Politics

Challenges and hope at humanitarian affairs ministry, by Ibrahim Sheme

Of the 43 ministries whose heads were sworn in by President Muhammadu Buhari on August 21, 2019 as his new cabinet, none drew as much attention as the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. These were some of the reasons: it was new, its tasks as shown in its nomenclature, were wide-ranging and current, and it was going to be headed by a woman.

Nigeria has for a decade been embroiled in a huge humanitarian emergency occasioned by the Boko Haram insurgency, the fallout of which called for the biggest crisis management operations since the civil war over fifty years ago. Thousands of people have been killed and properties worth millions of U.S. dollars have been destroyed. A refugee crisis of monumental proportions has occurred. The UNHCR estimated that violent attacks by non-state armed groups in parts of the North-east have displaced over 240,000 Nigerians, with Borno State being the most affected. Thousands of Nigerian refugees have spilled across the border and live in camps and host communities in neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.

According to the UN, 7.1 million people (2.3 million girls, 1.9 million boys, 1.6 million women and 1.3 million men) in the North-east rely on humanitarian aid this year. They need shelter, education, health care and food.

Also, there has been a rising increase in natural disasters such as floods and erosion due to climate change and poor policy, as well as and man-made-disasters like kidnappings, brigandage and other forms of criminality in the North-west, all of which have led to deaths, mass displacement, and loss of property. Several refugee camps dot parts of the north, a phenomenon hitherto heard about in the news from distant lands.

There was need for the authorities to rise to the occasion. It behooves them to provide security and relief, as well as rehabilitate the victims. Since October 2015 the Federal Government announced the North East Marshall Plan (NEMAP) to provide “intermediate and long-term interventions in emergency assistance, economic reconstruction and development”.

Key institutions of government in this task are the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI) and the security agencies. They work in tandem with international aid agencies and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

While a lot of success has been recorded, there remain several observed gaps in the humanitarian response. There is inadequacy of resources to cater for victims’ needs, lack of proper coordination of the work of emergency and disaster response agencies of government and their synergy with international groups, overlapping of responsibilities that create unnecessary inter-agency rivalry and tension, poor accountability of expenditure and group responsibility, as well as over-reliance on the military strategy and campaign. There is also the challenge of what to do for victims once they are rescued and settled.

The issue of lack of proper coordination makes the government institutions semi-autonomous under the busy office of the President and ignites unhealthy rivalry in the system. This is of paramount significance. A recent study by the Crisis Group on the Boko Haram faction calling itself the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), indicated that to make a headway requires the Buhari Administration to look beyond the military campaign, step up efforts to fill gaps in its provision of basic services that militants increasingly exploit to win support, while avoiding tactics that risk harming civilians.

Apparently, President Muhammadu Buhari had been wishing to do something drastic about the problem.

He has always spoken about properly caring for victims of humanitarian crises. Even in his inaugural speech for his second term in office last May, he said, “The principal thrust of this new Administration is to consolidate on the achievements of the last four years, correct the lapses inevitable in all human endeavours and tackle the new challenges the country is faced with and chart a bold plan for transforming Nigeria.” He added: “With leadership and a sense of purpose, we can lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years.”

Little wonder, then, that the President soon afterwards announced the creation of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. This was at once welcome news to stakeholders in the humanitarian sector – both local and international – as well as observers. Some other countries with similar or even less emergencies have created such a ministry, achieving huge successes. They include Rwanda, Niger and China.

To some observers, creating the ministry was a master stroke which portrayed the government as a humanitarian one and signaled Buhari’s readiness to deliver empathy or, if you will, give the impression of running a ‘government with a human face’.

Beyond such interpretation, however, lies the significance of rising to the enormous task of having a proper and coordinated response to the humanitarian crises and providing relief and meaning to the life of victims.

Also, a ministry such as this will be long-lasting because even if our conflict situation abates, it will not go away for a long time to come, while natural disasters and poverty are just what they are – natural. The ministry will always be there to manage the situation.

Furthermore, whilst focusing on the humanitarian fallout of man-made conflicts and natural disasters, we shouldn’t miss out on the last component in the new ministry’s name: social development.

Those who conceived of the ministry must have noted a trajectory beginning from humanitarian response to disaster management and finally social development. The question has always been asked: after managing a disaster, what next? While agencies have been responding to humanitarian crises and managing the recurrent emergencies, with different levels of success, the social component is often glossed over or neglected.

For instance, we know that the task of returning IDPs to normal life has been on the front burner, but how does government handle the issues that cloud post-trauma civilian life? Women and children, some of whom are victims of abuses, including sexual exploitation, are especially the hardest hit.

This point is important in understanding the work of the new ministry. Nigerians know the mandate of institutions like the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI). They expect that the new ministry would automatically consist of these agencies and some others. What they now ask about, however, is the social development aspect of the nomenclature.

There are a number of initiatives on ground already. The present government has introduced poverty alleviation programmes such as the school feeding programme and TraderMoni, a loan scheme created specifically for petty traders and artisans as a part of the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP), being executed by the Bank of Industry. These two should automatically be some of the functions of the new ministry.

Other social development initiatives in ministries for women, the youth and workers are expected to be thrown in. Hence the belief that the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), the Ecological Fund, the Federal Fire Service and the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) would also be thrown in.

The new ministry is expected to coordinate and execute the duties of these agencies in order to provide the social security direly needed by Nigerians. The situation whereby victims of emergencies (refugees, kidnap or brigandage, etc.) are rehabilitated and left to go aimlessly without any provision to cushion any aftershocks in their future life is one of the gaps seen in our humanitarian and disaster management sector.

It is important for the government to avoid the pitfalls of the past in this area and ensure that everything falls in place. And it should expedite action on the transfer of these agencies to the ministry in order to allow it to hit the ground running. No time to waste.

On its part, the ministry is expected to know that it is the one, more than any other, that has direct contact with and bearing on the life of the common people, especially at the grassroots level. Hence the need for it to be proactive on three fronts: put its structures together at the headquarters and nationwide, come up with programmes, and work to make the desired impact.

This requires putting together the right team and tasking its members to prove themselves.

Of course, pioneering is always a daunting task. As such, the ministry may falter, but with a sense of purpose it will triumph ultimately.

The Federal Government is expected to provide the needed financial and moral support so that at the end the ministry would not be seen to be a pipe dream or just another platform for the elite to share patronage.

It is heart-warming that the President has appointed as minister someone who knows her onions. The appointment of Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq to superintend the ministry can be appropriately described as putting a round peg in a round hole. Her antecedents are proof that she comes fully prepared.

Nigerians believe that as the immediate past Federal Commissioner of the NCFRMI, a position she held since September, 2016, she cannot fail in her new assignment.

She has left a track record of success at the NCFRMI which in the first place recommended her to the President for the current appointment.

Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq is expected to mobilise local and international support for the government’s work in the humanitarian and disaster management sectors. She will coordinate the above-named agencies to confront the challenges of insurgency, banditry, flood, fire, and poverty. Her work will now make government’s commitment to these areas more visible and better coordinated, resulting in the world seeing the Administration as more genuinely concerned about providing succour directly to victims of man-made and natural disasters and life challenges.

Achieving this feat requires hard work, creativity, charisma, fairness and transparency. Sadiya Umar Farouq has done it at her previous station. She can do it at this one.

Ibrahim Sheme, a former Editor of LEADERSHIP, writes from Abuja.

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