Interview with Babatunde Anthony Ojei, Country Director for Nigeria, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Abuja
The European: Mr Ojei, you have been the Country Director for Nigeria of the non-governmental organisation International Rescue Committee (IRC) since February 2021. Could you briefly explain the mission of the IRC?
Babatunde Ojei: The IRC helps people affected by humanitarian crises – including the climate crisis – to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. The IRC started humanitarian programmes in Nigeria in October 2012 in response to severe flooding in Kogi state, which affected over seven million people. Just over 10 years later, we are now a critical partner in addressing the humanitarian crises in the northeast and northwest of the country – offering programmes in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) and host communities that reached more than 1.6 million people in 2022.
The European: What are the most challenging problems in Nigeria?
Babatunde Ojei: Despite the efforts I mentioned, many humanitarian needs in Nigeria remain challenging due to multiple issues, ranging from insecurity to access and limited funding. Conflict has resulted in the destruction of infrastructure and the disruption of basic services across the Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY) states. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 8.4 million people across this region require humanitarian assistance, and 2.2 million people are displaced from their homes.
The European: When the IRC is engaging in a country, how is its work organised? And how is the coordination with the country’s authorities and with other humanitarian actors managed?
Babatunde Ojei: When the IRC responds to a humanitarian crisis caused either by conflict or climate change, acceptance by local stakeholders is critical to success – this includes the communities we serve, the authorities and, in the case of Nigeria, relevant actors in the conflict. To make sure this happens, we follow the humanitarian principles of neutrality, humanity, and impartiality. In case of an armed conflict, like in northeast Nigeria, each party is obliged to meet the needs of the population under its control. If they cannot do so, they can consent to the support of impartial humanitarian actors, in which case, they must facilitate these organisations’ rapid and unimpeded access.
In these cases, the IRC works with local staff to increase our understanding of the context, ensure accountability to our clients, and include them in the design of our response. Ideally, we also engage with accessible parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this is not possible, largely due to insecurity and lack of acceptance by certain actors on the field. This has dramatic consequences on our capacity to operate, but most importantly, on the access to basic social services for the population we serve.
The European: To what extent are these conflicts hampering the much-needed healthcare services in the country?
Babatunde Ojei: As the Country Director for the IRC, I see the impact of attacks on healthcare every day, including on health facilities that we support. One of our health facilities in Yobe was attacked four times between 2020 and 2022, with armed groups shooting with the aim to kill and carting away supplies. During one of the attacks last year, our ambulance was set on fire. Fortunately, no lives were lost but the very visible bullet holes on the building are a stark reminder that we are not out of the woods yet. After the attacks, we had to suspend the health facility’s services for two months until the situation was stable enough to cautiously resume. With the support of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO), we conducted research finding that a combined 2,356 working days, or 6.6 years, were missed by health staff following the incidents, resulting in communities’ reduced access to health services. Therefore, reinforcing the dialogue with all actors is essential wherever possible. When a newly elected president and federal authorities take office, it is vital to engage them if we are to implement sustainable responses for the populations.
The European: In 2022, Nigeria experienced the worst floods in decades, killing more than 600 people and displacing some 1.4 million. Could you give us a concrete picture of the assistance delivered by the IRC to help people and stabilise the situation?
Babatunde Ojei: Indeed, last year my country experienced its worst flooding in a decade and the city of Lokoja was at the epicentre. Men, women and children did their best to brave the waters, but they needed extra support. The IRC provided basic household items (Non-Food Items – NFIs) such as blankets, jerrycans and soap to uprooted households. We provided dignity kits with basic products for personal hygiene, including feminine hygiene products for women and girls. To address the lack of healthcare services, the IRC conducted mobile health and nutrition interventions services. We also provided emergency water as a short-term, life-saving intervention to meet the survival needs of people forced from their homes.
The European: It seems indeed that Nigeria is increasingly bearing the brunt of a climate crisis it did not cause.
Babatunde Ojei: Exactly! Nigeria has contributed less than 1% of the world’s global emissions, yet it is ranked among the 20% of countries least equipped to deal with their impact. These natural disasters have a considerable impact on households and people’s physical and financial security. Therefore, we are focused on working towards solutions that prepare communities to withstand such climatic shocks.
The European: Can you name a few of these solutions?
Babatunde Ojei: One of the IRC’s solutions is to invest in innovations that use early warning systems and anticipatory cash to protect agricultural and pastoral livelihoods in the northeast of Nigeria that are threatened by increased flooding. We have seen evidence that this cash support helps people to bring their loved ones to safety, stock up on food ahead of floods, protect their homes, and invest in agricultural assets that increase their financial security over the longer-term. Another key solution is for donors to increase the availability of flexible funding which enables a more effective and timely humanitarian response, and provides us greater access to vulnerable people in hard-to-reach areas.
The European: Mister Ojei, let me thank you for this conversation and wish you success in your humanitarian engagement.
The interview was led by Hartmut Bühl.
Babatunde Anthony Ojei is the IRC’s Country Director for Nigeria. He has over 25 years of experience, both in the non-profit and private sectors (environment, development, civilian protection, and humanitarian). He has worked at leadership and management levels for numerous INGOs in Nigeria, including Oxfam Great Britain, Save the Children and Center for Civilians in Conflict. Mr Ojei holds a BSc in Agriculture and an MBA in global business. He is an alumnus of the prestigious GELI Harvard and GELI London School of Economics courses.
International Rescue Committee (IRC)
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps people affected by humanitarian crises, including the climate crisis, to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) was founded at the call of Albert Einstein in 1933. The IRC is at work in over 40 crisis-affected countries and communities throughout the world. The NGO delivers lasting impact by providing healthcare, education for children, and empowering individuals and communities to become self-reliant, always seeking to address the inequalities facing women and girls. In 2022, the IRC and its partners reached over 32.9 million people in countries affected by crises.
The IRC compiles an annual “Emergency Watchlist” report to assess the 20 countries at the greatest risk of new humanitarian emergencies each year.