Refugees in their own country

by Ignatius Chukwu

September 10, 2017 | 4:00 am
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

Nigeria now highest refugee country in Africa, 3rd in the world


Insurgency: Boko Haram
Communal clashes
Military invasion
Ignoring early signals
Lethargy & poor governance
Poverty and unemployment
Political factionalism

In a top bill drama presentation by Osi Nelson Group in Port Harcourt, there was consternation in the spirit world. Satan was agitated and summoned all his continental chiefs to give account of their activities around the world. Satan was angry even before the demon in charge of Africa who resides in Nigeria could speak. Satan said there were no huge natural disasters in Africa and Nigeria in particular. In response, the chief demon for Africa laughed loud and in a fiendish manner declared that Nigerians were a disaster by themselves. This seemed to pacify Satan who now relished in the details, and the crowd rocked in laughter, though with a lot of self-guilt and pondering in their hearts. True, Nigerians are walking disasters.


Is Nigeria at war? The answer could be ‘no’, it could be ‘yes’. If war actually is “Armed fighting between groups” as defined by Encarta, then Nigeria is virtually at war. War is further defined as a “Period of armed fighting between countries of groups”. The mere fact that many of those fighting as insurgents against Nigeria in the North East hail from outside Nigeria fulfils one of the technical definitions of war. Also, all of the features of a war situation in a country at war (refugees, mass deaths, destruction or abandoning of farming, hunger) have been fulfilled. Yet, this is supposed to be peace time in Nigeria.

Nigeria has known war, the civil war which devastated parts of eastern Nigeria. It created massive refugee situations that introduced the concept of the internally displaced people (IDP) in Nigeria. After the 30-month conflict, normalcy that wiped away the traces of refugee situation disappeared. The present situation seems to be a war without end, creating refugees that may live for long in camps.


Nigeria is now said to be the highest refugee country in Africa and 3rd in the world with over 3.3 million IDPs, almost 2 percent of the population. On a global scale, Nigeria is said to be only ranked behind Syria (6.5 million) and Colombia (5.7 million). Many factors, especially insurgency and conflict have been blamed for this. The major factors pinned down so far include insurgency (Boko Haram), Bakassi crisis, intractable communal clashes, the menace of herdsmen, military reprisal invasions, and flood disasters. There are also remote causes such as ignoring early signals, lethargy & poor governance, poverty/unemployment, and political factionalism/violence.

Many surveys suggest that the number of displaced Nigerians in homes of relations may be far higher than those in IDPs due to communal and next-of-kin culture of most African countries.


The first real case of IDPs is believed to have been orchestrated by the Bakassi crisis which posted over 400,000 returnees to Cross River State of Nigeria from Bakassi region. Nigeria owned and administered the oil-rich Bakassi region until after many years of conflict, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled it away to Cameroon in 2002 but the handover took place six years later. The choice was given for those not ready to live under Cameroonian authority to return to Nigeria.

Many have accused the Olusegun Obasanjo administration of being responsible for the debacle by accepting to allow the ICJ to arbitrate in the matter. Two countries must accede to ICJ for it to have the binding power to arbitrate in a conflict between two nations, according to Obasanjo’s critics.

The handling of the Bakassi returnees or IDPs has led to mounting criticism each time they cried out over poor conditions. Nowhere else can be as good as home, and certainly not IDPs centres. The resettlement, however, should have been comprehensive, complete and sustainable through economic integration schemes.

Insurgency (Boko Haram)

Boko Haram as a group is one of the offshoots of extremist islamist groups in Nigeria that often take to the sword. When they declared in a section of Maiduguri in Borno State of North Eastern Nigeria that book was evil, many merely glossed over it. Soon, it took a gargantuan dimension as lives began to perish. By the time it assumed insurgent dimension, mass killing led to massive displacement of villagers and residents in their millions. Boko Haram is said to have killed over 20,000 persons and are still killing. When they are denied territories, they take to indiscriminate killings.

A UN report says the unprecedented rise in IDPs in Nigeria over the years are caused by the increased number of Boko Haram attacks, heavy-handed counter insurgency operations, and ongoing inter-communal violence. “After Boko Haram insurgents were pushed out of major towns in the north-east following the declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states in May 2013, they focused their attacks with increased brutality on towns and villages close to Nigeria’s borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The increasing deadly attacks on border communities and the destruction of properties, businesses and farmlands have forced many inhabitants to flee to nearby towns and villages as well as into neighbouring Cameroon and Niger. In 2014 alone, the Islamist sect killed about 2,000 people and more than half of those killed were civilians’, according to Premium Times.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), 300,000 people in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – 70 percent of them women and children – fled their homes by early 2013. Some communities flee at the sight of letters by Boko Haram warning of impending attacks. This hands over villages to the insurgents and creates IDP situation in other communities. In March 2013, residents of Mafa village in Borno fled their homes after receiving letters from Boko Haram warning them of impending attacks. When the attack eventually happened there were only the aged and those too weak to flee. Others had fled.

Military invasions:

The military is being accused of using some unprofessional methods to fight the insurgency by behaving also like insurgents. They carry out reprisal attacks on communities without separating the guilty from the innocent. Many sources say this is almost impossible but the result has been huge IDPs fleeing from either Boko Haram or the Nigerian Army. Often, the reprisal attacks on communities are due to suspicion that they were sheltering Boko Haram insurgents. The insurgents kill if they were not harboured, and the military kill if they harboured the insurgents. The villagers have found themselves between the demon and the deep blue sea.

Apart from military attacks on suspected communities harbouring Boko Haram, there have been attacks on several communities around the country when few armed men harmed soldiers; Odi in Bayelsa State, Zaki Biam in Benue State, Ogherenkeko in Delta State, etc. This usually throws up high number of fleeing and displaced persons, disrupted schooling, hunger, disruption of family life, child delinquency, diseases, and teenaged pregnancies.

Communal clashes:

Nigeria is steeped in culture but as urbanisation and development expand the horizons of interaction, government begins to interfere with the way of life. The most vulnerable sector is traditional administration which is quickly eroded by intrusion of government. Thus, chieftaincy disputes begin to erupt from time to time in all parts of the country. This leads to inter-communal and intra-communal disputes and conflicts. Chiefs arm loyal team against the opponents and the result is strife. In most parts of the Niger Delta, the rights of chiefs to oil royalties and tokens lead to fierce rivalry where chiefs arm the youths to fight opposing teams. Many communities such as Okirka, and Ogbakiri (Rivers), Odiomu and Odi in Bayelsa, Urhobo and Itsekiri in Delta have at one time or the other known prolonged strife and disrupted communities for years.

Herdsmen and farmers:

Over the years, clashes used to occur between grazing teams and farmers especially in parts of the middle belt. As the desert continues to encroach southwards, the herdsmen continue to shift southward and into farming zones. The farmers reacted by attacking the herdsmen who usually cried to their armed defenders often called the ‘Beasts’ in parts of Plateau State. These seemingly mindless fighters usually recruit from across West Africa and storm the farmers in revenge for those who paid or procured them. The result is always disastrous. Refugees flock afterwards.

The recent trend now seems to be unprovoked attacks by herdsmen in the middle belt and northern parts of the south east and the south-south. Often, midnight attacks of sleepy communities result in massacre of children and women, the most vulnerable. Communities in these places have started mobilising vigilance groups for self-defence, an option that poses higher threats to national unity.


Since 2012, flooding has taken a more disastrous dimension in Nigeria. The river from Cameroon that empties into the Benue River and later the River Niger have often caused havoc and massive flooding along the routes. In Benue State at the moment, this has taken another dimension, prompting the vice president to rush down there. Death tolls are rising and IDPs are increasing. The attitude of the central government over the years is blamed for many of the lapses that led to disasters.

Remote causes:

Recent studies have also shown that people’s vulnerability to internal displacement in Nigeria is not only due to natural and human-made disasters, armed conflict, ethno-religious-political conflicts but also worsened by extreme poverty, lack of equal access to socio-economic resources and balanced development, high unemployment rate among able-bodied and frustrated youths as well as development and environmental-induced displacements.

The UN finds that in Nigeria, “most of the incidents of internal displacement occur because of violent conflicts with ethnic religious and/or political undertones. Thousands are annually internally displaced as a result of natural disasters including flooding in the North and West, erosion in the East, oil spillage and development projects in the Niger Delta (South-South).

Some analysts expressed fears that the level of conflict and with it the level of internal displacement may increase each time general elections year draws nearer. “These fears were confirmed when the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) reported that about 65,000 persons were displaced internally due to post-election violence spread across six Northern states including Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Niger, Katsina and Sokoto,” an analyst said.

Political factionalism has also been blamed for rising incidence of IDPs and disruptions. Political leaders are accused of fueling crisis to win election at all costs. Poverty and unemployment provide the fuel and the willing hands that accept to burn down the country for peanuts.

Lethargy & poor governance:

Perhaps, the most implicated remote cause is the lethargy and poor governance syndrome that pervade the country. Early warning signals are always there but are always ignored. Most reports of inquiries usually mention various warning letters and threats by aggrieved groups over a period before violence follows.

Most traditional fathers who came together in Port Harcourt for most of August 2017 on how to reduce tension in oil communities said their appeals and warnings were usually ignored. Often, governments impose a wrong and unpopular royal father on the masses and they explode like fuel.

Poor and incompetent governance strategies which mishandle most conflicts end up aggravating them. Corruption joins to make matters worse.


The overall result of these happenings is that Nigeria now looks like a country at war. International travel advisory warns travelers to gauge the security pulse of any nation they enter into by the frequency of physical presence of uniformed security operatives from the airport down to the city. If such is a measure, then Nigeria seems already at war. Armed men always line up the routes in most parts of the country. In Rivers State, buses are now hijacked on the East West Road at Emuohua, between Port Harcourt and Ahoada. The trend has resumed on Port Harcourt – Owerri Road.

These kidnappers hijack an entire bus load of travelers and warehouse the passengers. They process their victims to assess their kidnap value and begin to make calls for ransom. This may lead to abandoning of travels by panicky residents and collapse of the transportation economy.

For now, the number of distressed and displaced Nigerians keeps increasing. In some parts of the country, the Federal Government has drafted soldiers to take over the job of regular police in such places, a situation that has heightened tension and put people in perpetual fear.


A university don, Godfrey Omojefe of University of Port Harcourt wants the government to quickly come to the aid of the flood displaced persons, the latest cause of IDP syndrome in the country. “From now on, everybody should be involved in ensuring that drainages are not blocked to allow free flow of water to the canals and rivers.”

On Boko Haram, he said: “We appreciate the effort of the Nigerian Army in tackling Boko Haram but the issues of herdsmen should also be adequately addressed. Arming them is completely unacceptable or else more souls would be lost. States should have enabling laws that will permit where grazing should be allowed.” This seems to be the essence of the grazing law being contemplated but many have raised the alarm that grazing law would hand over land to herdsmen in the south. Efforts should be made to mount adequate enlightenment campaign on the true provisions of the bill.

A maritime expert and president of Marine Club of Nigeria (MCN), Chinedu Jideofo Ogbuagu, said flooding is now a new menace. He said the Benue flooding was not the first of its kind in that state. “We will partner with willing agencies of both the federal and state governments in providing solutions to perennial flooding in Nigeria, thus prevent destruction of property and displacement of persons,” Ogbuagu said.

Probes of communal clashes must look at the remote factors and identify all those, especially government officials that ignored early warning alerts. These officers retire with good service records and benefits while communities they led to violence by negligence, ineptitude, corruption and other acts of incompetence keep suffering.

International agencies and organs of the United Nations could be made to have the right to review local probes on conflicts and be part of conflict resolution efforts in Nigeria. The UN could lend templates on conflict management and provide endorsement mechanisms to certify probe outcomes in Nigeria. This method would expose those who failed to do what is right at the onset and make government officials sit up.

Fighting insurgency is one thing but preventing uprising through justice to all is another. The fight against insurgency should not only be stepped up but soft measures to reduce impact should be intensified.

Nigeria is a signatory to the UN Guiding Principles on IDPs and this refers to the 1998 United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which are recognised as an important international framework for the protection of internally displaced persons. This must be exhumed and adhered to in more strict measures.

The Un document says a durable solution is achieved when internally displaced persons no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement. “This requires comprehensive approach encompassing voluntary return, local integration and resettlement.”


Ignatius Chukwu

by Ignatius Chukwu

September 10, 2017 | 4:00 am
12893  |   93   |   0  |   Start Conversation

Big Read |  

Does Conoil need a makeover?

Does Conoil need a makeover?

One of Nigeria’s oldest company, Conoil Plc is looking like a company in need of a game changer as its...

MTN Felele

Banking App