Nigerian military lifts ban on UNICEF in restive northeast

Amnesty's Nigeria director Osai Ojigho has called the Nigerian army's accusation that UNICEF was aiding Boko Haram absurd".
Amnesty's Nigeria director Osai Ojigho has called the Nigerian army's accusation that UNICEF was aiding Boko Haram absurd".
Image: AFP

The Nigerian military lifted a ban on UNICEF operations in the ravaged northeast late Friday after earlier suspending the aid agency and accusing it of training "spies" supporting Boko Haram jihadists.

The military earlier Friday said the United Nations children's agency had this week held workshops in the northeast city of Maiduguri training people for "clandestine" activities that were "sabotaging" counter terrorism efforts.

Boko Haram's Islamist insurgency has killed more than 27,000 people since it began in 2009 and has triggered a humanitarian crisis in the wider Lake Chad region, where the jihadists have stepped up attacks in recent months.

But after a meeting between the military and the aid agency late Friday, army spokesman Onyema Nwachukwu said the ban had been revoked following an "intervention by well meaning and concerned Nigerians".

"During the meeting, the Theatre Command admonished the representatives of the organisation to desist from activities inimical to Nigeria's national security and capable of undermining the ongoing fight against terrorism and insurgency," he said in a statement.

"The Command also urged UNICEF representatives to ensure they share information with relevant authorities whenever induction or training of new staff is being conducted in the theatre,"Nwachukwu said.

He said after extensive deliberations "the Theatre Command has henceforth lifted the three months suspension earlier imposed on UNICEF activities in northeastern Nigeria".

Nwachukwu had earlier said there was "credible information that some (UNICEF representatives) are indulging in unwholesome practices that could further jeopardise the fight against terrorism and insurgency, as they train and deploy spies who support the insurgents and their sympathisers" and that UNICEF operations would therefore be suspended until further notice.

Boko Haram's bloody uprising in northeastern Nigeria has spread to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, leaving 1.8 million people homeless and millions dependent on aid for survival.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 2015 pledging to end the violence, is under increasing pressure to act as he gears up to seek re-election in a February ballot.

He has come under attack for previously claiming the Islamists were "technically defeated".

The Nigerian military has hit out at media reporting casualty figures of the attacks and even threatened legal action against organisations for publishing unofficial death tolls.

It has also dismissed reports from international human rights organisations that it has committed rights violations and war crimes during its fight against Boko Haram.

Amnesty International had on Friday condemned the suspension and called on Nigeria to reverse the decision.

"We see the suspension of UNICEF as part of a wider drive to intimidate international humanitarian and human rights organisations who are working to save lives in this devastating conflict," said Amnesty's Nigeria director Osai Ojigho.

"The Nigerian army has accused UNICEF of 'aiding Boko Haram' - an absurd charge. The suspension of UNICEF will in fact deprive those whose lives have been devastated by the Boko Haram conflict from receiving much-needed humanitarian assistance," Ojigho said.

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