Politics of Poverty

Northeast Nigeria: Man-made hunger

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An Oxfam food security officer talks to a family at a camp for displaced people in the Kushari neighborhood of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in Nigeria. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Violence and conflict in Nigeria is making addressing major food shortages a big challenge.

This blog was written by Steve Purbrick, Oxfam’s Emergency Food Security Coordinator in Nigeria. 

Let’s just get this over with: famine grabs your attention. Unfortunately for aid organisations, it’s difficult to convey the extreme hunger that just falls short of famine.

While, to the best of our knowledge, what is currently happening in north-eastern Nigeria does not quite meet a formal definition of famine, it is nothing short of a disaster. For the UN to declare a famine, 20 percent of families in a state or province face extreme food shortages, over 30 percent of the population, must be acutely malnourished and hunger causes two out of every 10,000 people to die every day.

When Médecins Sans Frontières alerted the international community of a “catastrophic humanitarian emergency” in June, they were encountering rates of malnutrition and mortality rates in young children that were consistent with famine conditions in newly accessible towns. And this is likely to be just the beginning.  About 2.1 million people in Nigeria remain completely cut off from any external assistance because of the conflict. We don’t know what their conditions are like, but the conditions in these newly accessible towns raise grave concerns.

The ongoing war with Boko Haram that stretches across Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon has displaced 2.6 million people, both within national borders and across them. It has also left 6.3 million without enough food. Military forces of each of the affected countries have been mounting military operations against Boko Haram, pushing the insurgency back from the territory it had gained since 2009. It is the violence that is driving food insecurity in north-eastern Nigeria, and the consequent insecurity and displacement. The lack of food is the cumulative impact of three years of lost farming seasons, or of crops and livestock left behind, or looted. It is a consequence of towns and villages cut off by fighting, preventing people from leaving or food from coming in.

For the aid organisations in Borno State, the epicentre of the conflict, insecurity is the greatest single barrier to delivering emergency assistance, and there is precious little we can do about it. People still in inaccessible areas are hardly going to cultivate their way out of hunger: even if people could plant crops, the next harvest is more than 12 months away. So aid supplies and the populations we suspect are in the greatest need remain cut off from one another.

Sudden, mass hunger of the scale we’re seeing in North East Nigeria is only possible because of actual and threatened violence. To be sure, there are other long standing factors, but it is the violence that has caused a level of hunger in these areas that is not currently present in the rest of northern Nigeria. In the meantime, we are slowly attempting to push into new areas. We remain completely cut off from other areas, only able to guess at the conditions there. We don’t currently have a famine here in the north east, but it’s hardly the point. We have 65,000 people already experiencing famine conditions, people cut off by violence and more than a million people with severe hunger, and we’re only meeting a fraction of the need.

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