Internally Displaced Persons And 2015 Elections

Opinion

By Bilikis Bakare

Recently, the news of the grisly attacks by the insurgents on the people of Baga and the surrounding villages left the discerning minds wondering whether it is the same blood that flows in the bodies of the aforementioned people and those of the few victims of terror attacks in France a la Charlie Hebdo story, widely reported in the media around the world. The northeastern Borno State town of Baga was overrun by Boko Haram militants and just like previous attack in April 2014, thousands of people were killed and many displaced.

Available statistics indicates that Nigeria has about 3.3 million Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, the highest in Africa. The country ranks third on a global scale behind Syria with 6.5 million people and Colombia with 5.7 million IDPs.  A number of factors are responsible for the proliferation of this set of people in Nigeria and Africa in general. These include communal clashes, which is the second major factor contributing to the high number of displaced persons in Nigeria. Other causes of increase in IDPs are natural occurrences such as flood, storm and fire disasters.

According to Samie Ihejirika of Strategic Empowerment and Mediation Agency, a Nigerian non-governmental organization, there are thirty-one prominent communal conflict areas that have developed in the country in the last ten years. And the major cause of these conflicts is rivalry over distribution of resources, which may manifest itself as disputes over land, money, titles or chieftaincy. Prominent communal conflicts in terms of high casualties that come to mind include that between the Ife-Modakeke communities in the southwest, the Jukun and the Kutebs in the northeast and the Kataf and the Hausa-Fulani in the North West. The ethnic Igbo communities of Aguleri and Umuleri in Eastern Nigeria also had running battles which left scores of people dead and others displaced. Also, Clashes between farmers and herdsmen over grazing lands in states such as Benue, Taraba, Zamfara and parts of Kaduna have left many people dead and others fleeing to nearby towns and villages.

However, the unprecedented rise in the number of IDPs in Nigeria in 2014 have been largely due to the increased number of insurgency attacks resulting in violent clashes between government forces and this armed group mostly in the North Eastern part of the country. These have triggered large waves of displacement. While many people, mostly civilians have been internally displaced, others have sought safety in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

In 2014, the Islamist sect, Boko Haram has killed thousands of people and more than half of those killed were civilians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), many people in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – 70 percent of them women and children – have fled their homes since early 2013. In March, 2014,  residents of Mafa village in Borno fled their homes after receiving warnings  of impending attacks from Boko Haram. When the attack eventually happened, those that remained in the community were only the aged and those too weak to flee.

The recent Baga saga not only led to scores of deaths and displacements of many, it also affected agriculture as the inhabitants are mostly fisher men. Earlier on, hundreds of people were killed in April 2014 when militants stormed the town, setting houses on fire, killing of a soldier and prompting fierce fighting with the Nigerian military. Therefore, in January 2015, having met with less resistance, the insurgents carried out the biggest and most destructive assault yet with video footage showing shocking evidences of the level of impunity with which the insurgents operates.  The Baga attack had forced at least 20,000 people to flee the town and neighbouring villages to various camps and some across the border.

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Nigeria’s northeast presents the grim picture of a ravaged war zone; homes have been plundered and laid to waste. Economic activities arrested and children sent out of school. There is no safety, at least, in 15 councils in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, which have been sacked by the deadly Boko Haram insurgents. Those who have managed to escape the onslaught have trooped to the capital towns of Maiduguri, Yola and Damaturu, where makeshift camps have been put up to offer them temporary shelter. Most, if not all, of these camps lack basic toilet facilities. So, the inhabitants make do with defecating in the surrounding bushes which may eventually lead to outbreak of diseases. The harsh weather condition, particularly during the harmattan season is another challenge the IDPs have to face.

With the spate of insecurity increasingly on the rise in the country, particularly in the North Eastern part, the concern across the country is the plight of the IDPs and the ability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to organize a credible election in February 2015 that will allow the IDPs to vote. This group of people ought to partake in the process that is expected to effect a transformation of their lives. And ultimately for the government to take them back to their homes, rehabilitate and resettle them back to their former state.

  This dread was expressed by INEC because there was no legal backing for the commission to guarantee voting opportunities for the IDPs. To avoid disenfranchising them, the House of Representatives has further amended the Electoral Act 2010 to make a provision to empower the INEC to ensure that IDPs are not disenfranchised. The amendment which  received unanimous approval by House members and was passed along with the new Electoral Act specifically added a new clause to the existing Section 26 of the Principal Act, giving INEC powers to make provision for the voting rights of the IDPs.

In response to this development, INEC scheduled a meeting with stakeholders such as representatives of the governments of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe as well as members and speakers of their Houses of Assembly, religious leaders, representatives of security agencies and civil society organizations. Also the Director General of National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, and the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution were also present among others. The idea of the roundtable meeting was to work out modalities to get IDPs to vote within the ambit of the extant laws.

It is important that all relevant security agencies are mobilised to ensure that IDPs in the country are well secured and able to partake in the electoral process. Everything must be done to ensure that their rights as Nigerians are not trampled upon. This is the right thing to do.

•Bakare is of the Features Unit, Lagos State Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.