Building Trade Union Capacity to Defend the Human Rights of IDPs to Quality Public Services in Nigeria - a summary

The project seeks to increase the capacity PSI unions in the health and social services in Nigeria to represent the interests of workers affected by internal displacement by organising and campaigning on issues related to internally displaced persons (IDPs).


Nigeria, with a population of 213 million people, tops the list of the three countries in Africa with the highest population of IDPs.  Since 2009, violent clashes between government troops and the Boko Haram Islamic extremist group have affected 14.8 million people in the northeastern part of the country, covering Adamawa, Gombe, Borno and Yobe States. The conflict has claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. More than 541,000 new displacements due to conflict and violence were recorded in Nigeria in 2018, bringing the number of IDPs to 2.2 million by the end of 2018 (IDMC, 2019). Most were concentrated in IDP camps and others were living in host communities. This was the magnitude of displacement before the project  started in 2018.

Public service workers were not spared from the violence. As a result of the attacks, the numbers of health workers in Borno and Yobe states drastically dropped, making it difficult to render quality healthcare at the IDP camps. Most people were attacked in their workplaces and many of the workers were killed. Primary health care centres were the worst hit, workers were attacked, kidnapped and killed. Public health facilities were vandalized while majority of the workers fled into cities and were accommodated by colleagues and relatives.

Various IDP camps have sprung up, both officially recognized and unofficially recognized, leading to several health challenges resulting from congestion and poor waste management. Workers who were displaced were traumatized. Workload has become unbearable, as health workers work 24-hour shifts. Basic public services like schools and hospitals were overstretched. The government did not provide social security for public servants, thus workers who were killed doing their official assignment or lost loved ones and/or properties did not receive any form of compensation from the government. With the movement to the cities coupled with loss of property and income, it became difficult for workers to make ends meet. Health workers in the camps were not provided with any benefits. Displaced workers from the local government have not been provided shelter or taken care of by the government.

Before the start of the project in 2018, trade union engagement on the issue and representation of the health workers affected by displacement was very weak, and union activities in the affected areas were almost nil. While trade unions could only show concern over their members and the citizens affected, the leadership did not have the capacity to engage the government on IDP issues. This was further compounded by the lack of accurate data and reliable source of information on the situation of displaced workers to help unions make appropriate actions. 

Though Nigeria has a draft national policy on IDPs emanating from the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (Kampala Convention), and guided by the UN Guiding Principles on IDPs, a decade has passed yet the draft policy remained pending approval by the Federal Executive Council. Absent the policy, government efforts to respond to displacement and mitigate its long-term effects were fragmented, uncoordinated, inadequate and non-transparent. There was pressure coming from civil society though it was coordinated and diffused. Unions were not seen and recognised as stakeholders, even though they represented the workers who were critical in the delivery of services, and which, many of them have also been displaced.

The Trade Union Response

In response to the situation, Public Services International (PSI), with the support of U2U and PSI Swedish affiliate, ASSR, initiated the project in 2018 and further continued in 2020 through 2022. The aim of the project is to build the capacity of PSI health and social care sector unions, namely, the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) and the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) to defend the human rights of IDPs to quality public services. The project covered the North East states of Nigeria, namely Borno and Yobe, which host 1.6 million and 131,000 IDPs, respectively. Eventually, project scope included the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), for the purpose of national advocacy, but also because there were also 4 IDP Camps present in the FCT (Abuja), with Wasa Camp being the largest and host to some 5,000 IDPs.

Project Achievements

Five years later, PSI is proud to see the highly successful conclusion of the project, with its key results:

Through the project, PSI health and social care sector unions learned to engage the government on the issue of internal displacement, and over time gained recognition as important stakeholders on the issue. Unions are traditionally regarded as stakeholders only on issues of employment and working conditions. However, through the project, PSI unions were able to touch on broader social issues, such as, IDP workers’ human rights, access to quality public services and advocated on universal right to health, including access to covid vaccines for everyone. The unions engaged with all critical stakeholders to advocate for the domestication of the African Union Convention on Internal Displacement (Kampala Convention) in Nigeria. Union lobbying contributed to the adoption of the Nigeria IDP Policy at the end of 2021. In all this, the unions learned the value of advocacy and alliance building with civil society, relevant agencies, and other stakeholders. PSI unions were able to collaborate with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs who came to Nigeria on the invitation of PSI. The presence of the Special Rapporteur highlighted the role of public service unions in defending IDP rights and brought weight towards the passage of the IDP Policy.

Building union power is key to organizing workers, including IDP workers, representing them and winning workers’ rights. Through the project, the unions carried out project activities improving the conditions of health and social care workers on the frontlines.

In the midst of the covid pandemic, PSI health and social care sector unions carried out the PSI “Safe Workers, Save Lives” campaign, calling for safety and decent working conditions for frontline workers through the provision of protective personal equipment (PPE’s), training on infection prevention and control (IPC), distribution of health and safety posters and leaflets, and vigorous awareness campaigns in the hospitals, health facilities and in the IDP camps and communities. The indirect beneficiaries of the workshops included over 2,000 members of the public and about 250 health workers who participated in the training of trainers (ToT) workshops in the various facilities in Borno and Yobe states.

To respond to the workforce shortage, the unions were able to negotiate with the state governments of Borno and Yobe to hire an additional 150 health workers, and 300 Nurses and Midwives, whom the unions were able to recruit as new members.

The unions negotiated with the Borno and Yobe state governments for the safety and security of health and social care workers, ensuring that workers only report to health facilities that are guaranteed safe, provided workers with safe accommodation near the health facilities and ensured security escorts when health workers have to travel to remote areas to carry out their duties. 

The unions successfully negotiated for the release of delayed salaries and payment of hazard allowances and indemnities.

For the health workers who were infected with covid, the unions mobilised support services, including financial support and food subsidies for the workers and their families.

All these proactive responses by the unions were crucial in controlling the spread of the infection and minimizing the negative impacts. Despite the widespread infection, worker deaths from covid were relatively low.

When the 2 young female nurses were abducted by the Boko Haram in April 2021, PSI affiliate NANNM, mobilised and pressured the government, and won the safe release of the 2 nurses.

Along with organizing, advocacy is equally important to bring about policy change and to address broader social, political, economic and environmental issues that affect public service workers. The Trade Union Charter of Rights and Demands on the Rights of IDPs to QPS, which was developed under the project, was transformed by the unions into a manifesto that got the support of a broad range of stakeholders, including among them the relevant government agencies and civil society.  Furthermore, the unions used the charter as basis for lobbying and advocacy at state and federal levels towards the passage of the Nigeria IDP policy. The charter is an example of how unions address broader issues, such as the rights of IDPs and impacts of internal displacement, from the perspective of social justice, access to public services and human rights.

Project Beneficiaries

All these activities and achievements benefited the project’s target groups, such as:

  • Members of the two unions who are delivering health, medical and social services to affected communities, including those who were displaced, at both the states level (Borno and Yobe) and at the national level (FCT).

  • IDP communities in the states of Borno, Yobe and in the FCT;

  • Host communities in Borno and Yobe affected by displacement;

  • National, state and local authorities, including parliamentarians;

  • The national trade union centre (Nigeria Labour Congress) and other union coalitions, such as the Joint Health Sector Workers Unions (JOHESU) and the Joint Action Committee (JAC), with whom PSI unions worked in solidarity with, in lobbying and bargaining for workers’ rights;

  • Civil society organisations as well as international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Solidarity Centre, Search for Common Ground, among others.

  • Regional and international bodies dealing with issues of forced displacement, namely, the UN Office for Coordination on Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Labour Office (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Throughout the project, from 2018-2022, 21 Advocacy and Alliance Building Meetings involving 1,371 participants (766 males, 605 females) were carried out, and 17 Capacity Building and Organizing Workshops were implemented involving 1,086 participants (548 males, 538 females). These workshops trained union leaders, members and IDP workers and carried out advocacy and alliances with civil society, the National Labour Congress, other union coalitions, government agencies, international organizations and the IDPs themselves.

Strengthening the Capacity of the Local Unions

NANNM and MHWUN, which are the participating unions in the project, benefitted immensely from the capacity building, advocacy meetings and organizing activities conducted by the project. All these activities contributed to strengthening unions, as seen through the following:

  • Union leaders and members of NANNM and MHWUN gained increased awareness and understanding of IDP issues.

  • PSI unions are now recognized as important stakeholders on the issue of internal displacement from the state, national and also at the international level.

  • Government, civil society, international agencies and other actors now appreciate the contribution that public service trade unions can bring to the issue of internal displacement, thereby effectively enhancing collaboration.

  • The increased awareness of the role of the unions also raised visibility of trade union work in the media and social media.

  • The information, education and communication (IEC) materials developed in the projected strengthened the capacity, advocacy and negotiating abilities of the unions in winning workers’ rights and defending the human rights of IDPs.

  • The project supported union outreach to IDP communities, including the provision of voluntary medical care for women and children in IDP camps. These outreach activities also provided the channel for the IDPs to express their concerns to the government through union channels.  

  • The unions were able to build alliances and networks with critical stakeholders, e.g. development partners, government agencies, civil society organizations on issues of internal displacement but likewise on related issues, such as on refugees and migrant workers. 

  • The unions in Borno state were able to build leaders, who aside from their participation in the project, were also elected to political position in the state and the general union federation, i.e., the Nigeria Labour Congress.

  • The mapping and participatory research contributed to capacity building for the unions, as well as generated information that was crucial for the unions to understand the situation of internal displacement, thereby enabling them to build strategies and actions.

  • The project strengthened the role of the unions in effective social dialogue and collective bargaining, resulting to the hiring of 450 new health and social care workers who have become union members, the release of unpaid and/or delayed salaries, as well as, payment of hazard allowances and other benefits.

  • The unions were able to push the state governments of Borno and Yobe to employ 450 more health workers in to address the shortage, particularly during the time of the pandemic.

  • Increased membership of the unions at the state level as a result of the hiring of these new health workers.

  • In view of gender equality, we have seen greater participation of women in project activities. Though we still have not achieved equal participation between women and men, the project has nevertheless seen a higher participation rate from among the women, with a ratio of 48% female participation as against 52% male participation. With Nigeria largely remaining a patriarchal society particularly in the Northeast due to culture and predominantly Islamic religion, this ratio is an important improvement. Moreover, the project encouraged leadership among women, which saw the nomination of women union leaders as part of the project team. The project’s Field Coordinator from NANNM, Comrade Julianah Bitrus, was appointed as the state commissioner for health of the Borno state government. With regard to the project’s indirect beneficiaries, who are the IDPs, project activities, such as outreach to the camps, have always targeted the empowerment of the displaced women by ensuring that these women are able to access health care services. Project partners encouraged the creation of a network of IDP women in the camps, allowing the women to voice their concerns and needs, as well as ensuring their participation in the workshops organized by the unions.

  • The unions have outreached to IDP communities and included them in project activities, such as training them on infection prevention and control (IPC) during the pandemic, as well as awareness of their human rights and access to vaccines and public health care.

  • The project strengthened networking and alliances with civil society and the wider trade union movement through the Nigeria Labour Congress, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) and the  Joint Health Sector Workers’ Unions (JOHESU).

  • The unions were able to develop tools and materials that they could use in training, capacity building and advocacy. These materials include the Trade Union Guide on IDP Rights, the Charter of Rights and Charter of Demands, video documentaries, posters, shirts, caps, pin buttons and face masks. 

  • In the midst of the restrictions during the pandemic, the unions learned new skills in terms of access and ability to use technology and virtual platforms. They were able to carry out their activities through the use of online and/or hybrid methodology, therefore facilitating inclusion and wider participation.

  • The unions were able to develop an IDP Tracking and Monitoring system through online platform (i.e. WhatsApp) to monitor events on the ground and mobilize responses.

Project Materials and Resources

With this project, PSI was able to generate valuable materials and resources that are not only useful for the unions in Nigeria but could also serve as examples for use by other PSI unions in countries dealing with forced displacement. These materials include:

Project materials

  • 3 Short Video Documentaries for public awareness raising on the need for quality public health care for IDPs. The videos were divided into three themes, namely, (1) A Day in the Life of A Healthcare worker in the IDP Camp in Northeast Nigeria,  (2) Quality Healthcare Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic in the IDP Camps, and (3)The Human Rights of IDPs to Quality Public Services.

  • In the midst of the pandemic, PSI Safe Workers Save Lives Campaign Materials, which included campaign masks and posters aimed towards sensitizing healthcare workers on their rights in Covid-19 management and to educate IDPs and communities on the World Health Organization guidelines on hand washing techniques for the prevention and control of the contagion.

  • Trade Union Guide to IDP Rights in Nigeria which is aimed to raise  understanding and capacity of workers in the health and social care sector on the human rights of IDPs to quality public services and on the rights of workers delivering public services to IDPs and host communities. The guide also emphasized that IDP-related interventions should be dealt with not only through the humanitarian perspective but likewise linked to employment, labour rights, human rights, socio-economic and sustainable development policy concerns addressing the root causes of forced displacement. 

  • Posters, Banners, Shirts, Caps and Buttons asserting the human rights of IDPs to quality public services. These materials were widely used in advocacy workshops and mobilizations, including in the union-led national campaign for the adoption of the National IDP Policy, with PSI bringing the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs to bring high level visibility to the campaign.

  • Project Video Documentary and Brochure summarizing project achievements in 2021.

  • Project Video Documentary summarizing project achievements in 2022. 

Project materials


The project concludes at a time when Nigeria is still dealing with finding durable solutions following the Federal and State policy of closure of the IDP camps and the return of the IDPs to their ancestral lands, or resettlement in their host communities. The Nigeria IDP Policy is yet to be elaborated into an IDP Law in order to provide the framework for implementation. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is becoming more profoundly felt, as Nigeria experiences more climate disasters in the past years, from droughts to storms and devastating floods. From conflict displacement, the country is increasingly moving towards climate displacement.

Forced displacement is expected to continue in the midst of these multiple crises that the world is facing today, and exacerbated by overlapping triggers and drivers. Nigeria, being the largest economy in Africa, is a clear case in point. The project has generated important achievements and experience that PSI could learn from, and will continue to do so as we envision to advance it onto the next phase.

*Authors: Genevieve Gencianos is PSI Migration Programme Coordinator, Moradeke Abiodun-Badru is PSI Project Coordinator for English-Speaking West Africa and Maria Östberg Svanelind is the International Secretary of The Union for Professionals ASSR, Sweden.