“The responsibility of the state to protect its people doesn’t cease because they have been internally displaced”

TAP interviewed the Executive Director of the National Human Rights Commission Chidi Odinkalu on the mass displacement in Nigeria as a result of conflict, with a particular focus on the conflict ongoing in the north-east. In this interview, he gives an overview of displacement in Nigeria in recent years and tells us how internally displaced people (IDPs) were treated during the elections. He talked about the Commission’s work with media partners to bring to light sexual and other abuses of IDPs, and how politicians in both of Nigeria’s major parties exploited the internally displaced during the recently concluded elections. He also talked about the need for more inter-agency work with regards to IDPs, and what support government needs to provide for that to happen.

Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. TAP is dealing mostly with internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in the north-east, but where are IDPs the most in Nigeria? What’s the landscape as it were with internal displacement in Nigeria?

The landscape is varied, but the footprint is generally across the entire country. The density of Internally Displaced People varies from location to location. If you looked at the annual conflict barometer, for instance, of the Heidelberg Institute which is one of the major bodies (it’s based in Germany) 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 Northeast, 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 Northeast 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 the north-east, the estimate now is over two million people displaced, and that excludes refugees displaced to other countries. Now, 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.

It used to take the front page, to be fair, but as the situation in the northeast intensified, newsprint didn’t necessarily grow in size or quantity. Editors have to make choices and prioritise – the northeast displaced the north central in terms of priority, acreage of news print. But the reality is that the north central [area] 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].

What have the elections that just took place told us about displaced persons’ rights?

We are not prepared yet to deal with internal displacement as a fact of life, and we could do better at that. We behave as if these IDPs are not Nigerians or not in Nigeria, or they happened by accident. 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.

Now people look to INEC to do this, but in all fairness to INEC, this is not its primary role. The job belongs to NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency), the Refugee Commission — it’s not INEC’s role to do this. The Refugee Commission is a statutory body established under the law, and this is part of why INEC suffered a mission stretch: people were expecting it to do too much, much more than any electoral umpire ought to be saddled with. That really is the point, that’s the problem; we are not yet prepared to manage these things responsibly.

You’ve advocated inter-agency work on the issues of displacement in the north-east before as well as other issues of displacement — to what extent is that happening? We hear about NEMA setting up camps, but why isn’t the Refugee Commission doing that?

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.

The responsibility of the state to protect its people doesn’t cease because they have been internally displaced. Rather actually, it’s deeper and bigger. It comes with several things; caring enough to document them properly, to identify them properly, to find out how they’re living and where they’re living, to extend to them basic utilities, social goods in terms of healthcare, education and the lot. Kids for instance get relocated from where they were going to school overnight with no plans and we don’t prepare for those; adults get relocated, we don’t prepare for those. Women get relocated and children are being had in these places daily, there is no provision for them, no documentation for these new citizens that are being brought to life.

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.

Surely there are some areas of success with federal and state level interventions. What have they done well? Have they done anything well?

I don’t want to say they haven’t but I’m still trying to find out. The fact that we’ve got statutory institutions is potentially positive. 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.

This is all quite grim. What about oversight of civil society actors? is there any?

Whenever you speak to communities of displaced people, what you get is a sense of being both expropriated and exploited: exploited for their narratives and expropriated of their assets by the violence that caused their internal displacement. You’ve got lots of people doing studies and reports on them, 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 northeast 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.

How do people find these IDP camps?

People are running for their lives and find the nearest place. There’s other possibilities: they get a text message from someone they know telling them about this place which is safe, or “this is how you make it to that place,” so there are all sorts of messages that get passed around in situations like this. But by and large people are mostly running for their lives.

And NHRC is mostly in an advisory role?

Yes, and advocacy.

Can you talk a bit more about the process of doing that report on IDP camps and sexual violence?

We worked with a news medium because it was much easier than doing a more formal report.

Can you summarise your findings?

It’s not more than what I’ve just described, 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.

Our borders are really fluid, like the rest of West Africa. Would you say our border are better protected now with the conflict?

No. My research interest is actually in regional integration and borders. One of my obsessions is African borders, and testing how easy it is to cross. And whether you’re talking about our northern borders or our Western or Eastern borders, you don’t even know when you’ve crossed the border in many cases. These are trans-boundary communities, I think there are about 21 states in Nigeria that have a part of our international land borders. In most cases, apart from our officially designated land borders like Seme with are the exceptions that validate the rule, you don’t. If you’re traveling from Nigeria to Niger Republic, you could cross the border without having realised that you’ve done so. It’s poorly manned and that’s it.

Even still?

Even still. And from much of the north-east now, I have look at the border from the Cameroonian side over the past year, and you don’t know when you’ve crossed the border. And if you’re looking at the maritime borders, the Bakassi frontier is one, you don’t know when you’ve crossed it. There is a boat that can take you from Ikang in Cross River State to Akwa in Bakassi, all of that used to be one place now it’s an international boundary, and you can do it pretty easily without any checks. And that water is full of pirates. And we can do much better in protecting our boundaries.

Absolutely, and by extension protecting our citizens.


Thanks you so much for speaking with me.

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