Profile and challenges of internally displaced persons in west africa

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The West African sub region has been heavily affected by wars as a result of internal conflicts based on ethnic tensions and rivalries, political instability, disputes over the control of national resources, natural disasters, poverty, food insecurity and the quests for development have all resulted in significant population displacement.

This pain in the neck can further be attributed to excessive state intervention into Economic and Socio – Political activities of West African States. Instead of having a Neo-Liberal State, Africa has witnessed an Interventionist State in which there have been state interventions into economic activities instead of allowing the forces of demand and supply to determine the allocation of resources. As a result, the region has experienced macroeconomic imbalances in which economic growth slowed for the past thirty years.

The outcome of these state interventions contributed to a decline or decrease in per capita income, deficit in foreign trade and decrease in investment and savings. The Size and Characters of state institutions were determined by rent seeking policies, organised crimes that accelerated corruption, real wage decreases, monopoly and price controls used as political tools. All of these formed the main elements of the economic report cards of West African regimes.

The region further experienced huge fiscal deficit, where government expenditure continued to be greater than revenue, balance of payment deficit since foreign exchange earnings are insufficient to meet expenditure on imported goods and services, rising inflation, and above all, increase in unemployment. The youths who formed the junk of the population remain unemployed and this threatened their livelihoods and stability of the region.

The Socio – Political Culture disclosed the disregard for human rights, freedom of association and expression, the rule of law favoured few only those affluent in society and sometimes with political connections, political power characterised by lineage and in the hands of few. National resource distribution suffers in the hands of party patronage. Regions with different political ideologies left to suffer and face the reality of having a different political view.

Disgruntled youths and some elderly persons who could not easily find a social space were left with only an option to resort to armed conflict in defense of their freedom and survival. These gave birth to outflow and inflow of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in the West African Sub Region, hence the purpose for writing this article.

Internally Displaced Persons in West Africa

Internal displacement of persons in West Africa were caused by wars include Liberian civil war that started in 1989, the eleven years civil war in Sierra Leone that ended in 2002, political crisis in Togo in 2005, Casamance Province of Senegal, Religious and Resource conflict in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire in 2005 etc. All of these crises were caused by economic, social and political factors.

Internally Displaced Persons therefore are those uprooted from their homes or communities facing untold suffering due to armed conflict, natural or manmade disasters, or economic hardship. There are two major causes of forced displacement, both of them stemming from lack of security.

Firstly, people move away from their homes when their lives are threatened by armed conflict, discrimination, violence or sometimes intimidation. This poses lots of uncertainties about the future. Some people for the first time face the experience of losing or separated from their love ones, expose to physical harm, loss of their normal way of life. Some people leave their homes because their livelihoods are threatened. Hostility and insecurity makes it impossible for them to earn a living or to access essential services, because they can no longer lean to their fields, trade their products or reach their markets. This disrupts their access to education, water supply, health care and other necessary services.

In the face of the above, is it possible for displacement of persons to be prevented? One could say yes. This is so because displacement is a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Where there is strict adherence to IHL, displacement can be prevented. On the other hand, it is difficult to prevent displacement when once individuals and communities are under immense pressure in which life and dignity is at risk. When this happens, preventing displacement seems impossible. It is then the responsibility of International Agencies to assist these people in the best way possible to reduce their sufferings.

   Profile of IDPs in West Africa

Because of the complexity of internally Displace Persons in West Africa, a first regional conference on Internal Displacement was held in Abuja, Nigeria from 26th – 28th April 2006. This was organised by the Brookings – Bern Project. All major stakeholders in the region were in attendance and the representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights of internally Displaced Persons; Walter Kalin attended and gave the keynote address.

 In West Africa, the region has been overwhelmed by displacement for the past decade. Rebellion in the Southern Casamance province of Senegal led to major displacement. Religious, Ethnic and Resource related conflicts in Nigeria are thought to have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Political crisis in Togo in 2005 is another case in point in which thousands were also displaced etc. For the purpose of writing this article, the focus is on few countries for one simple reason; the nature and character of conflicts that led to displacement.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone experienced the most brutal civil war in the 21st century. This conflict started from the level of a problem, systematically promoted to that of chaos, and the situation graduated into mayhem, where limbs of babies and pregnant women were chopped off, child soldiers bet each other to prove whether a pregnant woman is carrying a boy or girl in her stomach, only for them to prove the winner by brutally opening the belly of pregnant woman using a knife in the presence of onlookers, burning of villagers in homes, etc. The fear of some of these events, perpetrated out of callousness on the part of the combatants led to unprecedented displacement of Sierra Leoneans.

In April 2001 both the UN and the Sierra Leone government made a concerted effort to resettle large numbers of IDPs, as well as returning refugees. In 2002, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared officially the end of the 11-year civil war, in which an estimated 50,000 people were killed and about half of the country’s 4.5 million population displaced. Displaced Sierra Leoneans were resettled in accordance with the National Government’s Resettlement Strategy, which applies to IDPs as well as refugees and ex-combatants with their dependants. By the end of 2002, beneficiaries were offered resettlement packages, which included a two month food ration, household utensils, plastic sheeting, and in some cases transportation. According to UN OCHA, a total of some 220,000 registered IDPs were resettled in five phases since April 2001, the last 12,800 of them in November 2002. Many more returned home spontaneously. Officially at least, this left no more IDPs in Sierra Leone. However, it is acknowledged that “the challenges of closing camps remained a concern and the social problems of homelessness within the urban districts of Freetown visible. This continued to be a major component of the development agenda issues to be address by government.


The Fourteen years of armed conflict in Liberia resulted in successive waves of large-scale forced displacement. Civilian populations fled their homes and villages as a result of widespread killings, looting, property destruction, rape and child recruitment. About 35 IDP camps were established, mostly in rural areas close to Monrovia. By August 2003, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Accra, there was already an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 IDPs throughout the country, a significant proportion of this were located in Monrovia, living in congested and destitute conditions in public buildings and other available spaces, including the national football stadium.

October 2003, a transitional power sharing government was inaugurated. This paved way for the deployment of a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force. Immediately, a large-scale inter-agency effort were mobilized to support IDPs in need of assistance to relocate to the IDP camps, where food assistance and other basic services were provided by a range of UN agencies and NGOs. This benefited some 324,000 individuals registered by World Food Programme (WFP).

Between November 2004 and April 2007, some 326,990 IDPs were assisted through inter – agency approach to return to their places of origin. By March 2006, about 321,634 had returned and the camps were formally declared closed and assistance discontinued in April 2006.

However, in May 2006, research conducted by NGOs on the ground revealed that about 28,000 individuals were still residing in the former camps, of whom just over 16,000 had received return packages but had either not departed or had done so but later returned to the camps. 12,000 claimed to have been wrongly excluded from return assistance owing to errors in the WFP registration and verification process; of these, only 5,480 had their claims validated and received assistance to return. The final stage of the return process was completed in May 2007 as 122 unregistered families, identified as vulnerable, were transported to their areas of origin and received a specially designed assistance package, including shelter kits.

  Cote d’ Ivoir

UNHCR report 2006, revealed an estimate of 709,380 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Cort d’ Vivoir. Out of this, only 61,432 returned to their place of origin (OCHA, May 2008).  The political context in Côte d’Ivoire has evolved significantly since the Ouagadougou Political Agreement (OPA) between the Ivorian Government and the Forces Nouvelles (former rebel movement) in March 2007. This positively influenced the security and humanitarian situation. The identification process was completed on 12th May 2008. The regrouping of soldiers in government controlled areas as well as areas under “Forces Nouvelles” control, started on 2nd May 2008.  Many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) later  returned to their areas of origin.

Positive changes in social, political and security context in Côte d’Ivoire prompted most operational agencies to gradually shift from an entirely humanitarian crisis management orientation to early recovery programmes and activities; while limiting the humanitarian approach to non stable areas in western and northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire.

UN agencies also embraced the transition from emergency relief to early recovery and development through the UNDAF (United Nations Development Assistance Framework) process. The UNDAF process was built up on the gains of the emergency relief phase interventions. This ensures their sustainability. The early recovery and development programming process took also into account the remaining humanitarian challenges. Despite  political progress, a range of sensitive issues are still of concerns:

The identification process has been completed, but the reintegration of FN soldiers into the regular army was not being carried out as fast and smooth as anticipated. Land disputes continue to pose serious threats to social cohesion and stability in western region.

The redeployment of local authorities (Prefects and Sub-Prefects) in zones formerly under rebels control remain shaky, due to logistical and other constraints.

It is also worth noting that the social and economic situation continues to deteriorate due to sudden increase in food prices, resulting in deepening the poverty level of the most vulnerable households and hampering their access to health services. 

All these hurdles affect provision of basic social services and pulling downwards the overall humanitarian situation in the country.


Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation has a history of violence which has undermine its development for the past decades. The country has been affected by repeated internal conflicts and violence since the end of armed forces rule and the homecoming to democracy in 1999. With a complex web of linguistic, ethnic and religious groups, conflicts have been triggered by disputes over identity, access to land, and citizenship amongst people who considered themselves as indigenes and those believe to be settlers.  The settlers are prevented from owning land, access to education and jobs thus creating tension, sectarian or religious violence keep reoccurring across the country.

The major supply of wealth in Nigeria is the grouping of oil fields in the Niger Delta, and the country’s reliance on revenues from it has undermined peace and security. State revenues have not been shared efficiently, and opposing elites are in control of state institutions, forcing the exclusion of other groups which accounted in large part for the poor score of Nigeria on the 2009 Failed States Index: the country was fifteenth worst of 177 countries (The Fund for Peace, 2009).

 All of these have been the cause of violence that has led to thousands of displacement in Nigeria. However, there are few cases of displacement caused by natural disasters over the years. These are been considered on a low key because of its nature. There are no dependable statistics on internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria and no general conformity on their actual numbers in the absence of any widespread survey. There has been no systematic registration or verification of numbers of IDPs and figures are often “grossly misleading,” according to Zanna Muhammed, deputy director of the National Emergency Management Agency.

Challenges of Internally Displaced Persons in West Africa

Challenges to Internally Displaced Persons in West Africa are therefore discussed in line with the three main sub headings below:

  • Host Communities
  • NGOs
  • Individual Displace Persons

  Host Communities

Relocating to some other communities when there is threat to life and security are most times temporal. The families believe the movement is temporal and hope to be back to their usual homes as soon as possible. They sometimes seek shelter amongst friends and families, feed on the meager resources of the host communities until such a time when International Humanitarian Agencies step in to alleviate their sufferings. Pressure on domestic resources reduces house hold incomes (host) since a huge proportion of this is spent on food, health and other necessities.  Consequently it has a multiplier effect on savings a necessary economic activity that supports investment. The lack of investment opportunities will affect productivity negatively, reduce job creation and hence reduce national income. This will ultimately affect community development because remittance from productive industries to government in the form of taxation is not realised.

Budget lines are distorted especially at the national level. Government planned expenditure for the provision of basic amenities like health care, education, security etc for the estimated population will be outrun because of the increase in population especially in the short run. To meet this challenge, government will be forced to embark on massive revenue generation drive starting at the domestic level. This involves increase in taxation which will ultimately again increase prices of basic goods and services. Host communities or country is then left with the option of grappling with inflationary situation.

Where Camps are provided for IDPs, this can have a profound effect on social norms and interaction. Lack of resources and options can promote violence (including sexual violence), exploitation and discrimination. In addition, camps can be infiltrated by armed groups and weapons can become readily available, both of which increase risks and insecurity for inhabitants. Recruitment, both forced and voluntary, is not uncommon in such camps by the  fighting forces.


The behaviour of NGOs in terms of their operations depends on the political, economic and social conditions in the country. Therefore the donors, founders and beneficiaries will influence and dictate NGOs operations. Some of the challenges faced by NGOs in West Africa in handling IDPs situation are as follows:

Some NGOs usually claim autonomy in their operations base on their aims and objectives when in actual fact it is not the reality. The truth of the matter is that operations on the ground is been dictated by the shareholders who are the donors.  This affects the NGOs and creates unnecessary competition among themselves for resources and attention from government. Therefore, procedural rights in terms of collecting data on IDPs in West Africa are hampered and the maximum benefits to be enjoyed by IDPs are normally not enhanced.

NGOs and Governments in most parts of Africa are strange bed fellows. Advocacy campaigns on government policies on IDPs are met with stiff resistance and West African governments renege on their commitments in fulfilling their own parts of agreements in some situations. For example, government withdrawal from fulfilling its obligation of repatriation of IDPs in Sierra Leone forced NGOs to over stretch the meagre resources available to address the issues of repatriation. 

Other challenges faced by NGOs in handling IDPs’ situation in West Africa include insecurity, inadequate resources and the management of these resources. They also face the challenge of sustainability in handling the repatriation of IDPs. Often and again, IDPs are seen returning back to the camps after repatriation. This poses additional problems for the work of these organisations in West Africa.

  Individual Displace Persons (Survival Problem)

Statistics show that African IDPs are among the world’s most defenseless. They are at high risk of ongoing armed attack, starvation, sexual violence and exploitation, enforced military recruitment, and disease including HIV/AIDS. When the conflict is over, many IDPs find it difficult to return and resettle in situations in which infrastructure is lacking and access to basic goods and services, including health and education facilities, remains limited. The internally displaced often face intolerance, and are unable to access food, education and health care. Too often, they lack basic documentation and the ability to exercise their political rights.


In West Africa, internal displacement is caused as a result of conflict. While this is the case, conflict in this region varies depending on economic, social and political situations in the states. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cort d’ Ivoir for example experienced displacement as a result of armed fighting for political power. In Nigeria, displacement has been caused as a result of conflict over the unequal distribution of resources, religious and ethnic factors.

It is very glaring that there is very little support for host communities. In West Africa, IDPs often received assistance from families and the local communities. In as much as we acknowledge the efforts of the local communities for relieving the state and international agencies by way of providing shelter and some other amenities, increase in the number of IDPs can pose lots of constraints on the local communities in the long run. This has the tendency of raising economic and social tensions amongst community members and IDPs. ECOWAS must emphasise protection and assistance programmes that will address the needs of the host communities.

Also, there is the lack of institutional capacity and adequate resources at national level to coordinate activities of stakeholders including non governmental organisations. The absence of this will lead to duplication of efforts in alleviating the sufferings of IDPs. Therefore there is a need to build the capacity of national institutions and civil society groups in order to address the issues of internal displacement.

Finally, insufficient inclusion of IDPs in decision making needs to be address by both community and key stakeholders. These major stakeholders must also ensure the dissemination of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and formulation of national laws that are derived from them.

5.2       REFERENCES

Action Aid International, 2008, The Middle Belt (copy available with IDMC)

Agence France-Presse (AFP), 23 October 2009, Over 15,000 militants surrender arms in Nigeria : minister

Internet : , accessed 5 November 2009

Amnesty International (AI), 28 August 2009, Nigeria: Thousands Facing Forcible Eviction

Internet : , accessed 6 November 2009

Brookings Institution, 16 June 2006, First Regional Conference on Internal Displacement in West Africa

Internet : , accessed 28 June 2006

Dr. Patricia Kameri – Mbote 2002, The Operational Environment and constraints for NGOs in Kenya: Strategies for good policy and practice

HPG Briefing, number 12, 2003: Humanitarian NGOs, Challenges and Trends

Forced Migration Review, 2006: Putting IDPs on the Map; Achievements and Challenges

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 25 February 2009, Uneasy calm in Bauchi after deadly clashes

Internet : , accessed 6 November 2009

Robinson, Mark and Friedman, Steven (2005): “Civil society, democratization and foreign aid

in Africa”, IDS Discussion Paper 383, Institute Of Development Studies, Brighton,



Source by Turad Senesie

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