Boko Haram jihadists have laid waste to the impoverished region since taking up arms against the government in 2009, displacing millions and disrupting farming and trade.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has reclaimed territory from the Islamists but the insurgency has taken a brutal toll, with more than 20,000 people dead, 2.6 million displaced, and famine taking root.
UN humanitarian coordinator Peter Lundberg said the crisis was unfolding at “high speed”.
“Our assessment is that 14 million people are identified as in need of humanitarian assistance” by 2017, Lundberg said in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Of them, 400,000 children are in critical need of assistance, while 75,000 could die “in [the] few months ahead of us”, Lundberg said.
The UN hopes to target half of the 14 million people – a population bigger than that of Belgium – with the Nigerian government working to reach the rest.
But Lundberg said the UN did not have enough money to avert the crisis and called on international partners, the private sector and Nigerian philanthropists to “join hands” to tackle the problem.
“We need to reach out to the private sector, to the philanthropists in Nigeria,” Lundberg said.
“We will ask international partners to step in because we can only solve this situation if we actually join hands.”
Maiduguri, the capital of north-east Borno state and birthplace of Boko Haram, has doubled in size to two million people as a result of people seeking refuge in camps for internally displaced people.
Despite the World Food Programme warning of “famine-like conditions”, the UN has not declared a “level three” emergency, the classification for the most severe crisis that would draw more attention and desperately needed funds to Nigeria.
Roddy Barclay, an intelligence analyst at consultancy firm Africa Practice, said: “The humanitarian response hasn’t scaled up adequately to meet a growing demand for food, particularly in the more remote camps in the north-east.”
Nigerian vigilante and security sources said in September that at least 10 people a day were starving to death in a camp for displaced people near Maiduguri.
There is also the ongoing issue of insecurity. Despite the recent military gains, Boko Haram is still active in the north-east and stages attacks and suicide bombings.
“The Nigerian army has scored notable military successes in containing Boko Haram. But that’s not to say they have stabilised the region entirely,” Barclay said.
“Movement in remote zones remains high risk and the focus remains overwhelmingly on furthering military gains rather than addressing the very real socio-economic impact of the crisis.”
Those zones include the shared borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad in the Lake Chad Basin, said Ryan Cummings, director at intelligence firm Signal Risk.
“The scale of the humanitarian disaster in north-east Nigeria has been grossly underestimated,” Cummings said. “There’s an estimated one million people still living in communities inaccessible because of the ongoing insecurity.”
Now the fear is that Boko Haram will try to capitalise on the failure of the Nigerian government – and the international community – to save the hungry.
“There are many claims that resources allocated to IDP [internally displaced people] camps are being misdirected into avenues of corruption, so aid is not reaching the people,” Cummings said.
Boko Haram could prey on that anger, he said, warning that “they could potentially end up being recruited back to Boko Haram”.