FeaturesHumanitarian Crises

The Travails Of Aid Workers Operating In Nigeria’s War-Torn Zones

Humanitarian workers in northeastern Nigeria risk terrorist attacks and face other challenges while they work hard to assist victims of armed violence.

Bako Faruk* is passionate about serving humanity. In 2017, he volunteered to work as a logistics assistant with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international humanitarian organisation, in Yobe, North East Nigeria. He is not entitled to a salary as a volunteer, but his passion for the job keeps him going despite the pain and perils of being a humanitarian worker.

Many others like him in the sector have similar motivations.

Mansir Abdullahi* from Borno decided to serve as a humanitarian worker in 2018. His hometown and neighbouring communities had suffered the decade-long insurgency in the region. He started as a volunteer while studying at the University of Maiduguri.

“Witnessing the plight of those affected by the violent conflicts prompted me to take action and contribute positively to my community and beyond,” he said.

The northeastern region has been at the centre of a war waged by Boko Haram terrorists since 2009. The humanitarian crisis trailing the conflict has remained troubling across Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states, with over 7.9 million people facing “severe protection concerns, extreme deprivation beyond their existing poverty levels, and daily threats to their well-being,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

To tackle the problem, thousands of aid workers are deployed to the war-torn areas, including volunteers like Mansir, who get little to no financial gain from their services.

Many times, they travel by road to provide support to victims of armed violence, risking their safety in unsafe areas. In Damboa, a town in Borno state, Mansir and his colleagues almost became victims of detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

“Through rigorous security protocols and coordination with relevant authorities, we were able to mitigate risks and ensure the safety of our team members to the best,” he recalled, noting that the incident prompted them to be more vigilant in their operations.

In some cases, aid workers face the same challenges as displaced people, sometimes staying in displacement camps. In 2023, for instance, aid workers from a US-based international humanitarian organisation were kidnapped in Ngala, a community in Borno bordering Cameroon.

Andrew Mshelia, a programmes manager at Hope Interactive, a non-governmental organisation in Yobe, has a similar story to share. Terrorists nearly ambushed him and his colleagues in the  Geidam community on their way to distribute relief materials to victims of violent extremism.

“While the distribution was ongoing, one of our staff overheard a community member saying that they would call their people (terrorists) so that our workers would experience hell. When we got the information, we hurriedly left the place and that was how we escaped the attack,” he recalled.

Humanitarian workers face great threats all over the world. According to data collected by the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), 444 aid workers were victims of attacks in 2022 alone. Of that number, 116 were killed while others were injured or kidnapped. The database also shows that between 2011 and 2024, 179 aid workers have suffered attacks in Nigeria, ranging from kidnapping to shooting, bodily assault, explosions, and aerial bombardments. 

Aid workers in war-torn zones, like Borno and Yobe, provide humanitarian assistance to the needy. The assistance could be in the form of food, shelter, water, medical care, education, latrines, protection services, and numerous forms of practical support.

In some instances, however, beneficiaries of relief assistance make it difficult for them to help.

“The locals do not bring sick people to our facilities on time until the cases become worse and when we ask, they claim that they used traditional medication,” said Bako, who also works as a medical aid worker in Yobe. 

He noted that despite community engagements and awareness from aid organisations, some communities still fail to trust humanitarian workers for assistance.

Some aid workers who spoke with HumAngle also expressed worries over the terrible road networks linking some of the communities they have to navigate. Njidda Muhammed, an aid worker in Adamawa, revealed that several bridges have broken down while erosion has taken over some of the communities she has visited. 

“In some areas, during the rainy season, you can’t cross some rivers most especially if it rains heavily because there’s no bridge,” he said. Because of this,  aid workers often “rely on motorcycles, which delays the journey and affects response timeliness”. 

He further observed that some rural areas lack network reception that is strong enough for communication.

Mansir corroborated Njidda’s claim while adding that delivering relief materials comes with language barriers amidst logistical complexities.

“To address these challenges, our team engages community-based volunteers. We also hire local translators, conduct pre-distribution briefings, and collaborate closely with community leaders to ensure effective communication and participation,” he said.

Bako’s organisation works with community leaders to hire local guides. “In other villages, we send the driver to pick up someone from town who understands their language,” he explained.

Mansir observed that the major challenges aid workers face include inadequate funding, restrictive government policies, strained access to essential materials, and a lack of coordination among stakeholders.

“If not addressed on time, these challenges can impact the timely delivery of aid and the effectiveness of humanitarian interventions,” he said.

He noted the need to strengthen security measures and ensure the safety of humanitarian workers through coordination with security forces and community members. He also said collaboration among humanitarian agencies, government authorities, and local stakeholders will go a long way to improve resource allocation to victims of armed violence.

“Priority should be given to the mental health of aid workers while recognising the emotional toll of working in high-stress environments.” 

Njidda called on the authorities concerned to do more in supporting security agencies to protect humanitarian workers. He added that the aid organisations themselves should train their staff and equip them with safety tips that could help them during fieldwork.

To improve the performance of aid workers in conflict zones, Andrew urged that they should be trained on conflict sensitivity. He added that it is important for aid workers to be emotionally intelligent so that they know how to interact and communicate with vulnerable people even when they are treated badly.

“There should be periodic training so that they know how to swiftly respond to situations before they escalate,” he suggested. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.

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