The Lake Chad Basin And How The World Failed To Notice A Humanitarian Crisis

As 2016 comes to a close, aid agencies have reflected upon a year of devastation for the world’s populations who experience the most suffering. While the horrors in Syria are shameful in itself, and the restrictive border policies of Europe, Australia, and the United States (US) have reflected an immoral and abhorrent side of humanity, other crises have gone unnoticed. In a recent poll conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation, results indicated that the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin was the most neglected situation of 2016. Indeed, the weak response by the international community to this region may very well continue into the new year. Direct violence at the hands of Boko Haram, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, mass displacement, and instability has become the norm for the people in the region. There must be a concerted international response that identifies the precarious situation of the Lake Chad region and provides a unified humanitarian effort to alleviate suffering and tackle the structural and political issues that have caused and perpetuated the crisis.

Aid agencies and representatives have voiced their frustrations over this silence. Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator argues: “I have been shouting into what feels like an empty room to highlight the dire situation in the Lake Chad basin.” The year has seen some devastating tragedies, but many, like the Lake Chad crisis, have remained off of the agenda. Suzanna Tkalec, the Humanitarian Director for Caritas has said: “Syria broke my heart, but for out and out human suffering and almost zero media coverage, the food crisis sparked by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Niger was the pits.” The Lake Chad crisis is exacerbated by the lack of access to the region. Stephen Cockburn, the Deputy Regional Director for Amnesty International said: “Government restrictions have made it very difficult for human rights organizations and NGOs to access many parts of the Lake Chad region.”

The unfortunate reality is that the Lake Chad basin does not feature on the agenda of the world’s most powerful countries. But, self-interest does not always dominate the political arena, and the international community has the ability to act altruistically in the name of a common humanity. Nation states must increase their funding to the humanitarian cause in the Lake Chad basin. This requires intensifying pressure on nation states to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Indeed, Médecins sans Frontières has pushed for the crisis to be categorized as a level three emergency, which would certainly boost the efforts and response of the international community. Furthermore, governments in the region must allow unfettered access to affected communities and ensure that their own actions are not exacerbating the crisis. While the threat of Boko Haram is met with heightened security, governments must ensure that civilians are protected from the dangers within state borders.

The Lake Chad basin is a region in West Africa that is comprised of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. Since 2009, when the Nigerian-based terrorist group, Boko Haram, began to intensify and radicalize, the region suffered enormously. The group has claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 people and displaced millions. Boko Haram’s brutality and the failure of regional governments to protect its people has led to an ongoing and devastating crisis that has resulted in severe malnutrition, disease, and a pervasive climate of fear.

As we usher in a new year, the suffering and horrors of 2016 will continue if they are ignored. Certainly, the crises that have garnered international attention, such as the wars in Syria and Iraq, require the attention and response of international actors in order to end the violence and suffering. Even though an end to the wars in Syria and Iraq may seem impossible, with enough political will, peace can be achieved. This hope is lost in the Lake Chad basin, where the international community has failed to see unending and atrocious suffering on an enormous scale. But, with greater attention to the region, and a resolve to end the cycle of violence, peace can and will always be possible for the people enduring this neglected crisis.

Caitlin Biddolph