On Tuesday, December 13, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) stated that the famine threatening the country’s northeast, a region wracked by a seven-year insurgency by extremist group Boko Haram, has already claimed over 2,000 lives this year. The deaths occurred in Bama – the group’s former stronghold.

The news comes a month after United Nations (UN) Humanitarian Coordinator for Nigeria, Peter Lundberg, warned that 2017 could see millions requiring international humanitarian assistance and 75,000 children were at risk of dying over the next few months “if we don’t do something rapidly and seriously”.

On December 5, meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari responded to the alarm calls by the UN by saying that he believed aid agencies were creating “hype” in order to encourage donations.

“We are concerned about the blatant attempts to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation by some aid agencies, a type of hype that does not provide a solution to the situation on the ground, but more to do with calculations for operations financing locally and abroad,” The Guardian quoted Buhari saying.

The president’s defensiveness should be interpreted in light of the mounting criticism he is facing for multiple crises affecting the country – from militancy in the Niger Delta, the economy stalling, separatist agitation for a Biafran State, Fulani herdsmen causing chaos in the middle belt, and many more – which have eroded his legitimacy.

The famine now detracts from the successes the Nigerian forces, and those of their regional allies, have had in bringing the extremists to heel and the long-overdue release of some of the Chibok girls who were kidnapped in 2014.

Even more embarrassing for the president is the fact that in October the Senate reported that the Presidential Initiative on the North East, which Buhari established last year, has done little to improve conditions on the ground for internally displaced persons and has been marred by corruption.

Readers will remember that Buhari came to power in 2015 promising to end the scourge corruption. 

Buhari can obviously not be blamed for the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the northeast. The previous administration should be saddled with the guilt of not ending Boko Haram’s insurgency sooner.

However, the president can be blamed for actions taken to address the situation now.

Downplaying the seriousness of the widespread hunger in order to save face is a public relations disaster – especially when coupled with the failures of his own initiative for the region.

His popularity has sunk to critical levels and, just about halfway through his term, he does not have all that much time to turn the ship around.

When the news media start reporting on more deaths, his defensiveness will be remembered as callousness.

*Jared Jeffery is a Political Analyst at NKC