By Amos Abba
Muhammad Zayyanu is seven years old. The quiet boy, who looks too short for his age, can not recollect when breakfast was part of his daily meal. It is difficult for a child whose main meal for the day is usually after sunset.
He counts himself lucky to eat breakfast at sunset, except on festive religious occasions when people share food with neighbours. His mother, Hajira Zayyanu, says skipping meals has become a routine since 2016 when bandits attacked Jakkuka, their village, in Zamfara State, and killed dozens of people.
Hajira escaped death by a whisker after bandits shot her eldest son and her husband before her eyes. She ran into the forest with her remaining children while the insurgents were looting food barns in the village.
“We no longer have the luxury of eating three times a day. It is by God’s grace my children eat breakfast or lunch. Our guaranteed meal for the day is mainly in the evening,” she said.
The Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Anka, Zamfara State, where Hajara currently lives, is host to over 10,000 displaced people. Since 2016, Amnesty International says, bandits have killed over 5,000 people and displaced over 50,000 civilians from their homes in Zamfara towns and villages.
Hajira and her three children were getting regular food supplies when they arrived at the camp, but it was short-lived. Residents of the camp tell this reporter that government agencies and NGOs prefer to focus their attention on new arrivals because the needs of the locals are much.
“We had land where we farmed rice and guinea corn at Jakkuka, but since we came here, whatever we see is what we eat. We don’t have farms here but depend on the goodwill of Nigerians and donor organisations who bring food to the camp. Often, my children eat once a day,” Hajira says.
The 32-year-old mother of four resorted to begging for alms as a source of livelihood but barely makes N2,000 in a week. Her 17-year-old daughter got married in the camp to ease her financial burden, while a good samaritan enrolled two of her children in a local school under a tree.
Hajira does not possess any skill apart from working on a farm or rearing livestock. Without land for farming or animals to rear, she seems out of her depth in the IDP camp at Anka.
“I am the breadwinner of the family and I take care of these children (points to three of her kids) from the alms I get every day. It’s not easy when you have many mouths to feed. Skipping some meals is normal, but I try to ensure they don’t sleep on an empty stomach,” she said.
Muhammed is one of the 13.1 million children in Nigeria who are stunted from poor diet. His mother prioritises his dinner. As a child in an IDP camp, the odds are against him as he can barely get the food needed for optimal growth.
WIDESPREAD MALNUTRITION IN IDP CAMPS
Four out of five IDP’s have inadequate food consumption, according to a 2021 survey by the World Food Programme (WFP), National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD).
The survey conducted in IDP camps in Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina State also revealed that children between the ages of 6 and 39 make 2.5percent of the global acute malnutrition population. The critical emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) put the figure at 15percent.
Rabiu Sambo, the Zamfara State Coordinator of Advocacy Nigeria, a civil rights group, says malnutrition in IDP camps in Zamfara is likely inevitable because donor organisations mainly carry out food distribution in these camps with little government support.
“When a country places the welfare of its displaced citizens in the hands of donor organisations, problems are inevitable, because donor organisations are supposed to complement the efforts by the government,” he says.
“A visit to these IDP camps shows you that the residents live in poor conditions, and the Federal Government has not taken the plight of displaced people as a priority. Some of these camps exist because of donor organisations.”
The 2020 Global Hunger Index (GHI) ranked Nigeria at 98 among 107 countries, ahead of countries like Afghanistan, Lesotho, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Nigeria’s low ranking was described as “severe” and blamed on malnutrition. Over 12percent of the population is undernourished because adequate food is lacking in quantity and quality.
According to the GHI, over 6percent of children below the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition and have weight too low for their age, while 35percent of children in the country are stunted in growth.
Oyejide Adesanjo, a nutritionist, says institutionalising a homegrown feeding programme for children in these camps would address the underlying problems of malnutrition.
“The government needs a national policy to address the concerns of malnutrition in children, especially those in school, in the country. This should be done by scaling up intervention schemes for children in the rural areas through home gardening and adequate supply of nutritional meals to their schools,” he says.
“It should move past political grandstanding where a politician in front of the camera eats with students. The main issue should be the quantity and quality of the food the students are served.”
GOVERNMENT’S FLOUNDERING SUPPORT
In 2015, Nigeria adopted a five-year plan called the National Strategic Plan of Action on Nutrition (NSPAN) to combat malnutrition. The project was expected to cost N328billion.
For the duration of the programme, Nigeria’s investment in nutrition was a far cry from meeting its target. The Federal Government approved budgetary releases for Ready To Use Therapeutic Food (RTUF) for malnourished children as follows: N366million in 2016, N1.2billion in 2017, N400million in 2018 and N61million in 2019.
RUTF meals are made for severely malnourished children to eat without assistance. They contain peanut paste, milk, vegetable oil, sugar, milk, vitamins and minerals.
In 2020, N800million earlier slated for RUTF was withdrawn from the budget. Records show that Nigeria has spent a total of N2.2billion on RUTF, which is 0.5percent of the total funding needed to implement the project.
Ironically, between 2011 and 2018, malnutrition among children under age five increased as child wasting grew from 24 to 31percent in 2018, while stunting rose from 34 to 43percent, based on data from the 2018 Multiple Indicator Clusters Survey (MICS).
The cost of treating one child suffering from malnutrition under the Community Management for Acute Malnutrition (CMAM), a programme initiated by the United Nations International Emergency Fund (UNICEF), is $160, which is N65,894 at the official rate of N411 to $1.
At 14 months, Aisha does not look well fed, neither does she look as sickly as other infants in Anka Camp. She still takes breastmilk, though Faizah Abdul, her mother, says breastfeeding her is tasking because she doesn’t eat a proper diet.
“Health officials taught us in the camp that we could breastfeed our children after one year. That’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s not been easy for me. The sachet food that was initially being given to my daughter has stopped coming. If it was here, I would have stopped breastfeeding,” she says.
Nigeria has the second highest number of stunted children globally, with two million children battling Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), according to 2019 data obtained from UNICEF.
In January, Yemi Osinbanjo, Nigeria’s Vice President, pitched a five-year nutrition action plan to guide intervention programmes against hunger and malnutrition in the country from 2021 to 2025.
The plan is to reduce the number of people who suffer malnutrition by 50percent, increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding by 65percent and ensure 18percent decline in the stunting rate among under-five children by scaling up nutrition-specific interventions.
A WAY OUT
Many families like Faizah’s cannot get sufficient protein in their diet because the population in these IDP camps outweighs the supply of RUTF by donor organisations, and they don’t have enough to get food from the market.
Victims of Violence, a humanitarian organisation in Zamfara State, developed a healthy RUTF substitute named Savameal last year to combat malnutrition in under-five children living in IDP camps.
The ready-to-eat diet specifically for children under five years of age who suffer from acute malnutrition is made from soybeans, red sorghum and groundnut.
Al-Mustapha Sani, the state coordinator of the Zamfara State chapter of the organisation, said the inadequacy of supply of RUTF by donor organisations to malnourished children in IDP camps prompted the group to proffer an alternative solution.
“We found out during visits to some unofficial IDP camps in Anka, Maru, Gusau and Doumborou that RUTF meant for malnourished children were eaten by older children and adults because they were hungry and food was in short supply.
“Because of the chronic lack of balanced diet for malnourished children, we had to come up with a substitute food supplement that was cheap and accessible, from locally grown crops in the region that everyone can eat,” he says.
The 2018 Demographic Health Survey reveals that 56percent of children under five years are more likely to be stunted, wasted, or underweight. However, Sani says the malnutrition and hunger in the state would continue if banditry continues to displace people from their homes.
“The solution to these staggering figures of child malnutrition in Zamfara State will take place when people residing in IDP camps are relocated to their original homes where there is a regular supply of balanced diet for children under strict supervision,” he said.
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