By Samuel Malik
Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, in Gombe State say they are starving and slowly dying , as government has left them to fend for themselves following the hurried disbandment by the authorities of the official camp in which they resided.
More than one month since the icirnigeria.org visited the state to find out how displaced persons were faring since the government shut down the Gombe camp in February, our reporter has been inundated with calls from IDPs he met then complaining bitterly of hunger and asking what plans government has for them.
“This is our third day without food,” Mohammadu Modu, a displaced person, said angrily on the phone when he called our reporter.
“We went to them (the state emergency agency) but got nothing and we sent our wives, still nothing came out,” he added in a state of agitation.
Another displaced person in Gombe, Ciroma Fanami, called and simply said, “Please help us and tell them we are dying of hunger.”
“What do they want us to do? How do they want us to survive? I am tired of telling my children there is no food. A man gave us N1, 000 the other day and five of us had to share it.,” he said desperation in his voice.
The displaced persons knew that they were calling a journalist who had no official means of redressing their situation but they said they did not have a choice because government officials were not responding to their queries.
The official IDP camp in Gombe State was shut down in mid-February after this website published a report, Grim Tales Of Rape, Child Trafficking In Displaced Persons Camps, which detailed cases of rape and child trafficking in such camps in the insurgency ravaged North east.
This website is unable to draw a link between the publication of the report and the shutting down of the Gombe camp but it was mentioned in the story as a fertile ground for child trafficking.Before it was closed down, it was the only officially recognised IDP camp in Gombe State, although there were others where thousands of internally displaced persons squatted.
In the state, there were about 25,000 registered IDPs, according to state government records, but only 3,000 of them could be accommodated at the official camp. So, more than 20,000 others had to live in hurriedly set up shanty – like camps in communities scattered across the state.
When the official camp was closed down, the displaced persons were dispersed and paid some stipends either to return back home or rent a house wherever they desired.
However, the agreement was that, the state government would continue to feed the ones who remain in the state through the local governments
During our visit in early March, weeks after the camp was disbanded, the icirnigeria.org found out that the Gombe State Emergency Agency, SEMA, was in possession of relief materials including 1, 600 bags of rice donated by the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA and 5, 400 bags of rice and beans bought by the state government.
Arabs Rukujei, Executive Secretary of Gombe SEMA, had told our reporter that as a result of the closure of the IDPs camp, the state government was looking to distribute the items to affected persons through local governments, since most of the 25, 000 registered IDPs are found in the 11 local governments in the state.
However, following last week’s complaints by displaced persons to our reporter, we tried to contact Rukujei to find out when the items would be distributed but he did not answer his phone.
Our reporter then called Saidu Minin, NEMA’s head of operation in the state, to ask if the items had been distributed or when they would be distributed.
Minin’s response was surprising as he said that Rukujei informed him that the items had been distributed to the IDPs.
“The E.S. of Gombe SEMA, Dr Arabs Rukujei, told me that the state government bought additional food items and they have distributed them,” he told our reporter.
The surprise is that Minin ought to know, rather than being told, if the items had been distributed, because, according to him in an earlier conversation with the reporter in February, whenever materials are donated, especially in large quantities like the ones in question, NEMA is usually involved in the distribution.
Thus, it was curious that he was only told that the items had been given to the people.
However, our findings revealed that in Yamaltu Deba, less than an hour’s drive from the state capital and where there are more than 2, 000 IDPs, no food items were distributed by the state emergency agency.
“As far as the IDPs in Deba are concerned, nothing has been distributed to them. If the government has given anything to other local governments, the IDPs here are yet to receive,” Usman Adamu, one of the links between non-governmental organisations and displaced persons in the local government, said.
Adamu is very popular among displaced persons in the local government and they rely on him for information regarding any distribution of items.
Our reporter spoke with some of the displaced persons in the state capital and they too said no food item was given to them by the state government.
“As I speak with you, we have not received anything from the government and we are really hungry,” Modu said.
Another IDP, Ciroma Fanami, also said no food item was given to him.
“No. I did not receive anything,” he replied.
Bulama Abana, another displaced person, also said he and his family did not get any food item from the government.
Abubakar Bulama and Ibrahim Yadi, all displaced persons, also denied getting food from Gombe State emergency agency.
Several calls were again made to the Gombe SEMA boss to react to Minin’s statement and the displaced persons’ denial, but they were not answered.
A text message was sent and delivered to his phone but he did not reply.
Meanwhile, IDPs in the state depend on neighbours, well-wishers and non-governmental organisations for survival.
Officials’ contradictions and conflicting statements
One thing we found out in Gombe is that more often than not, government officials made a habit to contradicting one another on virtually all issues, including the reason for discontinuing the camp.
For example, state and federal officials gave different reasons why the IDPs camp in Gombe State was shut at a time when there were over 25,000 displaced persons in the state.
The camp, it was discovered, was originally used by the police as a transit camp but because it was empty during the influx of people fleeing from Boko Haram attacks, the state government approved it as an IDPs camp.
When our reporter visited the camp, he met policemen who told him it was being used by the police for its counter terrorism unit.
The official in charge of the state agency’s rescue and rehabilitation, Adams Sambarah, said IDPs had overstayed in the camp.
“The camp had overstayed for over six months. You know, a camp is not supposed to stay more than six months but they stayed for more than that,” he said.
A top government source, who did not want to be mentioned, said security concern was the reason the state gave for shutting down the camp, as the government was worried that insurgents might disguise as displaced persons to infiltrate the camp.
To buttress his point, the source said the Gombe Line bomb blast could have happened at the camp. “The vehicle that carried the explosives was at the IDPs camp the previous night with some people to register as displaced persons but camp officials told them it was night and registration could only be done in daytime. The next day the bomb went off in the park,” the source told our reporter, adding that the state government did not want to take chances.
Saidu Minin, NEMA’s representative in the state, however, said Gombe SEMA only wrote to notify the agency that it was closing down the camp but did not say why. “They did not give any reason. They just said they were closing the camp.”
Rukujei’s view was, however, different as he said that IDPs had expressed a desire to leave if they could be assisted. In fact, he said most of the displaced persons had left and that the camp had less than 400 of them by the time it was closed down.
“When we were running camp, at a point we had close to 3, 000 IDPs in camp. After some time the population kept coming down. We realised that the number stabilised around 400,” Rukujei explained.
“So I set out to find out what had happened for us to stabilise at that point and our finding was that most of those who remained were people who, even though they needed to get back on their feet, either did not have money to go back to Maiduguri or rent accommodation. We felt it was not fair to allow poverty to become a major factor to keep people in camp.”
Since the people expressed desire to leave, Sambarah said the government decided to assist them.
“We said if anyone wanted to go back home, they should write down their names and sizes of families, that the government would shoulder the responsibility of transportation and little stipend while those who wanted to stay in the host communities should also write down their names and sizes of families and government would assist them with money to rent accommodation,” he explained, adding that the size of households determined how much the IDPs got.
Again, there was contradiction regarding the amount given to the displaced persons.
According to Sambarah, each family member was given N20, 000 “even if it was a one month old child.”
Rukujei, however, contradicted this position and said only “adults” were given the N20, 000, adding that the agency used a “subjective” method to determine who an adult was, because there was no “scientific” means of proving that a person is 18 years old.
The IDPs, however, faulted the claim that their children, even adults, were each given money.
“This man has two wives and 20 children but he was given N80, 000,” one of the beneficiaries said, pointing to an elderly man. By Sambarah’ estimation, the man ought to have received N460,000 and by Rukujei’s, with about eight adult children, he should have gotten N220,000.
“I have two wives and nine children, among whom are 17, 15 and 12 years old, and I was paid N60, 000,” another one explained.
Another beneficiary said he and his two wives and 13 children, among whom were 21, 19, 18, 16, and 15 years old, got N80, 000.
A third man said he got N60, 000 for his family of 11 – two wives and eight children.
Sent home on an empty stomach
Sambarah told our reporter that when the IDPs left camp, in addition to the money they got, they left with food items. “The remaining food items in store were given to them to share,” he said.
The IDPs again faulted this claim. They said the food Sambarah talked about was not even enough to go round.
“Twenty-six bags (50kg) of maize and three bags (25kg) of rice were given for us to share,” one said, adding: “Three households shared a bag of maize while the rice was shared among all households. Some did not get while the ones who were lucky only got in small measures.”
A NEMA staff in charge of displaced persons in Gombe State, who only gave her name simply as Hajara, told our reporter that despite IDPs not being in camp, the agency still provides relief items. “Yes, occasionally and when the need arises,” she said.
This website found out this was not true and displaced persons also refuted it.
All IDPs who spoke to our reporter said no relief materials, especially food, had been given to them by government since they left camp.
Earlier, in December, 2014, when our reporter first visited the IDPs camp in Gombe, he had discovered a similar story of contradictions between claims by officials of government and the reality faced by the displaced persons.
Then, NEMA’s senior relief and rehabilitation officer, Gombe operations office, Ali Kadiri, had said that the IDPs are regularly provided with food and other relief items. These, he said, included food such as rice, maize, sugar, millet, beans, powdered milk, vegetable oil and non-food items such as blanket, mattresses, nylon mats bucket, towels and sanitary pads.
But a displaced person in the camp, Kabiru Bako, disagreed. He took our reporter to an empty class. He said: “This is our store, no food, they tell us to be patient, and sometimes some people come and give us food and snap pictures with us.”
“They give us money too sometimes, I remember two months ago, all the camp was eating noodles for several days because that is what one organization came to give us.”
In early March when our reporter visited some of the IDPs, who lived less than 500 metres from the disbanded Gombe camp, the expression on the faces of the men was that of despair. The children, however, were in high spirits not bogged down by the concerns of life that adults had to think about.
Usman, about six years old, dashed out of the house wearing a sweat shirt that only covered his belly. With a stick of broom in one hand, his other hand brushed across his face to wipe the mucus coming out of his running nose. “I will catch you,” he shouted with laughter as he ran after his elder sister, about 10 years old. Both children ran around the compound without a care in the world.
Nearby, their father, Bulama, was deep in conversation with four other men and when our reporter got within earshot, they all paused and turned their attention on him.
Learning that he is a journalist, the men refused to speak with him.
“Other journalists have come to speak with us (IDPs) but nothing changed. So, we decided not to speak to journalists again,” the oldest, who looked in his late 50s, cut in before the reporter could finish introducing himself.
However, following a few minutes of trying to convince them, they agreed to speak.
They said they were thinking about how to get food that morning because it was more than three weeks since they left the camp with a promise that food would be provided once they got accommodation.
“We were told we would be provided with food when we got places to stay and it has been 22 days (as at Saturday, March 7) since we left the camp and nothing has been heard of the promised food,” Abubakar Ciroma, one of the men said.
Our reporter was informed that NEMA withdrew from managing the IDPs camp with Gombe SEMA in October 2014 and since then the burden was thrust on the shoulders of the state government, with assistance occasionally coming from Borno State government in the form of food.
It was also learnt that the Presidential Committee on Victims Support Fund, VSF, which raised N58 billion very shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the body to raise money for the support and rehabilitation of victims of insurgency, gave food and non-food items to displaced persons in the state only once, on January 9 this year.
Even at that, the items donated, made up of 1, 500 bags of rice, 1,500 bags of beans, 1, 500 blankets, pampers and pads combined, vegetable oil, etc., were not enough. The food all came in 25kg bags.
With 25, 000 IDPs in the state, the items donated by the VSF were expected to last till the end of February.
“We had to calculate a ration for a household of an average of 10 persons,” a very reliable NEMA source who does not want their name mentioned, told our reporter. “We calculated it in such a way that it would last them to election period, February.
“So, we calculated that for each household, they would need two 50kg bags of rice and one 50kg bag of beans but since what we had was in 25kg bags, it meant they would need four for rice and two for beans. We also gave them three blankets, diapers and sanitary pads (one each), and two 10 litres of vegetable cooking oil.”
By this calculation, only 375 households (an average of 3, 750 persons) were able to get both rice and beans while an additional 375 households got only beans, bringing the total number of households that benefited to 750 (7, 500 persons out of 25, 000).
Agitated government officials
Following the complaints of hunger by displaced persons, our reporter decided to find out how many times displaced persons got relief items this year from NEMA and the last time that happened, besides what the victims fund gave.
Hajara, who said NEMA provides items to IDPs “when the need arises,” could not say when last the agency gave items to the IDPs.
“Honestly I can’t remember. I do not have the date,” she replied.
Just like her, Minin, her boss and NEMA’s operation officer in Gombe, could not say for certain when last the people were provided with materials.
“I won’t know unless I go through my records,” he said.
Our findings revealed that since the VSF donation, the only time the federal government provided relief items this year was in February when NEMA gave materials to Gombe SEMA that included 1, 600 bags of rice, 500 mattresses, 500 bath towels, 150 cartons of milo, 1, 000 mosquito nets, 100 bags of beans, 60 bags of salt, 1, 000 blankets, 1, 000 plastic plates, 1, 000 plastic cups, 1,000 plastic spoons, wax print, 360 sugar (packaging not specified), 150 sachets of powdered milk, etc.
Minin confirmed the donation and the month, which he gave as “early February” but said he was waiting for the director general of NEMA, Sani Sidi, to perform the official ceremony before the items could be distributed to beneficiaries.
“Normally if we deliver materials to the state, we have to wait if the DG is coming himself to come and do the formal presentation. If he’s not coming, at times he delegates one of his directors to come and do it on his behalf.
“So, the materials are under SEMA’s custody. We are waiting for the chief’s directives,” Minin said.
Based on our findings, the materials were donated between February 1 and 13. A reliable Gombe SEMA source said the agency wrote a letter to NEMA in the second week of February acknowledging the items it received.
“We wrote an acknowledgement letter to NEMA on February 13, listing the items we received from them,” the source said. This could also mean the items were donated before the camp was disbanded.
When contacted and told that displaced persons complained of hunger, Gombe SEMA boss, Rukujei, said such complaints were far-fetched because relief materials were often provided for them.
“Let me tell you, I am a medical doctor and I do not think there is an objective way of measuring if somebody is hungry or not,” he stated.
“We distribute (relief materials) on a regular basis. When we distribute materials, it has to be on a need basis,” Rukujei explained.
He also confirmed receiving relief items from NEMA this year but denied that his agency was waiting for NEMA to do a ceremony first. Rather, he attributed the delay to logistics.
“We in Gombe are not waiting for anybody. The materials we got were not adequate, because it is not only the responsibility of the Federal Government to take care of IDPs. It is also the responsibility of the state government and that is why our state government went ahead to buy a lot more of rice and beans (2, 700 bags each) to add to what we have and we need to put enough logistics arrangement in place to ensure that these things go to all,” Rukujei explained.
“Because we do not have camp now, we are working with distributing within the communities in all the local governments and you know that takes a lot of logistics and planning.”
Our reporter called Minin to find out if the state emergency agency could go ahead and distribute the items but the official, who had earlier agreed to clarify any issue that came up, became angry.
It was obvious that Rukujei had spoken to him about his conversation with the reporter, particularly with regards to the delay in distributing relief materials.
The reporter was stunned by Minin’s reaction.
“What is the problem again, Malik? Haba! Why are you … what is the problem?” he queried when he answered the phone.
Our reporter reminded him that he had said days earlier that he could not give certain details because he was not in the office.
“But the necessary information you wanted I gave it to you,” he cut in.
“You go to SEMA, you ask of this (and) you come here. Are you witch-hunting us? The way you are doing, you have pushed me to the wall. Haba! All the questions you asked me, I used to answer you all. I said I am newly posted. I told you I assumed duty 19th of December, you continue to bombard me with questions. I am a public officer, I can answer question but if it is too much I will not,” he said, apparently angry.
“It is not good. The way you are doing, you are witch-hunting NEMA, I will tell you the truth. That is the assumption and it is not good to insult our DG or anybody in NEMA. It is not good. No, it is not good,” Minin continued.
“You are a young guy, I have to tell you the truth. You should stop witch-hunting people. It is too much. It is more than once. The other time you asked me I said I have no idea, you phoned my staff, my staff had no idea. Now you say relief something. I don’t need to argue with you, you are witch-hunting NEMA,” he alleged.
The reporter told him he needed clarifications but before he could say what clarifications he needed, Minin again cut in.
“I will not give any details now. All I know, Federal Government intervened. I told you and we have handed over to Gombe SEMA. I came to understand that there would be no flag off. We have handed over to Gombe and I think you spoke with the Executive Secretary (Rukujei) and Gombe had purchased additional relief materials to be given to IDPs. So, if you want to hear anything, you phone E.S. Gombe SEMA please,” he said before ringing off.
When our reporter called Rukujei again, he did not answer his phone. A text message sent and delivered to his phone was also not replied.
IDPs narrate their experiences
Our reporter interacted with some of the displaced persons to find out how they get through. He discovered that but for the intervention of non-governmental organisations and kind-hearted members of host communities, the story would have been dire, as the food that sometimes comes from Borno State government could barely go round, especially for those outside the state capital.
Isa Mohammed, 70, is one of the displaced persons living in Yamaltu Deba local government area of Gombe State.
There was a sick little boy in his family that needed to be taken to hospital but with no money all they could do was hope for the best. The little boy looked malnourished and found it difficult to even smile back at another child playing with him.
Mohammed said he and his 49 family members, made up of his wife and children, their own families and other extended members of the family, including an 87 years old woman, had been in Deba for one year.
“We get food from sympathisers and non-governmental organisations,” he said. “Government has not come to give us any items,” he stated.
The whole family lives in a six-room compound given to it by an Islamic scholar who used it as a school but relocated the school to its permanent site.
Mohammed’s son, Abubakar, has two wives and 10 children. He runs a local laundry but said business was slow.
“I get little money from doing my laundry but business is very slow here compared to Maiduguri,” he said, adding that government only came to inquire about their condition with a promise of coming back.
“The government only came to ask how we were faring and said it would be back, but we are yet to see them.”
Hadiza Garba’s story is no different. The 50 year old woman came from Damboa in Borno State and said she and her family were in camp for 13 days but had to leave because the condition was not conducive.
“When I came here to Gombe State, I squatted with my siblings but it was difficult because 18 of us, including my children, had to live in a single room,” she explained.
She lost two of her siblings and two cousins during the Boko Haram attack. Her daughter lost her husband and now has eight children to take care of.
The insurgency has left the large family scattered and a shortage of accommodation made it difficult for them to stay together.
Hadiza managed to get three rooms but they were not enough to contain the whole family. So, her husband could only visit.
“My husband is in Biu, Adamawa State, and only comes to visit. Over there, there are his two other wives, his mother, two of his uncles, one of whom sustained bullet wounds during the attack and has just been released from the hospital,” she said.
The accommodation she got was not easy to come by. In a place like Yamaltu Deba, where accommodation is really cheap, paying N1, 500 per month for a room can be seen as exploitative but Hadiza had little choice.
“The landlord initially showed willingness to help us because of our condition but later said we had to pay N1, 500 per month and that we must also pay for one year. After many pleas, including from neighbours, he accepted payment for six months, N27, 000, for the three rooms we occupy.”
Having spent so much on accommodation, she was asked how she feeds her family.
“We get food from people in the community and non-governmental organisations like Mercy Corp,” she said, referring to the biggest NGO helping displaced persons in Gombe State.
NGOs struggle to fill the void
Displaced persons in Gombe State have largely been left at the mercy of non-governmental organisations and there are just a few of them.
Two of the biggest organisations to have come to the aid of displaced persons in terms of provision of relief items are Body Enhancement Foundation and Mercy Corps.
After three days of fact finding, Modupe Ozolua, founder of Body Enhancement Foundation, led her team on February 12 to distribute relief items to displaced persons in the state.
Over 1,000 people, mostly women, benefitted from rent money, sewing machines, cap knitting kits, cloth knitting machines, new fabrics for trading, groundnut production items, monies to start businesses, and cartons of noodles donated by the foundation.
Mercy Corps is a global charitable organization that helps people hit by disasters to get on their feet and it is so far the biggest organisation working to empower displaced persons in Gombe State since 2014, with 20 per cent of its assistance going to members of host communities.
In addition to the non-food items given to displaced persons, Mercy Corps gives them electronic (smartcard) vouchers worth N9, 600 monthly, which they take to specific marketers to collect food items.
“We have in the market some marketers or vendors that we have mobilised and signed contracts with, agreeing on competitive prices at which they would sell to these people,” Michael Mu’azu, Mercy Corps’ programme coordinator in the state, explained.
Adrian Ouvry, the organisation’s regional humanitarian advisor for West, Central and North Africa, said although more than 4, 000 households had benefited from the scheme so far, there was still a lot more to be done, given the huge number of IDPs.
“The challenge is that we cannot cover everybody. That is the big challenge. There is far more IDPs than we have resources to be able to meet all their needs,” Adrian said.
Another problem Mercy Corps faces is the poverty among members of host communities and this has forced the organisation to find a way of incorporating them into the programme.
“A lot of the places where these people (IDPs) are living, the people of the host communities are already poor. So, they (IDPs) are a big burden on the local host community and it is very difficult to differentiate between who is poor, who has come from Borno or Yobe, and somebody who is poor who is just living there as it is,” he explained.
“We have had to come up with a formula to try and balance it a little bit by having 20 per cent of the beneficiaries being from the host community,” he said
The current programme runs till October but Mercy Corps said it has an exit strategy, although Adrian admitted it would be challenging.
“We have got a variety of different types of livelihoods we are supporting but it is definitely a challenge for the beneficiaries because they have to somehow work out what is the best way they can create income which does not depend on what they know, which is crops, livestock, living within their home communities, and which they can also take with them if they ever have to go back to where they come from or if they have to move again from where they are now,” he explained.
Another organisation that has been of help to the IDPs is Crystal Justice Initiative for Legal Advancement, CJI4LA, which works to protect women’s rights in Gombe State. It drew attention and commendation when it successfully prosecuted a policeman, who has since been imprisoned, for sexually abusing a 12 years old girl.
Zainab Abdulmumuni Abubarkar, founder of CJI4LA, said she went to the IDP camp, when it was still open, more than once to find out if the women were being taken advantage of but she found it difficult because the people were not willing to open up, even though she suspected things could be going on.
“I have gone severally to see the IDPs to try and find out if they were maltreated. I gave them numbers to call but they would not open up,”
Zainab spoke about her 10 years old daughter, Baraka Dalhatu, who once followed her father to the IDPs camp and was sad to find that they had no food.
“When she came back she told me the people were hungry and the next day she spoke with her friends in school, who in turn told their parents,” Zainab explained.
Baraka led her friends to donate food, clothing and toys to the displaced persons.
Additional reports by Prince Charles Dickson
This report was first published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting. We have their permission to republish here.