Andrew, a white European of the Christian faith, currently works among the internally displaced persons, IDPs, in their camps in war-ravaged and weather-stricken villages of the north-east Nigeria. His typical day is characterised by emergencies, thoroughly famished children hanging on the edge must be tended to, young women amid degrees of trauma and deprivation, avoidable deaths and life threatening situations surround him.
He has sacrificed a decent paying job, in a society where his safety and comfort are guaranteed to be in Nigeria out of a desire to make a difference. Now in Borno State, Andrew is among several European volunteer medical professionals from that part of the world who have moved into distressed parts of Africa working with international aid agencies to save life and give succour to dying and desperate swaths of people ejected from their land by war and aggravated famine.
However, to the average villager he is attending to, this white foreigner in their communities may be there to undermine their religion, culture and heritage, and are part of the yahudu da nasara that they have been meant to believe are responsible for most of the problems in the Muslim world and particularly in Africa. One of the grave realities of the North East is that it is a society conflicted on all sides. Even the person bringing life to you could be counted among your enemies by the reason of years of indoctrination.
For these villagers, the optics of “a White European,” which aligns with age long fears handed out by misguided fanatics overshadows the realities of Andrew’s caregiving and life-saving devotions. But there are truly issues in this evident culture clash between Andrew and his host communities that speak to our larger sensibilities. Given the humidity, the blazing rays from the sun and the sweltering heat, Andrew finds it convenient to adorn short pants to work, something his conservative host communities consider to be disrespectful at best.
There are even other male, white volunteers that wear earrings and men and women with tattoos, which, for the villagers, is another evidence of intent of white Europeans to subvert and pollute the sacred Islamic society. The conflicted self-definitions might provide the fertile ground for future collapse of intended objectives, but it points to the possibility that neither the international humanitarian agencies, nor government at the various levels prepared for this by way of rethinking the information engagement environment.
Often as a way of encouragement, Andrew finds himself putting out his hand for a handshake with adolescent married or unmarried female publicly, another no, no, no that the host communities find not only embarrassing but utterly distressing. He may want to tap the shoulders of a girl, distraught by the traumas she suffered in war, he is doing all these innocently, but to the people, especially the men in these communities, this foreigner is disrespectful and undermining their religious beliefs.
There may, yet not be many instances of resistance of international professional volunteers by host communities in the Northeast of Nigeria, but this may not be far-fetched. In fact, in northeast Nigeria today, there are many foreigners working in NGOs that are not familiar with the sensitivities and cultures of the host communities. The communities are yet to be sensitised on the work of humanitarian agencies too. Both parties are oblivious of the status and responsibilities of one another, the result of this ignorance and misinformation is often gossips, friction and chaos between aid workers and the host communities in need of help.
In Borno, there is a cut and nail cocktail of hearsay about NGOs colluding with the Boko Haram insurgency, especially when there is a resurgence of violence. Idle minds will look for who to blame, as baseless as these allegations are, the failure of the international aid agencies to develop a robust, clear-headed information strategy to engage their host communities is chiefly to blame. Many of the humanitarian actors that responded to the dire humanitarian needs in the region moved there with a conventional communications strategy in dealing with an acute unconventional and complicated crisis.
There is hardly any aggressive messaging campaign that targets the local population or even the insurgents and their families. What a properly defined communication framework for these environments will do is give the local people basic understanding of the different roles by the different organized platforms in the region. The local people do not see any difference between international humanitarian intervention and international support programs for governments in the Lake Chad in prosecuting the war. A proper communication agenda will accomplish this.
Boko Haram abhors any representation of civil authority and international laws, which is the premise that international humanitarian agencies and NGOs are guided. They are engaged in a war with the sole aim of implementing Sharia laws that inadvertently have no place for these NGOs. Importantly, humanitarian actors must step up their engagement with all stakeholders in the conflict zone. They must communicate their mandate and objectives even to the Boko Haram audience no matter how reprehensible they are viewed in the society.
The militarisation of IDP camps is not also helpful, it has created tension between the givers and receivers of care and made the camps more susceptible to attacks. IDP camps are best secured by Security Forces from the surroundings, and not from within. It is inalienable that humanitarian agencies are best suited to run these camps.
Many people in the region are too traumatized to learn by themselves. They are seeing events around them moving quickly and nothing as well as no one prepared them for it. Advocacy ought to be an integral part of the aid programs channeled to communities as well as the IDPs. And such communication framework would have traction, be dynamic and make both givers and receivers of care immensely comfortable with one another.
Salkida is an independent journalist and a conflict analyst in the Lake Chad