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The history of UNICEF in Nigeria

UNICEF/HQ98-1157/Giacomo Pirozzi
© UNICEF/HQ98-1157/Giacomo Pirozzi
In 1998, a girl looks up from drinking from the sprout of a Mark 11 hand pump, located near a home for abandoned children and children with disabilities, in Ibadan. UNICEF sponsored the installation of latrines at home and installation of hand pumps.

UNICEF came into Nigeria in 1953 and its first interventions in Nigeria were related to endemic disease control through mass campaigns. The emphasis then was on the control of leprosy and yaws. It was the first African campaign against leprosy and yaws between 1952 and 1953. Efforts continued throughout the fifties into the early sixties and by the mid-sixties some progress was made as yaws was no longer considered a significant public health issue. Malaria was also a priority and one of the pilot projects in Africa was in Sokoto Province of Nigeria. UNICEF also supported the development of basic rural health services for mothers and children.

What could be regarded as UNICEF Nigeria’s first country programme of cooperation took place in 1954, the UNICEF Executive Director approved US $6,600 to Nigeria for the provision of 500 midwifery kits and training of personnel in maternal health. In the same year, cases of malnutrition was found in Nigeria prompting UNICEF to start the provision of milk to children and consequently established the first milk-drying plant in Nigeria. It was the first in Africa too. UNICEF also focused on the education of mothers as another strategy to combat malnutrition.

The 1960s up till 1970 was regarded as the development decade where UNICEF focused attention on adult and rural education, community development, nutrition and food production. It was in 1971 that the office of the UNICEF Regional Director for Africa was established in Lagos.

Providing humanitarian support during the Nigeria civil war was a challenge. Invariably UNICEF worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to fly its emergency aid into the disputed territory of Biafra. By the end of March 1969, UNICEF had shipped almost 30,000 metric tons of food, drugs and medical supplies to areas under both Federal Government and Biafran control. At the end of the war in 1970, the Executive Board approved an allocation of over $7 million for rehabilitation of schools and health centres and for the expansion of children’s services in Nigeria, particularly in the areas affected by the war.

The 1980’s and 1990s was the child survival decade of massive immunisation and millions of children were vaccinated against childhood killer diseases. The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes, Guinea worm eradication also started during this period. The 1990s were the period of child rights, Nigeria took part in the World Summit for Children organised under the auspices of the UN in New York and signed the 10-point Plan of Action adopted at this occasion, including a set of development goals for the year 2000.

In 1991, Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 by the UN General Assembly. This year too the Water and Sanitation programme had completed 3,000 hand-pump-equipped boreholes and set up four State maintenance workshops. About 1.5 million people had benefited from the programme.

UNICEF started food fortification in 1993 with the universal iodization of salt in Nigeria, as a first step towards virtual elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders. In 1994, Vitamin A deficiency control was identified as the major thrust of the Nutrition programme. A fifty per cent success rate was achieved in the Guinea worm eradication programme in 1994. One year later in 1995, UNICEF Nigeria started HIV-AIDS related activities aimed at creating awareness and behavioural change.

At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, Heads of States and Governments adopted the Millennium Declaration and what came to be known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Each of the MDGs was linked to the well-being of children.

Today, the current programme of cooperation between UNICEF and the Federal Government of Nigeria is present in all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. Its main thrust is to scale up efforts to realize children’s rights by helping build human and institutional capacity so successes under previous country programmes can be delivered at a larger scale by institutions and governments, helping Nigeria reach its SDGs and Nigerian children reach their full potential.

In the last fifteen years there has been some programmatic shifts to deliver better results for children. UNICEF had focussed and continues to focus on disparity reduction, delivering programes with equity lenses to reach children who are most in need, excluded and marginalised. It has also moved from downstream service delivery to more upstream work focussing on generating evidence for scaling up by national institutions.

Within this period UNICEF sharpened its disaster risk reduction and emergency response mechanisms to intervene in the many humanitarian crisis Nigeria has encountered from cholera outbreaks, flood disasters, religious and communal conflicts to the current Boko Haram insurgency, UNICEF has been a prominent agency responding to these crises in Nigeria.

Read more

Our history in images

2000-2014: Progress and new humanitarian challenges

1980-2000: Working for child survival, development and rights

1967- 1980: Nigerian civil war and reconstruction

1952-1967: The pioneering years and independence



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