Nigeria’s Battered Northeast Recovering From Islamist Violence, Unicef Says

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By Dulue Mbachu

  • Famine curbed, schools reopen while Boko Haram threat remains
  • Pockets of severe need discovered as army retakes territory

Northeastern Nigeria is beginning to recover from the devastation caused by an almost decade-long Islamist insurgency as famine is averted, more people access aid and children return to school, although huge challenges remain, the United Nations Children’s Fund said.

The Boko Haram militant group has claimed more than 20,000 lives in a violent campaign to impose its version of Islamic law on Africa’s biggest oil producer. At least 5.2 million people are in need of food assistance in the region, while more than half the schools in the worst-affected state of Borno remain closed, according to UN agencies.

“The challenges of malnutrition, the crises, the violence makes you feel despair,” Justin Forsyth, deputy director of Unicef, said in a Sept. 30 phone interview from Maiduguri city, where Boko Haram was formed. “But if you see the children in school and how hopeful they are, that also fills you with hope.”

The Islamist group, whose name translates as “Western education is a sin,” has staged some of its largest attacks on schools, in February 2014 killing 29 secondary school students in their hostels and, two months later, kidnapping more than 200 girls from dormitories in the town of Chibok, spurring a global campaign to demand their rescue. More than 2,295 teachers have been killed and 1,400 schools destroyed in the violence since 2009, leaving about 3 million children requiring “emergency education support,” Unicef said last month.

Unicef says about 750,000 children have been enrolled in 350 temporary learning centers to compensate for the shortfall. Meanwhile, the emergency response by local officials, UN and international humanitarian agencies has substantially tackled malnutrition and provided emergency health-care, according to Forsyth.

The number of people in need, however, is continuing to increase in some areas of the northeast, he said, as more territory becomes accessible to aid workers.

“As the military take new areas, we are finding pockets of severe malnutrition and need,” Forsyth said. “We might have prevented famine, but the situation is still very serious.”

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