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First on the front line

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is no stranger to violence. Since independence in 1960, it has undergone six military coups and endured the Biafran civil war, which claimed a million lives in the late 1960s. Despite a return to civilian rule in 1999, the country continues to be dogged by bloody intercommunal violence. The Nigerian Red Cross Society has risen to the challenge.

“WHEN the violence erupted, I was called up along with the rest of the team,” says Baba Gana Isa. “Though we were in danger ourselves, we carried on regardless and attended to the victims.” Baba Gana Isa was one of the Nigerian Red Cross volunteers mobilized when the Danish cartoon crisis sparked a wave of violence in five states of Nigeria last February, leaving dozens of people dead, hundreds injured and thousands more displaced.

The episode was typical of the bursts of violence that have characterized Nigeria in recent years. Often, it requires little provocation to set off a killing spree (opposition to the holding of the Miss World contest in Nigeria, for example), before everything just as suddenly returns to normal. Though it would be easy to blame the complex ethnic and religious mix that makes up the Nigerian population, the underlying causes are more likely to be economic. Despite Nigeria’s huge oil revenues (it is the world’s tenth largest, and Africa’s largest, producer of crude oil), the majority of its citizens are impoverished owing to the uneven distribution of resources. The worst violence is to be found in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, where organized armed groups operate, and in areas where there is competition for control of scarce resources.

When clashes occur, the Nigerian Red Cross Society is often the first on the scene, evacuating the victims and administering first aid. The National Society also distributes emergency relief to displaced people who have sought refuge in army barracks, schools, churches or mosques to escape the violence. Assistance is not confined to food and essential household items; it can also include providing psychological support to the confused and traumatized victims of violence.

“It was a sad experience to feel the pain of these people,” recounts Baba Gana Isa. “But at the same time I was happy to be able to help wipe away their tears.”

Preparing for elections

Nigeria now has an elected civilian government, but the transition to democracy has been uneasy at times. President Olusegun Obasanjo will step down in the first half of 2007 after serving two terms, and the race will be on to elect a successor. At the same time as choosing a new president, Nigerians will vote for the governors of the country’s 36 states. Although hopes are high for a smooth and trouble-free handover of power, the National Society is taking no chances and is preparing for an increase in violence in the run-up to, during and after the poll.

“Our aim is to empower branches with the necessary knowledge, skills and material resources to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of election-related violence,” says Umar Mairiga, Nigerian Red Cross disaster management officer. The National Society is joined in this endeavour by the ICRC.

A first step has been to assess the propensity for violence in each of the 36 states, taking into account political, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic factors. The Red Cross is focusing its efforts on those states identified as having a high risk of an outbreak of violence and has developed contingency plans for that eventuality.

The response capacities of Red Cross branches in the potential hot spots have also been examined and strengthened. This has involved improving the network of Red Cross volunteers, creating new divisions in local government areas and setting up emergency first-aid teams. Since the beginning of 2006, over 150 new divisions, each with its own emergency first-aid team, have been established.

However, broadening the volunteer base is only effective if accompanied by training. To this end, disaster management workshops have been held, bringing together emergency first-aid team leaders and other actors, such as relevant national and state authorities and non-governmental and faith-based organizations. In addition, recent training-of-trainer courses raised the number of Red Cross first-aid trainers to 322. They can now pass their newfound knowledge on to their fellow volunteers in readiness for any emergency.

Creating an efficient and reactive setup is difficult in a country like Nigeria, given its size, geography, diversity and federal structure. The Nigerian Red Cross has therefore divided the country into six zones: each zone has one health and one disaster management officer, who support the branches in their area, monitor the situation and coordinate the Red Cross response to crises. Emergency stocks have also been pre-positioned in the six zones, individual branches have been supplied with protective gear, first-aid kits and stretchers, and the high-frequency radio network has been upgraded.

Coordination with other humanitarian actors is also necessary to improve the overall response in crisis situations and to avoid duplication of effort. For example, in Plateau, one of the multiethnic and multi-religious states of the Middle Belt region, which is the scene of frequent intercommunal clashes, the Nigerian Red Cross is an active member of the Emergency Preparedness Team Network, a coordination platform which greatly facilitated the mounting of an efficient response during a land dispute in Namu district earlier in 2006.

Beyond emergency

The police and armed forces need to know about and understand the Red Cross, if they are to ensure safe access of volunteers to the victims of violence. The ICRC and Nigerian Red Cross regularly conduct information sessions for police and military officers to remind them of their obligation to respect human rights and humanitarian principles, especially when they intervene in situations of internal violence.

The ICRC and the National Society also maintain dialogue with the political authorities and civil society to promote awareness and implementation of international humanitarian law. The ICRC supports the integration of humanitarian law and human rights into the training and procedures of the Nigerian armed forces and police, as well as into university curricula.

Apart from its emergency interventions, the Nigerian Red Cross conducts community-based activities such as HIV/AIDS prevention and care, health and hygiene promotion and skills acquisition for youth and women.

Improving the social, economic and health environment can help to prevent frustration and, by extension, violence. In addition, the Nigerian Red Cross and the ICRC are developing a new community-based violence-prevention project that will target youth and seek to contribute to a supportive society which rejects violence and fosters respect for humanitarian principles.

The Nigerian Red Cross, the ICRC and the International Federation are combining their expertise, manpower and motivation to achieve what each cannot do singly. Emmanuel Campbell, ICRC cooperation delegate, sums it up: “When the Movement’s components work together effectively, it smoothes the way for the volunteers, who are the foot soldiers of Red Cross action, to carry out their essential humanitarian work.”

 

 

 


Nigerian Red Cross volunters are ready to respond to intercommunal violence at a moment’s notice.
GEORGE ESIRI / REUTERS, COURTESY www.alertnet.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The ICRC and Nigerian Red Cross conduct regular information sessions for police and armed forces.
©ICRC

 

Patrick Bawa and Iris Meierhans
Patrick Bawa is assistant director of communication at the Nigerian Red Cross Society. Iris Meierhans is ICRC communication delegate in Nigeria.

Emmanuel Campbell died on 18 October 2006. Among the ICRC’s first cooperation delegates, he made an essential contribution to the development of this field of activities. May he rest in peace.

 

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