LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria’s president promised Saturday to drive hunger out of Africa’s most populous nation but made no mention of a conflict-driven famine threatening to kill tens of thousands of children in northeast Nigeria.
The United Nations has warned that 75,000 children could die of starvation in a year if speedy action isn’t taken in northeast Nigeria, where underfunded aid agencies say 4.4 million people need food and 65,000 are living in famine-like conditions amid an Islamic insurgency by Boko Haram extremists.
Children with matchstick limbs and protruding ribs already are dying but a regional official for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, Muhammad Kanar, denied Friday that the region had even one case of malnutrition. He spoke after the U.N. Children’s Fund doubled its funding appeal to $115 million, calling it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made no reference Saturday to the food emergency in a speech marking the West African nation’s 56th anniversary of independence from British colonizers.
Instead, he painted a rosy picture of military successes against Nigeria’s homegrown extremists in the northeast, repeating that Boko Haram “was defeated” by December 2015.
“Now, residents in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States … go about their daily business in relative safety,” he claimed. “Commuters can travel between cities, towns and villages without fear.”
Aid workers and residents of Borno, the worst-hit state and birthplace of Boko Haram, say they fear to venture out of Maiduguri, the biggest city in the northeast, for fear of attack. As a result, Doctors Without Borders said people in newly liberated towns are “entirely reliant on outside aid that does not reach them.”
Famine and malnutrition are among many emergencies hitting Nigeria, a nation that has fallen into recession this year and lost its position as Africa’s biggest oil producer as militant attacks in the south slashed petroleum production. Nigeria also is beset by separatists in the southeast, an ever-deadlier conflict in the Middle Belt pitting mainly Muslim nomadic herders against Christian farmers, and mounting crime including a slew of kidnappings for ransom.
The latest victim, the wife of Central Bank of Nigeria Gov. Godwin Emefiele, was rescued by security forces Friday night within 24 hours of being abducted by gunmen, the bank said Saturday. Some Nigerian families have bankrupted themselves to pay ransoms and complain that police did nothing to help.
Amnesty International this week accused Buhari’s government of trying to muzzle dissent by arresting and intimidating journalists and protesters. The London-based rights group cited examples of police violently blocking peaceful protesters, including activists demanding the government rescue more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.
The Bring Back Our Girls Movement, marking the girls’ 900th day in captivity Friday, reminded Buhari of his words last year that “we cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage.”
The father of one of the kidnapped girls was among the civilians killed in a Boko Haram attack on a village near Chibok last week, bringing the number of parents who have died since the mass abduction to 23.
In his speech Saturday, Buhari did not even refer to the kidnapped girls.
Instead, he promised big infrastructure and agricultural projects that “will revive the economy, restore the value of the naira (currency) and drive hunger from our land.”