Stories telling of the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been affected by Nigeria’s conflict against the Islamist separatist group Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria are mostly illustrated by photographs of scrawny children in dire need. This image has attracted several millions of dollars in aid from foreign governments, international aid agencies, NGOs and individuals.

More aid is certain to come, following the recent announcement by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), that 1,4 million children are in the throes of famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The conflict has triggered the displacement of 2,3 million people since May 2013 and led to violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting in a growing humanitarian crisis.

Now in its eighth year, the crisis is far from over, with hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings still being reported in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri. In the three most affected states, Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, displaced persons remain in critical need of humanitarian interventions such as food, water, sanitation, protection, education, shelter and health services. UNICEF says the number of children with severe malnutrition in these conflict-affected states is expected to reach 450 000 this year.

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Though it is deeply worrying to say so, all the donations – especially those made directly to the government – might still not solve or impact significantly on this humanitarian crisis. This is because government officials have been accused of diverting money, food and relief materials meant for the IDPs.

Nigeria must come up with more stringent measures to tackle the misappropriation of funds meant for IDPs

File picture. Contingent Civil Military Component (CIMIC) officer, Major Simba hands sacks of food to a civilian at Siliga Amerikanka Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on 8th April 2014. AU/UN-IST PHOTO / David Mutua/Flickr

It is commonplace in Nigeria to read allegations of government agencies diverting aid meant for IDPs. The federal government’s aid distribution agency, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and its counterparts at state level, the State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMAs), are under fire for graft and inefficiency.

Given that these issues are in the public domain, it came as no surprise recently when a Federal High Court in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, sentenced two local government officials in the state to one year in prison and a fine of N1 million each.

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Justice Fadawu Umar said the two men –  Bulama Zangebe, a counselor, and Modu Bulama, a storekeeper – were found guilty of the two-count charge brought against them by the federal anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), for misappropriating 180 bags of rice.

Islamist separatist group Boko Haram

Zangebe and Bulama were also convicted for converting N1,4 million in proceeds from the sale of the rice stolen from the IDP camp for their personal use. Witnesses for the prosecution told the court that the rice in question had been donated to IDPs by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and was clearly marked ‘not for sale’.

Investigations by the Nigerian online newspaper The Cable showed that the diversion of relief materials, including rice, milk and soap, was common. “If SEMA collects 100 bags of rice from NEMA, it distributes 50 and keeps 50 in its office,” a member of the civilian joint task force said.

“If SEMA collects 100 bags of rice from NEMA, it distributes 50 and keeps 50 in its office.” – Member of the civilian joint task force

With such claims hanging in the air, Nigeria must come up with more stringent measures to tackle the misappropriation of funds meant for IDPs. This should include punishing defaulting officials, which would serve as a deterrent to others harbouring any such motives, and the constant monitoring and evaluation of the living conditions of displaced persons in camps. Until more concrete action is taken, reports of officials stealing relief materials will continue.