U.N. agency worried about forced return of Nigerian refugees from Cameroon

ABUJA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday it is concerned about Cameroon forcing thousands of refugees to return to northeast Nigeria, an area struggling with insurgency and facing a potential famine.

UNHCR teams in Nigeria have heard and documented accounts of Cameroonian troops returning refugees against their will, despite an agreement between the two countries that any such returns should be voluntary.

Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesman, told a press briefing the agency was “particularly concerned” that more than 2,600 refugees, many of whom had fled militant group Boko Haram, had been sent back to Nigerian border villages since the start of the year.

“UNHCR calls on the government of Cameroon to honor its obligations under international and regional refugee protection instruments, as well as Cameroonian law,” he said.

Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Cameroon government spokesman, told Reuters the allegations were not true. “I formally deny this rumor that Cameroon forced Nigerian refugees to return to Nigeria,” he said.

Jihadist group Boko Haram has displaced over 2 million people in Nigeria since 2009, conducting an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

Partly due to the conflict, the U.N. warned last month that aid agencies must get food to nearly 3 million people by July to avert a famine in the Lake Chad region – shared between Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad – caused by drought, chronic poverty and Boko Haram.

Cameroon says it has stuck to the terms of an agreement signed on March 2 with Nigeria and the UNHCR for “the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees when conditions were conducive”.

“Cameroon is respecting its engagements,” Bakary said.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram in Abuja and Sylvain Andzongo in Yaounde; Edited by Vin Shahrestani)

Man claiming to be Boko Haram leader denies 5,000 hostages freed

By Ardo Abdullahi

BAUCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – A man purporting to be the leader of Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram denied in a video posted on Friday that 5,000 people held by the group had been freed by West African forces earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, Cameroon said regional forces had rescued the hostages, who were held in villages by the jihadist group, in an operation along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

“You are telling lies that you killed 60 of our men and rescued 20 children, and that you rescued 5,000 of your people, Paul Biya,” said the man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, referring to Cameroon’s president.

He also claimed responsibility for attacks earlier this week which included suicide bombings in the city of Maiduguri and a raid on the town of Magumeri, both of which are in the northeast Nigerian state of Borno.

Nigeria’s military has said on multiple occasions in the last few years that it has killed or wounded Shekau.

Such statements have often been followed by video denials by someone who says he is Shekau, but poor footage makes it difficult to confirm if the person is the same man as in previous footage.

Boko Haram has killed around 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes since 2009 in an insurgency aimed at creating a state adhering to strict Islamic laws in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

The jihadist group, whose attacks have increased since the end of the rainy season in late 2016, also carries out cross-border attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi; writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Four suicide bombers kill two in northeast Nigeria’s Maiduguri

National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) workers attend to a woman after suicide bombers detonated their explosives along Muna Garage in Maiduguri, Nigeria, March 15, 2017. NEMA/Handout via REUTERS

By Kolawole Adewale and Lanre Ola

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Four female teenage suicide bombers killed two people and injured 16 others in a residential area in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri, a disaster agency spokesman said on Wednesday.

The girls knocked on the door of a house and then detonated their devices, a representative of the state-run emergency service in Borno State said.

The focus on individual homes is a new tactic.

“Community leaders should create awareness among residents not to open their doors for anybody (if) they are not aware of the visit,” Borno police commissioner Damian Chukwu said.

The blasts in the Muna Garage area, on the edge of the city worst hit by jihadist group Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency, occurred around 1:15 a.m (0015 GMT), National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesman Abdulkadir Ibrahim said.

“Four female teenage suicide bombers and two other men died,” he said.

Hours later, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked the town of Magumeri, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Maiduguri, shooting indiscriminately and forcing locals to flee their homes, witnesses said.

Residents said the attackers burned down buildings and opened fire after arriving in vans and on motorcycles at around 05:00 p.m. (1600 GMT).

“They were shooting sporadically, one person was dead near them. The police station, village head’s house and other residences were burnt down,” civil servant Mustapha Aja said by telephone. He said he had been separated from his wife and children.

The number of attacks or attempted attacks bearing the hallmarks of Boko Haram in crowded areas, such as markets and refugee camps, has escalated since the end of the rainy season in late 2016.

Most of the attacks have either been foiled or the suicide bombers have only managed to blow themselves up.

The jihadist group has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during its campaign to create an Islamic state governed by a harsh interpretation of sharia law in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

It has also carried out cross-border attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Cameroon said on Wednesday that West African forces had freed 5,000 people being held in villages by Boko Haram, in an operation that killed more than 60 fighters and destroyed the jihadist group’s hideout along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi and Ardo Abdullahi; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians trapped by conflict: MSF

FILE PHOTO: People walk inside the Muna Internally displace people camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria December 1, 2016 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of people in northeastern Nigeria remain beyond the reach of aid, trapped between Boko Haram Islamist insurgents and counter-insurgency operations that have left many without food or work, Doctors Without Borders said.

Those who reach health centers report continuing violence against civilians by both sides in Borno state, said Bruno Jochum, general director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Switzerland, upon return from the region.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who are not accessible today for humanitarian assistance,” he told Reuters.

“What we see is a civilian population who for a bit more than two years has been caught and trapped between, on the one hand, violent attacks by the Boko Haram movement and, the other hand, very strong counter-insurgency operations by the Nigerian armed forces,” Jochum said.

Around 800,000 displaced people – mainly women, children and elderly – live near the state capital Maiduguri, about a quarter of them in camps, MSF says. The medical charity focuses on providing maternal and child health.

“Those that are accessible outside the regional capital often are regrouped in small towns, camps under the control of the Nigerian military, but they cannot move out or can hardly move … and they are not able to plant. They are completely cut off from their livelihoods,” Jochum said.

Boko Haram has killed around 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes during a seven-year insurgency.

Access has improved somewhat in Borno in the last six months after reports of people dying from malnutrition, Jochum said.

Nutrition and food distribution programs have helped, but the situation remains “extremely fragile”.

“There was a big focus on the food crisis last year and the need for a big pipeline of international aid to ensure the survival of the population.

“It’s still absolutely needed for the coming year but it should not hide what is behind it, which is an enormous issue of safety and protection for populations within a conflict where there are political and military objectives which in the end have little regard for civilians.”

An air strike by the Nigerian air force, which it said was accidental, on the town of Rann in January killed up to 150 people and wounded the same number, mainly people queuing for food vouchers, Jochum said. Three water and sanitation workers hired by MSF were among the dead.

“There are victims of this bombing who are going to need long-term help. You have people who have lost their physical integrity, who have been handicapped probably for life and you have children who lost their parents,” he said.

“It does raise questions about the conduct of warfare and proportionality beyond an individual event.”

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Millions risk starvation in Nigeria, Lake Chad region: United Nations

Children attend a class at a primary school in Muna Garage IDP camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria November 7, 2016. UNICEF/Naftalin/Handout via REUTERS

By Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (Reuters) – More than seven million people risk starvation in Nigeria’s insurgency-hit northeastern region and around Lake Chad, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday ahead of a new funding appeal.

Famine has been ongoing since last year in parts of Nigeria where the government is fighting a seven-year long Boko Haram insurgency.

An international donor conference in Oslo on Friday will aim to raise a chunk of the $1.5 billion the United Nations says it needs to address deepening food insecurity in the region this year.

“They are living on the edge, barely getting by on one meal a day,” Toby Lanzer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, told Reuters. “My biggest concern today is starvation.”

Earlier this week the United Nations said 1.4 million children were at risk of “imminent death” in famines in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Lanzer said he was worried the Boko Haram insurgency would deter farmers from planting their crops after missing the last three planting seasons, and that the number of lives at risk could increase. He also expressed concerns the coming rainy season could harm vulnerable people.

“Hungry people without shelter when it rains die,” he said.

Lanzer said the humanitarian response needed to go beyond food aid and include seeds, tools and fishing nets.

Lanzer said he hoped a total $500 million will have been pledged by the end of February, including this week’s funding round.

Lanzer, who has also worked in South Sudan, Darfur and Chechnya, said it was difficult to estimate how many people would die from hunger in the next few months.

“If we were to lose another planting season, I dread to think how severe the crisis could get,” he said.

Some 10.7 million people in northeastern Nigeria and around Lake Chad — roughly two in every three people — need humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Boko Haram militants have killed about 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes, and still launch deadly attacks despite having been pushed out of the vast swathes of territory they controlled in 2014.

Lanzer cautioned that failure to address the deteriorating situation could encourage more Africans to try and flee to Europe.

(Editing by Richard Lough)

Multiple suicide bombing targets Nigerian refugees, Boko Haram blamed

people walk at the site of a bombing attack

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seven suspected Boko Haram militants blew themselves on the outskirts of a northeast Nigerian city on Friday, a local aid agency said, in an attack witnesses said targeted refugees preparing to return to their home villages.

The bombing took place outside Maiduguri, the population center at the heart of a government campaign to eradicate the Islamist group, whose more than seven-year insurgency has killed 15,000 people and forced some two million from their homes.

The Borno State Emergency Management Agency said eight members of a local militia, the civilian Joint Task Force, were wounded in the attack, which underscored Boko Haram’s ability to continue to operate despite the government’s insistence it has crushed the group.

Witnesses told Reuters the attackers detonated their bombs

near a large refugee camp, outside which crowds of displaced people were gathering around trucks to form convoys before trying to return home.

In December, President Muhammadu Buhari said the capture of a key camp marked the “final crushing” of Boko Haram in its last enclave in Sambisa forest, once the group’s stronghold.

But since then the group, which split into two factions last year, has stepped up its attacks.

One Boko Haram faction is led by Abubakar Shekau from the Sambisa forest and the other, allied to jihadist group Islamic State, and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, based in the Lake Chad region.

(Reporting by Ahmed Kingimi, Adewale Kolawole and Ola Lanre in Maiduguri; Writing by Paul Carsten; editing by John Stonestreet)

Beset by economic, political woes, Nigerians protest for change

nigerians protesting

By Angela Ukomadu

LAGOS (Reuters) – Hundreds of Nigerians called for a change of government on Monday as they marched through the streets of Lagos, reflecting mounting public anger over a sputtering economy and political tensions blamed on an absentee president.

In a rare show of public dissent against the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, more than 500 demonstrators halted traffic in the commercial capital, flanked by a heavy police escort as a truck blasted out protest songs.

Buhari has been in Britain since mid-January for treatment for an unspecified medical condition and, with no indication of when he might return, many Nigerians suspect his health is worse than officials admit.

The country is also mired in its first recession in 25 years and high inflation is driving up prices of basic goods.

“Unemployed people are hungry and angry,” read one Lagos demonstrator’s sign, against a backbeat of anthems by Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti, a fearless critic of Nigeria’s often brutal and corrupt military rule until his death in 1997.

“Government of the rich, for the rich, making rules for the poor,” chanted other protesters.

Buhari, whose age is officially given as 74, took office in 2015 on pledges to diversify the economy away from oil, fight corruption and end an Islamic insurgency by Boko Haram that broke out in the northeast in 2009.

But critics say he has made little progress, with Nigeria still heavily dependent on crude exports whose price has halved since 2014.

The still active insurgency has killed more than 15,000 people and led to a humanitarian crisis has left 1.8 million Nigerians at risk of starvation and turned millions more into refugees.

With Buhari’s hold on power looking increasingly uncertain, some fear a rerun of the unstable three-month transition triggered when President Yar’Adua fell ill before dying, after which his vice president Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in in 2010.

Like Yar’Adua, Buhari is a Muslim from the north, and like Jonathan, the current president’s deputy Yemi Osinbajo is a southern Christian.

Traditionally the two religious groups have taken turns to hold the presidency, but that accord was unbalanced by the death of Yar’Adua before his first four-year term ended. Olusegun Obasanjo, his Christian predecessor, held office for the maximum eight years, while Jonathan was in power for five.

Ethnically-charged violence has swept Nigeria’s heartland, where hundreds have died in clashes between Muslim herders and mainly Christian farmers, and militants continue to operate in the oil-rich Delta region in the southeast.

(Corrects paragraph 10 to show transition was during Yar’Adua’s illness)

(Reporting by Angela Ukomadu, Seun Sanni and Nneka Chile in Lagos; Additional reporting by Abraham Terngu and Afolabi Sotunde in Abuja; Writing by Paul Carsten; editing by John Stonestreet)

Nigerian musician Femi Kuti urges stars, fans to focus on Boko Haram victims

Musician exlaims to help victims of Boko Haram

By Kieran Guilbert

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nigerian musician Femi Kuti on Monday urged his fellow celebrities and their fans to take to social media and pressure the government to do more to help millions of people struggling to survive in Boko Haram-hit northeast Nigeria.

The Lagos-based Afrobeat star said he wanted to raise awareness among young Nigerians and encourage them to demand a greater humanitarian response, having visited Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, on Monday.

“People need to have a sense of the reality in the northeast – from people walking around hungry to mothers with malnourished children,” Kuti said during his visit to Borno, the heart of Boko Haram’s seven-year campaign to create an Islamic caliphate.

“I hope more celebrities will visit and engage with their fans,” Kuti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after accompanying the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on visits to local communities hosting the displaced and a health clinic.

“Then more people will see what is going on, share it on social media, and put pressure on the government to do more.”

Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed about 15,000 people and forced more than two million to flee their homes since 2009.

The Nigerian army, backed up by neighbors, has retaken most areas held by the Islamist militants. Yet the jihadist group has stepped up attacks and suicide bombings in the past few weeks as the end of the rainy season facilitates movements in the bush.

While calling on more support and aid for people in the northeast, Kuti said he was struck by the generosity of local communities towards those who uprooted by the insurgency.

“It is heartening to see so many displaced people welcomed into the homes of local families … and community elders offering to give up land to displaced for farming,” Kuti said.

In Maiduguri, which has seen its population almost triple to five million in recent years, there are signs a sense of normality is gradually returning to the city.

The curfew has been pushed back to 10 pm, from 6 pm, and clubs are packed and pulsating as DJs play the tunes of artists like Kuti and his late father Fela, the 1970s Afrobeat pioneer.

Yet there is still much to be done, and many people to help, before Maiduguri can be considered back to normal, Kuti said.

“There are still so many young people who are displaced, who have lost their parents, who cannot go home yet.” he said.” They cannot party, and it is them we must worry about the most.”

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Deaths from Nigerian refugee camp air strike rises to 90, could reach 170: MSF

people walk at the site of a bombing attack

GENEVA (Reuters) – The death toll from an accidental Nigerian air strike on a refugee camp in the town of Rann has risen to around 90 people, and could be as high as 170, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement on Friday.

Tuesday’s strike on the northeastern town in Borno state, which had Boko Haram militants as its target, has led to an investigation by the Nigerian Air Force (NAF). The inquiry’s report is due to be submitted no later than Feb. 2.

The aid group, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the higher figure of 170 comes from reports from residents and community leaders.

“This figure needs to be confirmed,” said Bruno Jochum, MSF General Director, in the statement.

“The victims of this horrifying event deserve a transparent account of what happened and the circumstances in which this attack took place.”

Borno is the epicenter of Boko Haram’s seven-year-long attempt to create an Islamic caliphate in the northeast. The insurgency has killed more than 15,000 people since 2009 and forced some two million to flee their homes, many of whom have moved to camps for internally displaced people.

“A Nigerian airforce plane circled twice and dropped two bombs in the middle of the town of Rann, which hosts thousands of internally displaced people,” MSF said.

“At the time of the attack, an aid distribution was taking place.”

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the strike had destroyed 35 structures, and hit 100 meters from what appears to be a Nigerian military compound, raising questions about why precautions were not taken to avoid harming civilians.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Paul Carsten; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Clashes in Nigeria’s divided heartland pile pressure on president

Displaced Nigeria families, fleeing from Boko Haram

By Alexis Akwagyiram

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Hundreds of people have died in a surge of ethnically-charged violence in Nigeria’s divided heartlands, officials said, piling pressure on a government already facing Islamist militants in its northeast and rebels in its oil-rich south.

Locals in remote villages in Kaduna state told Reuters Muslim herders had clashed with largely Christian farmers repeatedly in recent weeks, in the worst outbreak of killings in the region since riots killed 800 after elections in 2011.

The fighting triggered by competition over scarce resources has come at a particularly sensitive time for Kaduna city, which is about to become the main air hub in central and northern Nigeria, after the capital Abuja’s airport closes temporarily for runway repairs in March.

Farmer Ibrahim Sabo said cattle herders armed with assault rifles raided his village Kalangai in southern Kaduna in November, forcing him and his family to hide in surrounding fields.

“We left everything we harvested and they took our cattle. We have been running ever since,” said the 75-year-old in Kakura village where he took refuge.

The violence has focused attention on President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who vowed to restore order in Africa’s most populous nation when he came to power in May 2015.

He held a five-hour session with senior security and army officials in Abuja on Thursday on how to tackle the unrest.

Security agencies are already deploying extra forces to secure Kaduna’s airport and its highway to Abuja, a route often targeted by kidnappers.

That all comes on top of an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast, beaten back last year by a military coalition of neighboring nations, but showing signs of a resurgence with a recent step-up in bombings.

Militants in the southern Niger Delta oil hub have said they are ready to resume pipeline attacks, and there have also been clashes between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in Kaduna state.

FESTERING DISPUTES

Locals say the Kaduna violence grew out of festering disputes over territory in October and November, then escalated sharply, exacerbated by north-south, Muslim-Christian tensions in a patchwork nation.

Details of attacks and precise figures are hard to come by in the remote territory.

The national disaster agency NEMA said on Friday it had recorded a total of 204 deaths since October in Kafanchan and Chikun, two of the four municipal districts worst hit by the violence, with no details from the others.

Christian leaders released a statement late December saying 808 people had died – an estimate dismissed by Kaduna state police commissioner Agyole Abeh who did not give his own figure.

The authorities had already sent in reinforcements – 10 units, each with 63 police officers, using 20 armored cars, he added.

Community group, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, said herdsmen had been “unjustifiably accused and maligned” in the area and had also come under attack, prompting a cycle of revenge.

There were few signs of the promised police or army reinforcements outside the center of Kaduna city.

Tarmac roads gave way to red soil dirt tracks leading to Kakura, on the edge of the territory that has seen the worst fighting.

Another farmer, Yusuf Dogo, said dozens of armed herdsmen burned houses in his village of Pasakori in three quick raids, forcing 700 people to flee in October.

“They ran through our village and started shooting randomly,” he said. “Later, they brought their cattle and they ate everything.”

(Additional reporting by Garba Muhammad in Kaduna and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Andrew Heavens)