions
The fact that we have NEMA and it actually has statutory muscle in terms of it being chaired by the Vice President is a good thing; the fact that we have a refugee commission is a good thing, and you could indeed argue that the National Human Rights Commission is also partly responsible as an advocate for IDPs but these institutions will all come to naught if the only objective they serve is poverty alleviation for those who work in them, because as with most statutory institutions in Nigeria what you discover is fairly straightforward. These institutions get money to hire staff and pay salaries but not money to do programs, and therefore the question is do they serve any practical utility? When you’re looking for documentation on internally displaced people – where are they located? How are they looked after? Joined up service provision to these places? You don’t see that, and that really is for me matters more than anything that we count as victory or success.
What can civil society actors do?
You’ve got lots of people doing studies and reports, but not enough seeming to care. Camps hold some people, but in all likelihood in a society like Nigeria where informal structures of caring and social security are much stronger, you’re more likely than not to find that a majority of internal displaced are within informal settings or in urban or semi-urban settings living with extended families. That’s why, for instance, Yola [in Adamawa State] which had a population of 300,000 is now close to 700,000. The IDP population has taken over Yola.
That’s just an example and it is all over the place. You have people who have left the North East and simply shift themselves to Abuja. They’ve found people from their village or local government and are sleeping on their pavements or on verandas. These kinds of people are not documented as internally displaced. And until we begin to put up structures for thinking about this and CSOs begin to take account of this, I don’t think we’ll be in good shape to address the multi-faceted dimensions of internal displacement.
About NHRC report on IDP camps, sexual violence and other awful things happening there
We worked with a news medium because it was much easier than doing a more formal report.
There’s a whole lot of abuse of IDPs and it takes various forms, but the most egregious and de-humanising in many ways is sexual abuse of women, and the consequences of that for the family setting in those places can be quite damaging.
Beyond that, there are lots of other awful things. We’re in a political season, and both leading parties had an awful habit of going to rent IDPs for their rallies. For me that’s an awful form of exploitation because this is begin done by parties who are in a position to offer help or palliation to these IDPs. But no, they offer them 1,000 or 2,000 naira to partake in rallies and they give caps and t-shirts, and they don’t even care if they’re eating, whether there’s medical attention, or any of those things, how they’re living, if NEMA looking for them. And at the end of that, several of the IDPs don’t even get the money. You’re given an upfront payment, you’re supposed to get the rest of the money after the rally, and it does not happen.
Also, their foodstuff is skimmed off, and there is a lot of racketeering going on amongst the official agencies who are supposed to be helping.
Full version of the interview, including the audio, is available HERE.