Nigeria is an enigma. It is the most populous African country and is rich in natural resources. It also harbors extreme poverty and violence. In some ways, it is two nations – the resource rich Christian south and the impoverished Muslim north.

I recently spent two weeks there in my capacity as a board member of Mercy Corps. The first week was in Abuja, the capital city, which is a rarity in Africa because it is a relatively new, planned city that doesn’t suffer from the traffic ills that plague its counterparts throughout the continent. I met with U.S. and Nigerian government officials, program staff and beneficiaries and got a sense of Mercy Corps work in the country (Nigeria is the second largest program in the Mercy Corps portfolio – after Syria).

The second week was spent mostly in Borno state in the northeast of the country, the center of the conflict with Boko Haram. I flew into Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and home to Mercy Corps regional office for the northeast. Over 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict in Borno and Mercy Corps’ programming is focused on providing food, shelter and livelihoods for those folks, mostly through cash distributions.

While in Maiduguri, I met with Nigerian government officials who have general oversight of all NGO’s in the area. I also met the Shehu of Borno, the head of the ancient dynasty that used to rule the area. Now, he leads what is something of a parallel government, namely the Muslim religion. He has great influence with, though not outright power over, the secular government and is a big fan of Mercy Corps work in the area.

Because of the ongoing conflict, and because the government controls only about 15% of Borno state, roads are impassible without military escort, which Mercy Corps does not use. So I flew on a UN helicopter to one of the “deep field” sites at Ngala, on the Cameroon border to look at the work first hand. The first impression was of the desolation caused by Boko Haram as seen in this picture of just one of hundreds of completely destroyed villages.

Ngala itself has been decimated by the conflict, with virtually every building showing signs of gunfire and others simply flattened.

So Mercy Corps has organized “sanitation brigades” to clean debris (mostly mud) from drainage ditches and use that mud to make bricks for reconstruction of the many destroyed buildings. The workers receive a small cash stipend for their work and can sell the bricks they make.

Another program provides cash to qualified folks to enable them to buy food. Mercy Corps did a market assessment before starting any cash programming, both to insure there would be no disruption of the markets and to measure the effect of the cash infusions. That research indicates that markets have flourished as a result. This woman was one recipient of a cash grant.

We met with a group of community leaders to get their response to the situation. While they listed unmet needs, they were pleased with the work Mercy Corps has done. Note that the two women in the group sat separately.

Despite the devastation, I found this small tree and the protective barrier around it symbolic of the hope people expressed about where things are headed.

Ngala is home to two IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, one housing about 25,000 people, the other about 100,000. And now, many who were refugees (they crossed the border – mostly to Cameroon) are returning, so the needs are growing.

Besides a military base, the only real protection from Boko Haram the government has provided is a trench dug around the town (like many other towns – including Maiduguri – to make incursions more difficult. Unfortunately, the trench also limits residents’ access to their fields and other other resources.

This conflict in Borno is seen in the west as being based on religion. It is not. People there (even government officials) freely said the conflict began because of dissatisfaction with government – not providing basic services and being hugely corrupt. Mercy Corps own research bears out this observation. While religion does now play a role in the conflict, it was not the source of it.

So Nigeria should be a prosperous, conflict-free country. But until it reforms its top-down, corruption-endemic government, it will not achieve that goal.


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