Northern Nigeria, ravaged by violence, is waging a new war against child malnutrition

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Gunmen attacked the village of Halima Musa in Nigeria four years ago, killing her husband and one of their seven children.

The family fled to the safety of a camp for displaced people, but now they are hungry.

“It’s been more than a year since the government brought us food,” she said from the Sokoto camp.

It is 2 p.m. and Mrs. Musa is preparing the first – and only – meal of the day for the family.

She does not know where she will find food for the next day. “My children and I usually beg,” she said.

The escalation of violence in northwestern Nigeria has claimed thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Many, like Ms. Musa, take refuge in camps where food is often insufficient.

The violence has exacerbated chronic poverty in this part of the West African nation which has a poverty rate of 40%, according to the latest government statistics, including some of the poorest citizens of the troubled north.

Many families have had to abandon their farmlands as they are forced to choose their lives over their livelihoods.

Mothers wait with their malnourished children at a nutrition center in Maiduguri, Nigeria (Nasir Ghafoor/Médecins Sans Frontières/AP)

Michel-Olivier Lacharite, of the medical association Médecins Sans Frontières, said the attacks had “pushed many communities to their limits, including around 500,000 people forced to flee their homes”.

The group is preparing to provide food to 100,000 malnourished children this year in Nigeria’s Katsina state alone, said Mr Lacharite, the group’s emergency operations manager.

Although he alerted the government to the problem, he said, “We have not seen the mobilization needed to avert a devastating nutrition crisis.”

The violence in northwestern Nigeria is blamed on armed groups who authorities say are mostly young, semi-nomadic herders from the Fulani tribe who are in conflict with sedentary farming communities over access limited to water and land.

Some of the rebel herders are now working with extremist Islamist rebels in the northeast of the country to target isolated communities.

While Nigeria’s jihadist insurgency in the northeast has eased somewhat, violence in the northwest has worsened, authorities say.

Murdakai Titus, from the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Displaced Persons, said: “The government gives them (displaced persons) more attention in the North West than in the North East.

The doctor examines the young child
A doctor examines a malnourished child (Nasir Ghafoor/Médecins Sans Frontières/AP)

“The North West is given high priority… for the commission’s response activities – relief materials, livelihood activities, training them for self-reliance.”

The United Nations World Food Program office in Nigeria works to prevent acute malnutrition by providing nutritional assistance to children aged 6-23 months. Aid is also being provided to pregnant and lactating women in vulnerable households, said Chi Lael, spokesperson for the programme.

Malnutrition remains a concern, however, said Ms. Lael, pointing out that in some areas, “children under five were twice as likely to be malnourished as those in the general population.”

Manzo Ezekiel, a spokesman for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, said the agency knows nutrition needs to be improved for the internally displaced population.

Hannatu Ahmadu and her four children have been on the run for a month after gunmen attacked her village of Takwo in the Munya region of Niger State. They managed to find security but they don’t have enough food.

“As I speak to you, we have not been able to harvest our crops and we are currently here starving,” she said from Munya IDP camp in Niger state, neighboring Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Ms Ahmadu said erratic food aid deliveries made it difficult for her children to feed.

“We only eat once a day,” she said.

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