Philanthropy & the Humanitarian Crisis in Northeast Nigeria

Report by Judd Devermont

Nigeria’s philanthropists respond inconsistently to national crises. By examining the private sector’s robust Covid-19 pandemic intervention, this piece provides recommendations for a stronger multisectoral response to the humanitarian disaster in northeast Nigeria.

Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote (center) listens to a speech at a political rally in 2018.

Help Begins at Home

Nigerian philanthropy is a growth industry. Wealthy Nigerians—there are at least four billionaires and hundreds of millionaires—are establishing foundations and donating money and material to a range of causes.

In March, Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, teamed up with Access Bank to launch the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) to support the Nigerian government in combating the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria. Within days, CACOVID received almost $40 million in donations from 37 individuals, banks, and corporations. Their charitable contributions attracted considerable media attention, including CNN and Bloomberg headlines.

The philanthropic response to the humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria, in contrast, has received far less fanfare and sustained support at home or abroad.

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Ongoing violent hostilities between the government of Nigeria, Boko Haram (also known as Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād or JAS), and the Islamic State – West Africa Province (ISWAP) have led to devastating consequences for the civilian population in the northeast Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Over a decade of armed violence has decimated the lives and livelihoods of civilians, with massive displacements fundamentally altering life in the region.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates 7.7 million people in northeast Nigeria will need humanitarian assistance this year. Nearly 1.2 million of those people are inaccessible to international organizations due to government security regulations. Moreover, humanitarian organizations have to navigate a myriad of bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to operate in the garrison towns controlled by the government, undermining the efficacy of the response. 

Dangote and a small set of Nigerian industrialists and bankers have invested large sums of money into relief efforts for this crisis, including housing and malnutrition programs. These donations have certainly alleviated some suffering in northeast Nigeria, but they have been too ad hoc, intermittent, and uncoordinated to address the dire needs in the violence-wracked region.

Learn more about where IDPs have been settled:

Nigeria’s private sector has the potential to direct massive amounts of cash toward addressing humanitarian needs in the northeast. It also can press the government to resolve some of the persistent access challenges in garrison towns and open up areas outside of government control to humanitarian organizations. While their record of giving is mixed, Nigeria’s philanthropists have new opportunities to optimize their investments, reduce inefficiencies, and lobby for more access for humanitarian agencies in the crisis-ridden northeast. 

A woman stands in a pool of rain water in northeast Nigeria close to the Cameroonian border in 2017.

Suboptimal Giving

The Nigerian private sector’s response to the worsening humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria is vital, yet it suffers from coordination challenges and limited interest. While these individuals are some of the country’s richest, they represent only a few of Nigeria’s elite class. Most of their peers have invested in other causes, chiefly in southern Nigeria, instead of dedicating funds to the northeast.

Some of the Nigeria’s richest businessmen have contributed large sums of money to the crisis in the northeast, including industrialist Aliko Dangote, whose generosity has earned him praise as the “fourth arm of government” in Borno State. Dangote, however, has been an outlier, and only a few of his peers have remained as consistently engaged during the past decade.

Nigeria’s domestic donors have structured their contributions differently and have targeted different aspects of the humanitarian crisis in the northeast:

Photo of Aliko Dangote

“We are even going to invest in Adamawa, where there is Boko Haram. Creation of jobs will stop Boko Haram. We plan to invest $16 billion in the next five years. This would create 180,000 jobs.

Philanthropist: Aliko Dangote
Occupation: Industrialist
Contribution Amount: More than $16 billion
Method: Through his foundation and company
Areas of Focus: Housing and malnutrition, as well as creating jobs through business investments

Photo of Tony Elumelu

"What is important both in society and business is hope. A people who have hope for a better tomorrow will not kill themselves today.”

Philanthropist: Tony Elumelu
Occupation: Banker
Contribution Amount: More than $100 million
Method: Through his foundation
Areas of Focus: Entrepreneurship and Boko Haram victims

Photo of Femi Otedola

Philanthropist: Femi Otedola
Occupation: Oil tycoon
Contribution Amount: $14 million
Method: Gift to Save the Children
Area of Focus: Lifesaving programs for children

Photo of Mohammed Indimi

“We established the Muhammed Indimi Foundation (MIF), with the sole aim of lifting thousands out of hunger, disease, illiteracy, and poverty in northern Nigeria.”

Philanthropist: Mohammed Indimi
Occupation: Oil tycoon
Contribution Amount: $14 million
Method: Through his foundation
Areas of Focus: Health, education, housing, and welfare

Photo of Theophilus Danjuma

Philanthropist: Theophilus Danjuma
Occupation: Oil tycoon, former general and defense minister
Contribution Amount: $10 million
Method: Committee on Victims Support Fund
Area of Focus: Boko Haram victims

Nigeria’s private sector nonetheless has made contributions throughout the past decade to the northeast. Some of the most significant donations started in 2014 when Boko Haram started seizing wide swaths of territory in Borno State and gained international notoriety for kidnapping the Chibok schoolgirls. Notably, this first surge of private money predated the onset of a substantial international humanitarian response in 2016.

Subsequent investments have been haphazard, and it is not clear which, if any, factors underpinned the timing of specific donations. While charitable donations are essential for individual recipients, they vary in impact and assist only a fraction of the conflict’s victims and internally displaced people (IDPs). 

Photo of people with video cameras

Less Attention, Fewer Dollars

The scale of Nigeria’s charitable response has been limited by several related factors. These include the conflict’s duration, its limited media coverage, and perceptions that Boko Haram and the humanitarian crisis are not national problems. Nigerian philanthropists, similar to their global counterparts, feed on ego and business acumen, as well as altruism. The situation in the northeast, especially in comparison to the Covid-19 pandemic, is hardly buzzworthy.

Northeast Nigeria has been a humanitarian catastrophe for more than a decade. Despite worsening conditions and an estimated 1.2 million people inaccessible to humanitarian agencies, the conflict’s longevity inevitably works as a deterrent to sustained philanthropic contributions. A prospective donor wants to alleviate immediate suffering, as well as to believe one’s contributions will support a speedy resolution of the problem. Nigerian elite see the humanitarian crisis in the northeast as intractable and often hopeless and consequently prefer to direct their charitable donations elsewhere.

The international and domestic press sparingly cover humanitarian challenges in the northeast. This reinforces perceptions that the crisis is no longer noteworthy or deserving of philanthropic attention. In her recent memoir, former New York Times West Africa Bureau Chief Dionne Searcey explained how difficult it was to break “new ground” on the topic. 

People in Abuja scan newspaper headlines from street vendors. | Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images

People in Abuja scan newspaper headlines from street vendors.

| Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images

“By the time I arrived in West Africa, the war had been going on for the better part of a decade. Boko Harm had since been driven from its strongholds, no longer controlling large towns and other territories . . . the nation’s leaders no longer flinched at a report of a bombing or the slaughtering of a man killed filling his bucket.” 
– Dionne Searcey, In Pursuit of Disobedient Women

Nigerian journalists have acknowledged that they face similar challenges. These are compounded by a lack of access to IDPs in garrison towns and Nigerians living in areas outside of government control in Borno State. This lack of access for journalists contributes to low domestic awareness that over one million Nigerians are forced to live without access to lifesaving assistance. It also obscures the role the Nigerian government has played in worsening the situation. For years, the government has been denying humanitarian actors the opportunity to assist civilians in desperate need.

A building riddled with bullet holes in Pulka, Nigeria. | STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images

A building riddled with bullet holes in Pulka, Nigeria.

| STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images

The inconsistent coverage by the media can act as a deterrent to charitable giving on a large scale. An enterprising philanthropist, who wants a financial contribution to spur a media blitz and boost his or her reputation, may judge the northeast as less advantageous compared to other opportunities.

Many Nigerians also see the Boko Haram crisis and humanitarian emergency as a “northeastern” problem, dissuading many southern elites from giving away their personal funds to the problem. Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, who has been involved in the humanitarian response since 2015, noted that many Nigerians do not feel a sense of personal risk when it comes to the northeast. Some southerners even subscribe to the conspiracy that the northerners sponsored Boko Haram to weaken then-President Goodluck Jonathan.

The conflict’s regional dimensions in part explain why so few southerners, with the notable exceptions of Odetola and Elumelu, have made individual contributions to the humanitarian relief effort. Only Danjuma’s Committee on Victims Support Fund and the new Nigeria Humanitarian Fund-Private Sector Initiative (NHF-PSI) have attracted more balanced participation.

A billboard reading 'We will not tolerate corruption' mounted by the leading opposition All Progressive Congress party is seen along a Lagos highway in January, 2015.

Fear of Reputational Risks 

Nigerians have expressed some concerns that charitable funds could be diverted into private pockets or never materialize in the absence of accountability. These longstanding accountability issues deter some philanthropists from focusing on the crisis in northeast Nigeria.

Journalists and researchers have exposed some private Nigerian charities as vehicles to launder money or a mogul’s reputation rather than uplift fellow citizens. Academic Daniel Jordan Smith has shown how elites use charitable foundations to increase “prestige and power as patrons, accruing and distributing resources through institutions of civil society.” Several Nigerian businessmen who have contributed to philanthropic causes have been under investigation by Nigerian and international corruption units.

The Nigerian government’s record has been similarly tainted by corruption. In 2017, President Buhari fired the director general of the National Intelligence Agency for misappropriating funds as part of the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE). In the same year, two Nigerian officers were caught selling food aid procured by the Danish Refugee Council.

Without more international and domestic attention—even acclaim—for philanthropic endeavors in northeast Nigeria, as well as greater accountability for contributions, the private-sector response to the crisis will remain limited and pale in comparison to the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city gate of Maiduguri along Bulumkutu road in northeast Nigeria.

The Promise of Philanthropy and Private-sector Engagement

The private sector, separate from its philanthropic endeavors, has the potential to ease the plight of northeasterners and support the region’s growth and recovery. Northeast Nigeria, despite being a war zone, has experienced some economic growth relative to the rest of the country. In 2018, Yaw Nsarkoh, head of Unilever Nigeria, boasted to the Financial Times that the region was one of its fastest-growing markets in the country in part due to a revamped distribution system and local hires.

Private-sector investments assist humanitarian actors, resolving some of the infrastructure challenges that impede humanitarian access. Specifically, humanitarian workers have struggled with limited mobile reception and an inability to transit the region because military patrols and extremist attacks have closed off much of the state’s road network. MTN Nigeria, which lost 1,200 telecommunication masts to Boko Haram, recently repaired 90 percent of them and partnered with local business to ensure generators remain serviced, transforming the region into an important revenue stream for the company.

The Borno State Government is requesting more road and power projects to address access issues in the region. This year, Governor Babagana Umar Zulum directed the Borno State Roads Maintenance Agency to complete a road project in Biu LGA and reopened the Maiduguri-Dikwa road, which had been closed for five years due to insecurity.

Babagana Umara Zulum, the Govorner of the Borno state, addresses the public in Maiduguri in February, 2020. | Audu Marte/AFP via Getty Images

Babagana Umara Zulum, the Govorner of the Borno state, addresses the public in Maiduguri in February, 2020.

| Audu Marte/AFP via Getty Images

Moreover, Nigeria’s business leaders have significant influence with the Buhari government. Dangote and Otedola served as campaign advisers to President Buhari’s reelection, and Elumelu has supported the First Lady’s foundation. Through their connections, these business moguls could aid recovery in the northeast.

If they choose to use their political capital, influential Nigerian moguls such as these could persuade the federal government to modify some of its more debilitating humanitarian aid policies. They can become activists. When Dr. Alakija started the Rebuild Borno initiative in 2016, it spurred greater government attention and inspired other influential Nigerians to engage.

The private sector could press the government to remove constraints on the humanitarian response. Specifically, they could call for the lifting of restrictions on fuel and supplies for humanitarian actors. They could also ask the federal government to open access for humanitarian workers, especially in areas outside of the garrison towns. Due to overcrowding and restrictions on humanitarian actors, services in garrison towns have proven incapable of meeting the basic needs of the affected population.

Nigeria's Minister for Health Osagie Ehanire displays an image of the the novel coronavirus COVID-19 during a media address in February, 2020.

Applying Lessons from Covid-19 to Northeast Nigeria

The outpouring of philanthropic support to the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria suggests there are opportunities to replicate its success and avoid some of its shortcomings in northeast Nigeria.

Leveraging international media will be vital for success. The international media, including U.S.-based newspapers and international cable channels, have considerable influence in Nigeria and coverage of Nigerian charitable contributions to the northeast could incentivize other wealthy Nigerians to do the same. The widespread coverage of Dangote’s CACOVID initiative has almost certainly spurred other elites to join him or contribute separately. On April 5, the Bank of Industry (BOI) announced a donation of $1 million to CACOVID as well as $250,000 to the Lagos State Government and $250,000 to the Federal Capital Territory.

A COVID-19 coronavirus isolation centre at a stadium in Kano, Nigeria, that is being built with donations from Kano-born Aliko Dangote. | AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP via Getty Images

A COVID-19 coronavirus isolation centre at a stadium in Kano, Nigeria, that is being built with donations from Kano-born Aliko Dangote.

| AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Fostering elite competition can also make a significant impact. Prominent donations from the country’s business leaders often prompt others to match or exceed their peers’ contributions. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, Elumelu declared “this is a time when we must all play our part. This global pandemic must bring citizens, governments and business leaders together – and quickly.” Elumelu’s company, the United Bank for Africa (UBA), not only donated much-needed support to Nigeria, but it supplied relief materials, critical care facilities, and financial support to 19 other countries.

However, Nigeria’s rich and powerful are not the only people capable of creating change. The Nigerian government and its international partners should seek to engage the general public about the devastation in the northeast, developing a dynamic media campaign and offering opportunities for donations. Dangote and his counterparts are using this approach with CACOVID in particular and the Covid-19 response in general. These elites are popularizing #stayalivechallenge and #handwashchallenge as well as releasing slick informative videos for the public via their @cacovidng Twitter handle.

Finally, coordinating efforts while protecting the independence of all parties involved in the relief effort helps ensure lasting success. The CACOVID initiative has come under some criticism because it is tightly controlled, and there is confusion about whether individual contributions have been funneled directly to the government. One Nigerian columnist has argued that donations should go directly to people in need because “no government in Nigeria can be trusted with public funds or private donations for relief measures.” It is important to coordinate with the government and humanitarian actors while retaining independence and oversight over philanthropic investments.

Hundreds of internally-displaced people (IDPs) queue to collect food in northeast Nigeria in 2015.

Using Philanthropy to Solve Humanitarian Problems 

There are several opportunities to streamline and grow philanthropic contributions to the humanitarian emergency in the northeast. If more Nigerian elite engage in a coordinated manner, they have the potential to unlock significant resources and address dire humanitarian needs. Below are some steps to encourage smarter investments.

  1. Engage in needs assessments.
    The Nigerian government and international organizations should start a dialogue with the private sector on the region’s most significant needs. The local governments and humanitarian NGOs could ask Nigeria’s philanthropists to serve as advisers on issues of shared concern and vice versa. For instance, Dangote has focused on malnutrition and hunger, which is a top priority for the humanitarian community. Last year, over one million children in Nigeria had malnutrition rates exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) threshold of 10 percent.
  2. Promote country-based pooled funds.
    In November 2018, the United Nations and the Nigerian private sector launched the first-ever joint humanitarian fund in which the private sector will join donor countries in providing assistance for humanitarian action. Following the launch, many of Nigeria’s most influential and powerful business leaders travelled to Maiduguri to witness the devastation firsthand. The Nigerian government and its international partners should promote the Nigeria Humanitarian Fund - Private Sector Initiative and similar efforts.
  3. Track individual commitments.
    Forbes recently established a billionaire tracker to monitor how the world’s wealthiest are responding to the Covid-19 outbreak. Something similar could be created to track individual philanthropic aid to northeast Nigeria, which might also provide enough visibility to incentivize more donors.
  4. Create mechanisms for accountability.
    The donor community should provide funding so that monitoring and watchdog organizations can expand their operations to include philanthropy. Nigerian civil society groups, such as BudgIT and Tracka, have monitored government spending and project implementation for several years.

There are several domestic and international stakeholders who are essential to addressing the urgent humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria, including the Nigerian government, humanitarian actors, and donor partners. Nigeria’s philanthropists and the private sector, however, have the financial wherewithal and political influence to make a difference. Their engagement, if coordinated and targeted, could alleviate suffering and press the government to allow humanitarian access to all parts of northeast Nigeria.


Watch CSIS expert Jacob Kurtzer go deeper into this issue:

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To learn more about the humanitarian crisis and what can be done, read our report Out of Sight: Northeast Nigeria's Humanitarian Crisis.

Women and children queue to enter one of the Unicef nutrition clinics in Muna informal settlement in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

About the Author

Judd Devermont

Director, Africa Program
Photo of Judd Devermont

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, he served as the national intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018. In this position, he led the U.S. intelligence community’s analytic efforts on sub-Saharan African issues and served as the DNI’s personal representative at interagency policy meetings. From 2013 to 2015, he was the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Devermont also served as the National Security Council director for Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel, and the African Union from 2011 to 2013. In this role, he contributed to the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, signed by President Obama in 2012, and managed the process that resulted in U.S. recognition of the Somali government for the first time since 1991. Mr. Devermont spent two years abroad working at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria from 2008 to 2010.


Special thanks to:


  • John Goodrick, Program Manager and Research Associate, Humanitarian Agenda, CSIS
  • Sarah Grace, Multimedia Content Lead and Producer, iDeas Lab, CSIS
  • Marielle Harris, Program Manager, Africa Program, CSIS
  • Jacob Kurtzer, Interim Director and Senior Fellow, Humanitarian Agenda, CSIS
  • Topaz Mukulu, Program Coordinator, Africa Program, CSIS
  • Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Former Chief Humanitarian Coordinator, Government of Nigeria
  • Matthew T. Page, Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This report is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of CSIS and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.

A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.