On January 17, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) accidentally bombed a camp for internal refugees in Rann, in the country’s northeastern Borno State, killing an estimated 236 and wounding 120 more. The Nigerian government quickly expressed remorse at the mistake and argued that the event should not reflect on the professionalism of the NAF. In response, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement saying, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our six colleagues and shocked that an incident of this magnitude has occurred in a civilian area,” while Doctors Without Borders called the event “shocking and unacceptable.”

The accidental bombing is but one example of the kind of violence that the Nigerian state subjects displaced people throughout Nigeria to every day. This violence is the result of both omission and commission.


The Boko Haram insurgency has displaced more than 2.3 million people throughout the Lake Chad Basin, resulting in one of today’s worst humanitarian crises. In response, the Nigerian government and its international partners have struggled to provide care for the civilians forced to flee their homes. Fewer than ten percent of the displaced live in an official government camp, perhaps because the living conditions at camps are so miserable. Residents complain of chronic food shortages, inadequate medical services, and a lack of any livelihood programs. In July, Doctors Without Borders gained access to an internal refugee camp in Bama, where they saw that 66 percent of the children were emaciated and there were more than 1,200 recently dug graves. Although Bama may be an outlier, in camps throughout the region, hunger and malnutrition are common complaints.

Camp residents complain of chronic food shortages, inadequate medical services, and a lack of any livelihood programs.

Conditions were so bad in February 2016 that residents of the Dalori II camp in Borno staged a protest. One camp leader, Hussina Usman, stated that, contrary to the government’s reports, the residents ate only once a day—if they received a meal at all. Malam Abatcha Ali, Usman’s counterpoint, told reporters that the lack of beds and appropriate shelter in the camps created situations in which some residents were exposed to mosquitos, leaving them vulnerable to a host of diseases, including malaria. Ali also asserted that the medical care at the camp was inadequate, stating that “no matter the complaints, all you get is paracetamol”—akin to Tylenol—“and when we go to hospitals in the town, they ask for money, which we don’t have.”

An emerging regional famine, which is thought to have affected 14 million people in the Lake Chad Basin so far, makes it difficult for the government to acquire and distribute food to any of its people in need. Corruption in Nigeria’s humanitarian sector is likewise a significant drain on resources. In October 2016, Nigerians were outraged by stories that the National Emergency Management Agency and their state counterparts were repacking and selling food intended for internally displaced people camps on the open market. The government discredited the stories, but the scandal was given new life in October 2016, when Abuja announced a formal investigation into graft in the humanitarian sector.


Many people in the camps report that they are unable to leave the grounds, even to get medical care or to try to find work to buy food. At a camp in Fufore, Adamawa State, a camp resident told me that although residents could apply for a pass to leave the grounds, no one had ever successfully petitioned for one. “Soldiers here prevent us from leaving," a girl in Dalori I, a camp in Maiduguri, Borno State told me, "I tried to leave once to visit my mother in Cameroon and [the camp guards] beat me.”

Reports of physical and sexual abuse in the camps are also shockingly common. Camp guards (often soldiers, vigilante, and policemen) regularly shove and hit residents crowding the camps’ entrance gates to observe a high-profile visitor or delivery of aid. The residents of the camp are primarily women and children, but the guards are primarily able-bodied men from the security sector. Not surprisingly, sexual abuse is rampant. In a survey of internally displaced persons across the three states most affected by the Boko Haram crisis, 66 percent reported that “camp officials are engaging in sexual abuse against residents.” In addition to cut-and-dry sexual assault, the scarcity of resources has created conditions under which “survival sex,” in which camp residents trade sexual favors for access to food or medical care, is common.

“Survival sex,” in which camp residents trade sexual favors for access to food or medical care, is common.

The Nigerian security sector’s abuse is not confined to the camps. Rights groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the indiscriminate violence that the Nigerian security sector engages in during counterterrorism and counterinsurgency endeavors. The country’s counterterrorism strategy often relies on door-to-door raids and extrajudicial violence, aided by local vigilante groups, a policy that has a history of worsening terrorism and extremism. Many analysts believe that the Boko Haram crisis accelerated after 2009 because of a bloody government door-to-door raid that left an estimated 700–1,000 suspected members of the (then generally peaceful) religious group dead.

Those who are suspected of being members of, or sympathetic to, Boko Haram and are not killed are kept in makeshift detention centers and military barracks. The military’s screening process to determine whether someone is a member of Boko Haram is opaque and inconsistent. As a result, the detention centers have swelled with suspected members who have little legal recourse to appeal their situations. The most notorious of these centers are the Giwa Barracks in Borno State. Amnesty International’s report on the facility documents squalid conditions in the camps, where the “cells were too crowded to lie down properly and [the detainees] were provided with insufficient amounts of food and water.” One former detainee told researchers that “there is no cleaning, so you live in disease. It is like a toilet.”


The situation in the Lake Chad Basin is rapidly becoming one of the most acute humanitarian crises in the world. Given that the fight against the insurgency remains ongoing, resettlement is still a ways off for the millions that have fled their homes. Funding to provide assistance to them from both the Nigerian government and the international community has lagged. If this funding gap remains, millions will die from malnutrition and a generation of children will have lost the opportunity to attend school. More funding to the international humanitarian agencies and the Nigerian effort—and better coordination between these agencies—is critical for preventing additional human suffering.  

Protection of civilians obviously involves preventing overt violence against them, such as during the Rann accident. However, narrowly defining civilian protection obscures the multitude of other ways in which government action (or inaction) victimizes citizens. In the aftermath of the Rann crisis and the investigation into how this accident occurred, there will almost certainly be an effort to professionalize the technical and logistical capabilities of the Nigerian military. It is critical that this effort address protocols and practices pertaining to counterterrorism operations and military-assisted humanitarian programs. 

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  • HILARY MATFESS is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a member of the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
  • More By Hilary Matfess