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“People are suffering”: Displacement continues, leaving hundreds of thousands exposed in Benue State of Nigeria

Persistent and increased violence in the Middle Belt of Nigeria is causing new waves of displacement into informal camps where services and support are non-existent. The newly displaced population is in urgent need of shelter, WASH services, vaccination, and protection. 

Cooking area at Ortese Camp, Benue State © Ghada Safaan/MSF

“This tent cannot protect you from gunshots. It can be flooded with rain and torn with a knife by any thief,” says Kubur, a man in his fifties who sits outside one of the hundreds of plastic tents set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Mbawa camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Benue State, Nigeria.

“Life in a tent is nothing like living in my hut in the village,” says Kubur. “When it rains, we cannot cook outside, but if we cook inside, we are worried that the tent will catch fire.”

Kubur and his family have been living in Mbawa camp, Benue State in Nigeria, which has been home to 8,000 displaced people, for four years. The farmer says he wants to return to his village, rebuild his home and start farming again. But he is scared.

“If I go back, I fear that my family and I will be killed immediately,” he says. “My biggest concern is how to feed my children. I used to have a motorcycle but I lost it, and my legs cannot carry me far. There are few opportunities for me to earn money.”

Benue is one of Nigeria’s Middle Belt states, which hosts the largest number of IDPs in the country outside of the North-East. The number of displaced people in Benue has been rising steadily, from 160,000 in 2019 to 198,000 in 2020, and more than 220,000 people in early 2021. Some have been displaced within Benue, others are from neighbouring states. The Middle Belt states are plagued by inter-communal clashes, mostly between herders and farmers. The conflict is largely driven by competition over land, water, and other resources.

Displaced families have been living in overcrowded tents for years. There is no hope for them to return home and they have been deprived of their traditional means to gain income. In cooperation with Benue’s State Emergency Management Agency, we have built shelters, latrines and dug boreholes in Mbawa camp. But as the camp population keeps growing, there is an increasing need for services. With few organisations present in the area, however, assistance is sporadic and falls short of meeting people’s needs for adequate shelter, food, water, sanitation, healthcare and protection.

Just outside the camp, our teams support a Ministry of Health (MoH) primary healthcare clinic, and runs a clinic for adolescent sexual health, reproductive health, and comprehensive care for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Kwado Daniel, a community health worker who is working in the MoH clinic, says the situation has deteriorated since the clinic was set up four years ago.

People are suffering. The residents of the camp used to be able to find work on farms during the rainy season, but now they are all here, no one can farm. Other groups have taken their land. 

Patients come with bloody diarrhea, typhoid and malnutrition. There is little I can do to help them as we have run out of medicine in the MoH clinic. I feel so sorry for them that I sometimes shed tears. I myself had my home in Guma taken away, and I had to move to Makurdi.

Martha, a resident of Mbawa camp, patiently awaits her turn at the primary healthcare clinic, carrying her four-month old twins, who were born here. She sees a doctor and receives medicine at the MSF pharmacy.

“I have been having lower abdominal pains and felt weak since I gave birth to my babies,” says Martha. “When I attempt any hard work, I feel sick, which is why I came to the clinic. It is my mother who looks for food for us; she sells items at the market to get money. When she is unable to go to the market, we remain hungry,” she says.

Preventable diseases and sexual violence

The people living in the camp are suffering from high rates of malaria, acute diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and skin diseases.

“In the first six months of 2021 we provided over 15,000 outpatient consultations,” says Mohamed Ali, MSF deputy head of mission in Benue. “Additionally, there is an alarming number of survivors of sexual violence that come to the reproductive health clinic whom we are supporting. We see an average of 24 patients per month who have been raped or subjected to sexual violence,” he says.

While conditions for IDPs in Mbawa are difficult, they are even worse in other areas of Benue. Some 12 kilometres away from Mbawa more than 8,000 people - as of early August - live in a makeshift camp in an area called Ortese. They have been displaced by a new wave of violence that started in the area in April 2021.

Given that IDPs in the camp do not have proper shelter or access to any kind of services, we started providing emergency services in Ortese in June this year. Half of the people here are crammed inside a small school building.

Lebeta (left) has been living in Ortese camp since earlier this year

Lebeta (left) has been living in Ortese camp since earlier this year.  [© Ghada Safaan/MSF ]

“There are 20 families living in this room,” says Lebeta, who is sitting outside a classroom in the school building. “There is so little space that some of us spend the night standing.”

Others sleep outside, in makeshift tents made of mosquito nets that provide no protection from the sun or rain. “We have nowhere else to go,” says Justina Ayaga. “I fled here in April because my village got attacked. I wish I could return home but that’s impossible,” she says.

“Now my main problem is hunger because we are left with nothing. If they give us food, I will be feeding myself and my nine children,” she says. “There is no place to farm, so every morning the children look for a place to work to get money. Sometimes the children fetch firewood to sell so we can buy small grains to eat and survive. The food is usually not enough.”

People in the camp used to walk three kilometres to the nearest open well to fetch water, which was not safe to drink. When our teams arrived at the camp, they found people in very bad health. Many had acute watery diarrhea and malaria. Our teams soon set up an emergency mobile clinic, and treated 2,116 people between June and August.

Water supply in the camp is a serious concern. Several attempts to dig a borehole in the camp did not result in finding water. Our teams have managed to bring water to the camp by truck but this is not a sustainable solution, as the muddy roads during rainy season often prevent vehicles from moving.

There are very few organisations providing support to displaced people in Benue. Since 2018, MSF teams have been working in camps including Anyiin, Ugba, Daudu, Mbawa, Abagana, Life Camp, Ichuwa, and now Ortese.

“We are concerned about the prolonged displacement, which is only getting worse. There are wide gaps between the assistance that is available to people and their pressing needs,” says Ali. “We wish there were other organisations who could provide support, but the resources for Nigeria are limited, while there are so many needs.”

MSF has been working in Benue since 2018, predominantly with displaced farming communities. Our teams established and handed over to the MOH a primary health clinic in Mbawa and Abagana IDP camps, and MSF is currently providing reproductive and sexual healthcare for adolescents and mothers, as well as survivors of sexual violence mainly in Mbawa. In June 2021 MSF started to support the newly displaced community in Ortese Camp, with the distribution of mosquito nets, establishment of latrines and showers, water provision, and operation of mobile clinics.


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