The Nigerian Army shut down the offices of a humanitarian aid group Action Against Hunger (ACF) in the restive northeast, accusing it of “aiding and abetting terrorists,” in a move the charity said endangered humanitarian assistance to millions of people.
In a release posted on Facebook on Thursday evening, the army’s command in the northeast said the Paris-based NGO “has been declared persona nan [sic] grata for aiding Boko Haram Terrorists/Islamic State West Africa by supplying them food and drugs” despite warnings from the military.
“The subversive and actions of the NGO Action Against Hunger (AAH) persisted despite several warnings to desist from aiding and abetting terrorists and their atrocities,” said the release, which was signed by Colonel Ado Isa, the Deputy Director Army Public Relations for Operation Lafiya Dole, the military operation countering the insurgency in the northeast.
“The Command has obtained several credible intelligence [sic] indicating AAH as one of those NGOs operating in the NE that is notorious in supplying food and drugs to the criminals in the area,” Isa said.
Nigerian Army closes ACF offices
Late on Wednesday, soldiers in two trucks arrived at the ACF offices in Borno state capital Maiduguri..
“They came and asked everyone in the building to leave. They said it was an order from above,” a staff member said on condition of anonymity.
The aid worker said soldiers backed by two heavily armored vehicles also shut down the group’s office in the city of Damaturu in neighboring Yobe state.
“The soldiers didn’t explain why they shut the office. They only asked us to leave and not to take anything with us,” another aid worker said, adding: “We don’t know what is happening.”
In a statement, ACF condemned the closure of its Maiduguri office.
“This decision, without notice and without any explanation, jeopardizes the assistance Action Against Hunger provides to the most vulnerable people in Borno State and halts, with immediate effect, the assistance Action Against Hunger provides to millions of people in Maiduguri, Monguno, and Damasak,” the statement said.
It said ACF “delivers neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian aid to millions of people in Borno State by providing basic services to the most vulnerable, especially women and children,” and called on “competent authorities to let us continue our work in the region.”
The NGO says it helped 3,488,001 people in Nigeria in 2018.
At a news conference in Maiduguri on Thursday, the army made no mention of the incident and declined requests for comment.
ACF workers abducted by ISWAP
A humanitarian source who requested anonymity said the sudden closures could be linked to negotiations to free aid workers held by ISWAP.
In July, ISWAP ambushed a small aid convoy on the road to Damasak near the border with Niger. One driver was killed and one ACF staff member, two other drivers and three health workers were abducted.
Several days later, a videowas released that showed the six captives. The only woman among them identified herself as an ACF employee and said they had been “caught by this army called the Caliphate” and pleaded for NGOs, religious organizations and the government to help secure their release.
They remain in captivity.
‘Sense of impunity’ within Nigerian military
Relations between the Nigerian army and aid organisations in the region have been strained for years.
Inn December, the Nigerian Army briefly suspended United Nations children’s agency UNICEF from operating, claiming it was “training selected persons” as “spies” to support Boko Haram by sabotaging counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts. The ban was lifted hours later.
In August 2017, soldiers conducted a search of a U.N. camp in Maiduguri, denounced by Amnesty International.
According to Yan St-Pierre, a counter-terrorism consultant for MOSECON (Modern Security Consulting Group), there is a “sense of impunity” within the Nigerian military.
“The Nigerian army has accustomed us to act in a totally unpredictable way, but the violence of this closure is a bit different from what we are used to,” the expert said.
“The military may believe that ACF is not revealing everything, or authorities suspect a mole within the NGO,” said Yan St Pierre, a specialist in the conflict.
A decade of Islamist insurgency
The jihadist group known as Boko Haram began its bloody insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, but it has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military response.
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. One, led by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians. Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in March 2015, but ISIS central only gives formal backing to the other faction, which it calls Islamic State West Africa Province.
The ISWAP faction, which largely focuses on attacking military and government targets, was led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, but in March, audio recordings revealed that ISIS appointed Abu Abdullah Idris bin Umar, also known as Ibn Umar al-Barnawi and Ba Idrisa, as leader. Despite releasing several videos featuring ISWAP since, ISIS has not yet made a public statement confirming the change.
On September 10, the United States added Ba Idrisa to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, saying that he was born in Maiduguri between 1989 and 1994. The listing did not specify which faction he belongs to.
The U.S. assesses that Boko Haram and ISWAP have been responsible for more than 35,000 deaths since 2011. More than two million people have been displaced, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region.
Earlier this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that early 22,000 people, mostly children, are missing as a result of the insurgency in northeast Nigeria, the highest number of missing persons registered with the organization in any country. Some 60% of the total were minors at the time they went missing.
In July, a spokesperson for President Muhammadu Buhari again insisted that Boko Haram was defeated, blaming ongoing violence in the northeast on international jihadists exploiting porous borders with Sahel countries.
Last week, an army press release said that Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusufu Buratai had warned that referring to Boko Haram, JAS or ISWAP by name “could amount to supporting or encouraging terrorism,” and that “giving prominence to the criminal activities of the terrorists group through sensational headlines and fake news in both electronic and print media could also amount to tacit support to terrorism which violates the Terrorism Prevention Act 2011.”
With reporting from AFP