As humanitarian donors prepare to gather in Geneva, award-winning British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo has joined Nigerian luminaries and international charities in writing an open letter warning global leaders of the tens of thousands of children who could starve in North East Nigeria unless the world acts immediately.
Selma star Oyelowo joins compatriot Aliko Dangote, one of Africa’s leading businessmen, U2's Bono and Save the Children in demanding decisive action to address the crisis when the donors meet to agree world-wide humanitarian emergency funding in Geneva this week.
Oyelowo, who was raised in Lagos and London, co-writes in the letter: "The tragedy now unfolding in North East Nigeria is one of the world’s deadliest but least reported emergencies.
“Over 4.7 million people are in need of food assistance and some 400,000 children are at imminent risk of starvation. It must be addressed when humanitarian emergency donors gather this week in Geneva.”
An appeal by Nigeria as part of the UN’s global Humanitarian Response Plan is announced today in Abuja, as Save the Children’s new report on North East Nigeria ’Children’s Lives and Futures at Risk’ warns of a threat of full-scale famine.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that more than 65,000 people are in famine conditions. 14 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
Kevin Watkins, Save the Children CEO, who visited North East Nigeria last month said: "North East Nigeria is teetering on the brink of widespread famine. The UN estimates that 75,000 children could die over the next year from malnutrition: that’s as many as 200 children who could die every day.
“Some of the mothers I spoke to had walked for two weeks to get their children treated at Save the Children’s clinic. There is still a window of opportunity to prevent a full blown famine – but that window is closing fast. Failure to act would be indefensible and unforgivable.”
Among other interventions, Save the Children and ONE are calling for innovative financing opportunities to ensure the UN appeal is fully funded. Today’s report from Save the Children highlights that large sums of illicit finance from Nigeria are laundered through banks and the property markets in the United Kingdom.
It has been recently agreed that criminal assets stolen from Nigeria and seized in the UK can now be returned to Nigeria, with the Nigerian government pledging to use any returned funds to benefit the poorest.
Watkins continued: “This is a very welcome step forward. Save the Children is now calling on the UK Government to expedite the return of these funds, and for the Government of Nigeria to use the funds for the humanitarian response. Other OECD countries and the Nigerian government itself should apply the same principle.”
As the Nigerian army continues its advance into insurgent strongholds in areas bordering Niger, Chad and Cameroon, it is almost inevitable that more humanitarian suffering will be revealed. The conflict has been characterised by systematic, widespread and grave violation of children’s rights. Killing, abductions and sexual abuse, and the forced recruitment into militias has been tragically commonplace. Many children have witnessed atrocities first-hand, or have themselves been subject to attacks, and are in desperate need of psychosocial support.
Three teenage brothers captured and imprisoned for three months told Save the Children staff during a counselling session for displaced children:
“The day our village was attacked, our teacher was with us. They cut off our teacher’s head with a sword. They killed our parents. They dropped them in a well. They told us to stop crying or we will also be killed. We heard the voices of our parents screaming inside our heads.”
Save the Children has already witnessed the deadly effects of a delayed international response. As the crisis has intensified, it has established seven outpatient therapeutic-feeding sites and an emergency unit to which children with life threatening malnutrition can be referred for treatment. Children referred to the centre display the classic symptoms of Kwashiorkor (lack of protein leading to fluid-retention), Marasmus (energy deficiency) and extreme hunger, with distended stomachs, pencil thin limbs, loss of hair, acute anaemia and severe skin conditions. Most arrive with complicating conditions, including diarrhoea and pneumonia.
Many of the children being treated have been carried or walked for between three days and two weeks from areas like Mafa and Konduga. One mother in Save the Children’s emergency feeding clinic in Maiduguri told of how her husband, uncle and three children were beheaded in front of her. Another described sometimes going for five days without food.
Another concern, widely voiced by parents in Save the Children clinics, is that children leaving the stabilisation clinic are returning to an environment marked by extreme poverty, rising food prices, and little or no support.