Navigating uncertainty in Nigeria’s conflict zone
Bruce Walker is a worried man. One of his helicopter fleet has developed technical problems and is stranded in the town of Dikwa. With night closing in, armed fighters could be lurking in the bush surrounding the town. A helicopter would be a valuable prize.
As head of UNHAS in Nigeria, Walker prides himself on the fact that since August 2015, when the service managed by the World Food Programme (WFP) first began transporting humanitarian workers into the midst of the conflict in Nigeria’s Northeast, there have been no major incidents.
A call comes in from one of his engineers on the ground. Walker can breathe easily again. The chopper is finally fixed and will be up in the air and back at base before sundown.
When it comes to running air operations, the 44-year-old Briton is something of a veteran. After a career in the Royal Air force he worked as a private contractor running air logistics and fuel contracts in hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. It was in 2014 that his experience secured him a job with WFP’s Ebola response operation, transporting aid-workers and medical cargo throughout Liberia and Guinea.
In 2015, he was deployed to Nigeria to set up a new air-bridge transporting humanitarian workers from the Nigerian capital Abuja to Maiduguri in the northeast state of Borno, which serves as the base for humanitarian operations supporting civilians fleeing the long-running conflict between government forces and non-state armed actors.
“Commercial air services had been suspended due to the conflict and humanitarian agencies were facing a two-day journey by road up to Maiduguri. Our brief was clear, get people from Abuja up to Maiduguri where they were needed most — as quickly as possible,” explains Walker.
Starting with a Dornier 328 Turbo prop aircraft operating on a daily schedule, the UNHAS fleet soon expanded to include four Bell 412 helicopters which make daily flights carrying humanitarian staff and supplies to 11 different towns across Borno, most of which are difficult to access by road.
Based out of the airport in Maiduguri, the UNHAS team is comprised of eight pilots, four crewmen, three engineers, two technicians and an eight-strong support staff. The monthly running cost of the operation is USD 2.1 million.
Apart from the presence of the Nigerian air force, Walker found Maiduguri airport virtually shut down when he first arrived. Establishing an operation that would fly people and supplies into a conflict zone is never simple and no one had attempted what UNHAS wanted to do in Nigeria before. Walker immediately put his energy into building a network of contacts and winning over the local authorities.
“I had to start from the beginning — explaining what humanitarian organizations do and why we were there. Then it was a case of working out where responsibility began and ended between the civilian and the military authorities who run the airport and getting to know key individuals who could make things happen.”
The success of UNHAS largely comes down to the time spent on nurturing these relationships, coupled with a conscious decision to invest in and build the capacity of Nigeria’s aviation industry. The fixed-wing aircraft, crew and staff are contracted from a local operator, Dornier Aviation Nigeria AIEP. The physical presence of UNHAS in Maiduguri has also sent a positive message — that the UN is here to help.
But the UNHAS operation can be fraught with a variety of challenges. Walker is candid about the levels of unpredictability that he routinely has to manage.
“Every day we can expect the unexpected. The operation could suffer an epic fail for any number of reasons.”
It is mid-rainy season in Borno and early the next morning a torrential downpour has temporarily grounded the helicopter fleet. This means re-prioritising some flights and rescheduling others. At this time of year flooding can sever road links to some locations and the UNHAS helicopter fleet can offer the only way in or out.
As the weather clears, an emergency call comes in on the radio requesting an airlift of a critically malnourished child suffering organ failure from the town of Rann, close to the Cameroon border. Emergency medical evacuations take precedence over everything and a helicopter is immediately scrambled to make the two-hour round-trip. With most medical facilities outside Maiduguri crippled by the conflict, UNHAS provides the only life-saving evacuation service in Borno. Since 1 February, the team have been called out to airlift 37 critically ill or wounded people.
“Some are complications associated with acute malnutrition and other illnesses but many tend to be cases of civilians with gunshot wounds or blast injuries caused by improvised explosive devices,” explains Walker.
Safety and security considerations govern every decision that Walker makes and much of his time is spent liaising with the military. As UNHAS is operating in a conflict zone, permissions to fly can change by the minute. Up-to-date intelligence and an acute understanding of the operating environment is needed to ensure that UNHAS crews and passengers are never put in harm’s way.
The logistics of running an operation of this scale are extremely complex. With literally hundreds of flight requests coming in each week from more than 56 humanitarian organizations, the UNHAS team have to piece together a flight plan that tries to meet everyone’s needs. Security is paramount. Flight schedules are never the same and seat confirmations can only be shared with passengers the night before to ensure that the helicopters do not become a target for the non-state armed actors who may be waiting on the ground.
As the longest serving international staff member of the UN in Maiduguri, Walker’s motivation remains undiminished. In the first seven months of this year, his team ferried over 36,000 humanitarian workers into the conflict zone and 75 tons of cargo.
“I’ve watched the humanitarian operation in the Northeast grow and change and I’m in no doubt that the work we do in UNHAS is saving lives. The success of every humanitarian sector, whether it be the delivery of medical services, clean water, logistics or food, depends on the air support we provide. That’s why I’m here.”
UNHAS Nigeria is fully reliant upon the support of international donors to fund its operating costs. The main donors include the US and UK governments and the European Union. To continue its operations, UNHAS Nigeria urgently requires US$ 9.2 million through March 2019.
Find out more about WFP in Nigeria.