GENEVA—I have lived in and worked in, loved, written and cared about Sub-Saharan Africa virtually my entire adult life.
And so, it is with great sadness that I say there are few phrases that today bring me closer to tears—or nearly have me choking, just trying to say them—than the three words: Lake Chad Basin.
To have worked so long and so hard to address the needs of the millions of men, women and children who live there—first as a diplomat and now with the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations migration agency—and help them forge a better future, and yet witness the tragedy unfolding there today is simply heart-breaking.
Yet continue to work, we must. Today, more than ever.
The Lake Chad Region is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the region. Violence and conflict, insecurity and necessity to cover basic needs are sadly promoting the impoverishment and growing vulnerability of displaced and host and home communities alike.
And so, we will – starting Thursday (2/23) at the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region—try once more to stem a humanitarian emergency that holds hostage the lives of millions and threatens generations to come.
The world largely overlooked the crisis coursing through north-eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region in 2016. Violent conflict and human suffering have marked Nigeria and parts of Niger, Chad and Cameroon for the better part of a decade. Boko Haram raids and suicide bombings targeting civilian populations have destroyed vital infrastructure, threatening entire economies and preventing people from earning their livelihoods. Widespread trauma, suffering and displacement count their victims in the millions.
With no end in sight to this crisis, humanitarian actors must call for concerted engagement of political, developmental and security actors to help stabilize the region and create conditions for people to survive and prosper.
Last summer, IOM conducted an opportunity mapping study of the region to identify suitable durable solutions. Based on the results of this exercise, IOM is implementing a program which allows selected Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, to choose new places to settle and conduct agricultural work in cooperation with the Chadian government. It is examples of programs like this that can help affected populations rebuild their lives, giving them a sense of hope and dignity.
But that is only a beginning. In Nigeria alone, 26 million people live in some affected areas. Humanitarian aid agencies like IOM today identify nearly 11 million people in dire need in the most affected areas of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Over seven million people struggle with food security—with children representing a majority of those in need. IOM estimates there are 2.3 million displaced, a number that has tripled in just two years.
By meeting this week in Oslo, the co-hosts—Germany, Nigeria, Norway and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs— and partners working in and supporting the region will draw further attention to the needs outlined by the Humanitarian Response Plans of aid groups, as well as donor appeals for the respective countries.
The Conference will focus on three thematic areas: food security; protection and access; and education in emergencies.
Food security is paramount. Hunger and malnutrition rates in the region are alarming due to years of conflict, which has prevented people from raising staples like sorghum and maize. Food assistance and support for subsistence farming are crucial for food security.
Then there is the need for protection, especially for vulnerable women and children. Attacks on education infrastructure have been at the heart of the conflict, as reflected in the name Boko Haram, translated as “Western education is forbidden.” Hundreds, possibly thousands of schools have been eliminated, leaving an estimated three million schoolchildren adrift. That has contributed to even more violence—and the widening scourge of displaced women, many still children, being forced into arranged, “early” marriages, a form of gender based sexual violence that too many treat as a solution to starvation, instead of what it is: a true crime against humanity.
Today, at age 82, I can look back past more than a half a century, to 1963, when I first flew over Lake Chad—then the largest lake on the continent—to my first posting in Africa, and the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. Ten years later, I was assigned to a posting much closer to Chad, at the Embassy in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, and after that to Nigeria.
In that bygone era, our concerns for Lake Chad had more to do with ways to make such a lush oasis an ever greater resource for its neighbors. Diplomats and their governments floated exciting schemes to divert water from the Ubangi River into the lake. The dazzling prospects of richer fishing, greater harvests and more prosperity across several countries are recalled now almost as if they were mirages in the desert, rumours of what might have been.
Instead of bringing wealth and stability to millions, Lake Chad’s surface has shrunk dramatically over six decades—feeding only the poverty that today feeds so much violence.
We meet in Oslo this week to save this once beautiful place. Let’s not miss our chance.
William Lacy Swing is Director General of the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations migration agency