By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The devastation wrought by Boko Haram, which has left millions of people in northeast Nigeria on the brink of famine, could exacerbate Europe's migration crisis if the world fails to act urgently, the country's chief humanitarian coordinator said.
Nearly five million people in the region are desperately hungry and risk starving to death this year if they do not receive food aid, according to figures from the United Nations.
This could drive even more Nigerians to flee the country and attempt the perilous journey to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, unless the international community ramps up support and funds, said Ayoade Alakija, Nigeria's humanitarian coordinator.
"With so many people facing famine, this is the wrong time to criticise us and simply say 'You are the giant of Africa'.
"The world could see a mass exodus from a country of 180 million people if support is not given, and fast ... if people facing famine fall into famine," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.
While the European Union has been strained by the influx of 1.6 million refugees and migrants between 2014 and 2016, a greater number of people in northeast Nigeria, some 1.8 million, are displaced and unable or unwilling to go home, Alakija added.
"For Nigeria, this is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis of large magnitude. We, and the wider world, were largely unprepared for it," she said, adding that Nigeria was struggling to respond as it deals with its first recession in 25 years.
Jihadist group Boko Haram's eight-year insurgency to carve out an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has killed at least 20,000 people and forced some two million to flee their homes.
TACKLING ROOT CAUSE
The state's handling of the situation in northeast Nigeria has been hit by allegations of officials stealing and selling aid, and having sex with women in exchange for food.
Alakija said the Borno state government had taken measures to improve protection efforts - such as having more female officials in camps for the displaced - and tackle corruption.
"But you need to put such incidents in the wider context of widespread suffering and desperation," she said. "We need to tackle the root cause of the crisis, not just these symptoms."
The humanitarian response has also been fraught at times due to tensions between the state and international aid agencies.
The president's spokesman in December said aid agencies, including the United Nations, were exaggerating levels of hunger to get more funding from donors, while Borno's state governor in January said many of the groups were profiting from the crisis.
"This arose from a lack of understanding and the fact that Nigeria has never faced this kind of situation before ... there is no denial of the scale of the crisis within the country, but rather incredulity around what has been going on," Alakija said.
"For the first six years of the insurgency, the previous government did not adequately acknowledge or respond to it," she said. "It was not until (President Muhammadu) Buhari came to power (in 2015) that Nigeria, and the world, woke up and smelt the coffee."
With Boko Haram's insurgency in its eighth year and showing little sign of ending, many aid agencies are thinking beyond just emergency aid, and considering how best to foster and improve long-term development and resilience-building efforts.
"The government is tackling the crisis on several fronts, not just handing out food parcels," said Alakija. "We are focusing on rebuilding entire communities, so that people can go back to their homes, jobs, and resume their lives as normal."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)