MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Nigerian soldiers conducted an unauthorized search of a United Nations humanitarian base in the city where the Boko Haram insurgency began, the U.N. said Friday, expressing “grave concern” over the military’s actions.
Aid groups and Nigerian officials at times have been at odds in their approaches to the vast crisis in the country’s northeast, where millions have been uprooted during Boko Haram’s deadly eight-year insurgency.
“The humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s northeast is one of the most severe in the world today,” Edward Kallon, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, said in a statement. “I am extremely concerned that these actions could be detrimental to the critical work that is being carried out every day to support the most vulnerable in the region, and I call upon the government of Nigeria to provide clarification.”
Local media reported that large numbers of soldiers surrounded the U.N. building in Maiduguri on Friday morning searching for arms. The U.N. said the search lasted three hours before the soldiers departed. It said it had no information “regarding the reason or motivations for the unauthorized search.”
Nigeria’s military confirmed the incident in a separate statement, saying its actions were in line with ongoing search efforts in counter-insurgency operations. It said no arrests were made.
The U.N. property searched “did not carry a U.N. designation,” the military added.
Rumors have spread that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau may have been taking refuge in one of the U.N. buildings. Nigeria’s military recently intensified its search for Shekau, recently announcing a 40-day ultimatum for its commanders to find him.
Maiduguri and the northeast remain at risk of deadly attacks by Boko Haram, despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration late last year that the extremist group had been “crushed.” Buhari has since spent two weeks-long stretches in London for medical treatment and has been out of the country since early May, creating uncertainty around the country’s security efforts.
Boko Haram has been using a growing number of girls and young women in suicide bombings in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and elsewhere, sometimes drugging them to make them carry out the attacks. Bombings in recent weeks have targeted displaced persons’ camps in Maiduguri.
The extremist group has abducted thousands of Nigerians over the years, including the nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls seized in a mass abduction in 2014. Earlier this year, Nigeria’s government exchanged five Boko Haram commanders for the release of more than 80 Chibok girls.
The insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and spilled into neighboring countries, which have joined together in a multinational force to combat the extremist group.
The threats to those caught in the fighting include Nigeria’s own military. The air force last month expressed its “deepest regrets” for mistakenly bombing a displaced persons’ camp in the town of Rann in January. A Borno state government official said more than 230 people were killed when the air force bombed the camp multiple times.
The continuing unrest has created a vast hunger crisis in northeast Nigeria as markets and agriculture are disrupted and many people fear returning home, even as the government claims that security is returning.
The U.N. says more than 50 non-governmental aid groups are working in Nigeria’s northeast to help nearly 7 million people in need, and that funding appeals are badly met so far.
The U.N. says the threat of famine in Nigeria, along with Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, forms the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was founded in 1945.