As a panelist at the maiden Kofi Annan Peace and Security Forum held in Accra in early September 2019, I was invited to reflect on the challenges facing internally and externally displaced populations in situations of violent extremism. In retrospect, I realize that there is a tendency and temptation to frame these primarily in terms of the everyday needs produced by dislocation from habitus, including loss of autonomy, constrained access to amenities, and numerous other forms of insecurity and deprivation. These are significant because they cut to the core of what it means to be human beings and citizens, and it is easy to see how being forced to live without them indeterminably can feed extremist radicalization and recruitment. However, I see them as symptoms of displacement, and argue that focusing too narrowly on them will not resolve the suffering of displaced populations but can compound it in the long term. This essay thus broadens the lens through which displacement can be viewed by drawing attention to certain contextual and systemic factors.

Conflict-affected Contexts: Framing the Challenge

It is important to frame the underlying context that produces violent extremism as a substantive challenge. In northeast Nigeria, the focus of my African Peacebuilding Network-supported research, it is well established that the crisis, that has displaced 2.7 million people (1.9 million in Nigeria) and killed some 37,000, was produced and is being actively sustained by failures of governance. The same applies to major conflicts in the Northwest, the Niger Delta and low-intensity conflicts across the country. These failures stretch from divisive and discriminatory colonial era policies through to the continued domination of politics by powerful elites, enabled by systems that thrive on the structural exclusion of millions of ordinary Nigerians. The situation is compounded by the preoccupation of the Nigerian government and its allies with a predominantly kinetic conflict management approach over alternatives that would better leverage community intelligence and the agencies of civilian actors. To cite one example, the strong moral influence that Hausa-Muslim mothers have over their sons was a recurring theme throughout my fieldwork. Respondents repeatedly told me that the conflict would have taken a different turn if mothers had been allowed to have a say earlier on.1Various interviews, Maiduguri, October 2018. Instead, state aggression towards young men has alienated many and eroded sympathies and support for the government and its militarized strategy. Militarization has also heightened female bodies’ vulnerability to violence and obscured their intersectional needs from counter-extremism strategies. In a context where consciousness of belonging and allegiance to a unitary Westphalian state are at best tenuous, this has only made a bad situation worse.

Inconsistent Response and Support Ecosystems

A second broad set of challenges relates to how the state (all levels) and humanitarian architecture have responded to the displacement crisis and the conflict. Both approaches are intertwined in reality, but I discuss them separately for analytical convenience.

State Responses

In addition to the above challenges, the Nigerian state is failing to meet its obligations to displaced populations owing to weak political will, fragmented laws and policies and disregard for them, infrastructural constraints, and coordination problems among security sector institutions (SSIs).

My findings corroborate Oriola and Abdulazeez’s (2018) framing as criminogenic state actions towards internally displaced persons (IDPs) in five issue areas that include the misappropriation of relief materials and funds, and sexual violence against women and girls, all at the instance of a mix of state and non-state actors.2I learned from a recent conversation with a Nigerian military officer that the army has taken steps to deal with most cases of assault by soldiers. Apart from an isolated case of a naval officer who was dismissed in April 2019 for raping a 14-year old IDP girl in 2018, I do not yet have documented evidence to this effect. This repertoire also includes omissions regarding access to health support for illnesses caused by poor living conditions in camps. Women and girls have difficult access to justice for sexual violence committed in national and foreign displacement and refugee camps as well as during transit. Cultural norms about sex and chastity play a part but there are challenges with institutional capacities to address this scourge. Poor resourcing and equipment are feeding low morale among SSIs in general but the police are especially frustrated at being marginalized by the military.

Nigeria is a signatory to, but has yet to domesticate, the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention).3The Kampala Convention was adopted by the African Union in 2009 with the aims, inter alia, of providing a legal framework to manage internal displacement in Africa and strengthen regional and national approaches to addressing its root causes. The government has not adopted a national law on IDPs that was last revised in 2012, making its status and the mandates of duty-bearing institutions unclear.

Humanitarian Approaches

As illustrated by diverse violence against aid workers in Nigeria, the increasing precarity of violent contexts is a significant humanitarian challenge. It has implications for aid workers’ safety and willingness, whether volunteers or professionals, to deploy in such situations. This in turn affects IDPs’ access to support, which is already unstable owing to vast disparities between demand and supply, but also challenges posed by insecurity, negative humanitarian entrepreneurialism and the inaccessibility of remote areas caused by poor infrastructure. In addition to rethinking the changes that this demands in humanitarian principles (e.g. how to stay vs how to leave4This point was made by a UNHCR co-panelist at the Kofi Annan Forum.), it is also vital to confront the unintended consequences of current approaches, primarily dependency among IDPs and mismatches between tangible needs and humanitarian templates.

Resourcing is a challenge, even for the UN which has repeatedly stated that actual giving falls far short of pledges to Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis. As of June 2017, only 28 percent of the $1.05 billion requested to avert a hunger crisis had been raised.5Kevin Sieff, 2017, ‘The U.N. asked for billions to avert four hunger crises. The money didn’t arrive.’, At national and local levels, NGOs like the Neem Foundation are compelled to ration their resources because there is just not enough to go around.6Interview, Dr. Fatima Akilu, director, Neem Foundation, Abuja, September 2018.

Loose regulation and poor monitoring contribute to substandard interventions by some local actors. The coordination of planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of interventions by a motley group of actors, institutions, and mandates is also a major constraint on delivering effective support.

Peacebuilding and Security Implications

Periodic protests by IDPs7Mercy Corps is accused of ‘aiding’ terrorism by supplying food and drugs to extremists. No reason was cited for closing Action Against Hunger. Timileyin Omilana, 2019, ‘Why Nigerian Army closed Mercy Corps offices’, signal growing restiveness over their prolonged displacement. Repeated clashes between the Nigerian government and humanitarian organizations—the latest being the closures of Action Against Hunger/Action Contre la Faim and Mercy Corps on 18 September —reveal distrust and ideological polarization. These events and reports of women and possibly other IDPS returning to violent extremist groups are cause for careful re-consideration of how displacement and the broader conflict are being managed. Holistic and durable solutions demand that all stakeholders critically re-view displacement beyond the day-to-day challenges faced by IDPs as this essay proposes. This would involve integrating more closely approaches to displacement and conflict management, given their reciprocal relationship, in ways that involve and privilege the views of all conflict-affected persons. Some of these ideas feature in ongoing debates about restructuring prevailing humanitarian approaches toward facilitating the attainment of Agenda 2030. In relation to this, it is crucial to consider in northeast Nigeria’s context what changes are needed to make humanitarian assistance more amenable to solving problems on ground as opposed to fulfilling implementation targets.



Abdulazeez, Medinat A. and Temitope B. Oriola, 2018, “Criminogenic patterns in the management of Boko Haram’s human displacement situation.” Third World Quarterly vol. 39, no. 1 (Fall 2017): 85-103.

Bukar, Bagoni Alhaji. “Nigeria needs to take responsibility for its IDPs.”

Hakeem, Oladele. “Angry IDPs protest, take over Kano-Maiduguri expressway.” Legit.

Haruna,  Abdulkareem. “Why we protested in Maiduguri – IDPs.” Premium Times, February 6, 2019.

Nnonyelu, Nkemdili Austin. “Governance failure, poverty and ethno-sectarian conflicts in Nigeria: Implications for sustainable development.” Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa vol. 15, no. 4 (2013): 99-115.

Omilana, Timileyin, 2019, ‘Why Nigerian Army closed Mercy Corps offices’,

Punch Newspaper. “IDPs protest in Maiduguri.” Punch, September 24, 2017.

Sahara Reporters. “Taraba IDPs Protest Diversion of Relief Material By NEMA.” Sahara Reporters, July 2, 2019.

Sahara Reporters. “Police Tear-Gas Hungry IDPs protesting on the streets of Maiduguri.” Sahara Reporters, February 5, 2019.

Shola Lawal. “Nigeria: Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare.”, August 7, 2018.

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