By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
ABUJA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered police to arrest and make an example of government officials accused of stealing food aid intended for victims of Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, the president's spokesman said on Thursday.
The Nigerian Senate last week launched an investigation into allegations of food aid being stolen and sold by state officials in Borno state, where aid agencies have warned of starvation, malnutrition and dwindling food supplies for the displaced.
"The president has asked the Inspector General of the police to catch some of these alleged thieves, to look out for them and make public examples of them," Buhari's spokesman, Garba Shehu, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
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Public outcry was sparked in April when photos posted on social media appeared to show food aid on sale in shops. The items had logos of aid agencies, leading many to believe they had been diverted by state officials in camps for the displaced.
Hundreds of people displaced by Boko Haram militants last week left their camps to stage a protest in Maiduguri, Borno's capital, to demand more aid, accusing officials of stealing food rations.
Protesters said they wanted to receive food aid directly, rather than through state-run feeding committees in the camps.
However, the government of Borno state dismissed the allegations of theft, and said they were politically motivated ahead of general and presidential elections in 2019.
"There are some politicians exploiting the IDP (internally displaced persons) situation for political purposes, by spreading rumors about food stealing," said Isa Gusau, spokesman for the state governor, Kashim Shettima.
"It is radically difficult to divert food," he said, adding that the international aid agencies involved in the distribution of aid would have spoken out if they had noticed any wrongdoing.
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) last month warned that up to 5.5 million people in Nigeria's northeast might soon need food aid, double the current number, as soaring inflation was pushing up food prices.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in late July that severely malnourished children are dying in large numbers in the region, where food supplies are close to running out, and warned of "pockets of what is close to a famine".
Nigeria's army, backed by its neighbors, has retaken most territory previously lost to Boko Haram, which launched an insurgency in the northeast seven years ago.
But most of the 2.3 million Nigerians who have fled are afraid to go back and cultivate their fields as the security situation remains volatile.
(Reporting By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)