Nigeria says aid groups exaggerating hunger crisis

women and children queue to enter one of the Unicef nutrition clinics in Muna informal settlement, which now houses more than 16,000 IDPs (internaly displaced people) in the outskirts of Maiduguri the capital of Borno State, northeastern Nigeria (AFP Photo/STEFAN HEUNIS)

Abuja (AFP) - Nigeria's presidency on Monday accused aid groups of exaggerating the food crisis sparked by the Boko Haram insurgency, accusing them of merely trying to drum up donations.

Boko Haram jihadists have laid waste to northeast Nigeria since they took up arms against the government in 2009, displacing millions and disrupting farming and trade in their quest to establish a hardline Islamist state.

Charity Save the Children estimates that 4.7 million people in the northeast need food assistance, with some 400,000 children at imminent risk of starvation.

But presidential spokesman Garba Shehu hit out at the claims, saying aid agencies had been attempting "to whip up a nonexistent fear of mass starvation".

"One arm of the United Nations screamed that 100,000 people will die due to starvation next year," Shehu said in a statement.

"We do not, however see the reason for the theories and hyperbolic claims being made ostensibly to draw donor support by some of the aid agencies."

Shehu acknowledged that the brutal insurgency has led to "the displacement of more than two million people, mostly women and children".

"Consequently, there is death, there is hunger and there is poor nutrition," he said.

But he insisted that President Muhammadu Buhari's administration was handling the situation "with great sensitivity".

Late on Monday, the United Nations said the response to the crisis "has been very well coordinated on both federal and state level in Nigeria" and that it was working closely with the government.

"However, the reality is that if we don't receive the funding we require many thousands of people will die," Peter Lundberg, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, said in a statement.

The UN on Friday appealed for $1 billion (928 million euros) in humanitarian aid for northeast Nigeria, declaring it "the largest crisis on the African continent".

"A projected 5.1 million people will face serious food shortages as the conflict and risk of unexploded improvised devices prevented farmers planting for a third year in a row," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Government spokesman Shehu had in November admitted Nigeria was facing a potential disaster and urged cereal producers to concentrate on feeding the national market rather than exporting to neighbouring countries, warning: "If care is not taken, Nigeria could face a famine by January."

The Nigerian military has reclaimed territory from Boko Haram but the insurgency has taken a devastating toll on civilians, with more than 20,000 people killed and 2.6 million displaced from their homes since the conflict broke out in 2009.