Africa: Man-made famines

Haitham Nouri , Friday 24 Sep 2021

Corruption, instability and mismanagement threaten millions of Africans with famine, and the Middle East is right behind

An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distribu
An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on Saturday, May 8, 2021. AP

The UN has been warning of imminent famine in a number of African and Arab countries, unable until present to put together the resources necessary to prevent widespread hunger. This will be the subject of discussion of the UN General Assembly this week.

The UN announced in 2016 a list of areas threatened with famine or near-famine. The list included northeastern Nigeria, southern Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, eastern Syria, Burkina Faso and Tigray in northern Ethiopia.

In every case the famine, which can affect the lives of millions if not tens of millions of people, is man-made, resulting from war, mismanagement, corruption or all three.

Countries on the verge of famine in “Africa and the Middle East all share a fragile political situation and the mismanagement of their resources, which in turn have led to civil war,” said Nirvana Shawki, regional director for the Middle East at CARE International.

“War is the last link in a chain of failures to establish a stable political situation, manage state resources as rationally as possible and fight corruption.”

Many developing countries in Africa and Asia are using climate change as an excuse for their failure to deal with the effects of changes such as drought, flooding and desertification. “The efficiency of a country in responding to the challenge of climate change is an indicator of its efficiency in resource management and the quality of its economic policies,” Shawki said.

The 1984 famine in Sudan is a striking example of what happens when politics takes priority over lifting people’s suffering. Sudanese president Jaafar Numeiri refused to declare his country was stricken with drought and desertification, preferring not to receive international assistance in order to preserve the image of a strong regime. The famine, however, was one of the factors that led to his overthrow the following year after a popular uprising organised by professional unions.

Famine in Sudan
These refugees in Sudan were among hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians who fled war and famine in their homeland in the mid-1980s. (UNHCR)

Corruption in Nigeria, which President Muhammadu Buhari admitted was one of his country’s most catastrophic challenges, has resulted in the failure of one of Africa’s largest armies to terminate the terrorism of Boko Haram.

The terrorist group embarked on attacks starting in 2010 and to this day the army and security forces have not managed to beat it. Even worse, they failed to retrieve tens of girls whom Boko Haram kidnapped. This failure embarrassed the Nigerian authorities, and resulted in former president Jonathan Goodluck losing the 2015 elections.

The damage of Boko Haram expanded with its proliferation in neighbouring countries, such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The joint forces of Niger, Nigeria and Benin has not made tangible progress towards liquidating the terrorist organisation.

The group’s terrorist attacks and the government’s retaliatory responses have led to the death of more than 37,000 people and the displacement of over two million.

“The disasters that result from displacement end up in a bitter conflict to make available the slightest amount of food. This is when a famine starts, beginning with malnourishment of women and children, until hunger strikes the entire country,” Shawki said.

The mismanagement of resources, coupled with widespread corruption, led to crises that contributed to the creation of terrorist movements, such as Boko Haram, or reviving secessionist trends in Africa’s more populous countries, the people of which stand at 200 million.

“That Boko Haram targeted girls and children led to heightened fears for their lives, and consequently locking them up in houses, preventing them from going to school or work,” Shawki added.

“This is man-made famine: corruption, terrorism and mismanagement of resources, and it could spread to neighbouring countries with fragile economic and political conditions. According to international reports, South Sudan has more than ever before since its independence been suffering the lack of food security.”

Since 2013, South Sudan has been enduring an ethnic civil war between the Dinka – the largest ethnic community from which President Silva Kiir and the majority of government, army and security forces hail – and the Nuweir, the group to which Vice President Riak Mashar belongs.

The civil war that broke out following independence in 2011 has claimed the lives of 400,000 South Sudanese, while 8.3 million people – 70 per cent of the population – have become largely dependent on humanitarian aid, according to UN reports.

Days before the country’s independence, the Secretary-General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party in South Sudan, Pagan Amum, told Al-Ahram Weekly he was optimistic that his country would turn into a major food producer, thanks to its huge animal wealth and torrential rains.

Two years after the secession, civil war broke out, with countless rape cases recorded.

“Rape and sexual slavery, being used as weapons of war, mean preventing mothers from going out of their houses or their escape to dangerous places, and consequently depriving children of food and care,” Shawki stated.

Rape was used as a weapon of war in the Darfur conflict, the westernmost region in Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a doctor, Denis Mukwege win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and conflict. Mukwege shared the prize with Yazidi campaigner Nadia Murad, who had escaped the sexual slavery of the Islamic State.

The rape incidents during the Darfur conflict led the agriculturally rich region to the cusp of famine.

Rape is currently being used as a weapon in the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayans, which is the model most significant in “man-made famine”, according to a report by Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the US.

The report pointed out that farmers are being forcibly prevented from cultivating their lands, and the women are widely raped, which threatens the northern region with a famine that may affect more than two out of the region’s six million people.

Under normal circumstances, when farmers are allowed to cultivate crops, and with a rainy season like this year’s, the people can harvest large amounts of food.

In refugee camps, many women were raped by Amhara militias, preventing them from going out to work, searching for food, bringing water to drink or clean up, and rendering their children, especially those below the age of five, prone to death.

A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that 363,000 children below five years old in Somalia died for reasons that could have been avoided.

The Tigray famine is the second largest in the history of Ethiopia, following the 2011 East Africa drought, during which millions of people went hungry. The famine was exacerbated by locust attacks dealing a deafening blow to the fragile food security situation the year before.

Famine in Tigray
File Photo :A young boy looks up as displaced Tigrayans line up to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, taken on Sunday, May 9, 2021. AP

Ethiopia had known prosperity from 2003 to 2012, with its growth rates hiking to 10 per cent, according to government estimates. Then the country ushered in a period of economic slowdown, political instability, and the civil war which international bodies are saying may lead to famine that could destroy Tigray, as happened in the 1980s.

It is true that after 1980, the number of famine victims has gone down, according to a study by Tufts University professor Alex de Waal in his book Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. However, it has become clear that politics pays an integral role in creating famines, as evidenced in the tactic used by the Syrian government to prevent food from reaching rebel cities from 2011 till present.

Famine threats in Middle East

Today, millions of people living by the Euphrates are suffering due to the drought resulting from climate change on the one hand and the blocking of water shares of Syria and Iraq behind Turkish dams on the other.

In both cases, the Iraqi and Syrian governments didn’t address climate change and drought seriously enough.

The drought of 2005-2009 was one of the main reasons behind the Syrian Revolution. The state ignored the suffering of its people, leading to fury and the bearing of arms. The result was the death of more than 300,000 people and the displacement of millions across neighbouring countries. Damages were estimated at $250 billion.

The situation in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen, is growing even worse with the conflict over humanitarian aid and political fights between the warring parties, the internationally recognised government and the Houthis.

Half of the Yemeni population depend on humanitarian aid, a field to which 200 organisations are dedicated, albeit with very limited resources.

Famine in Yemen
File Photo: Ahmad Farea and his family sit for a meal at their house in Sanaa, Yemen taken on February 25, 2021.REUTERS

Some pundits believe the rise of the European and American right has resulted in a decrease in aid in crisis-stricken areas.

Aid workers are hoping for an international move this week at the UN General Assembly to alleviate the pain and suffering of tens of millions of people.

“There is a multi-dimensional structural crisis in the political, economic, educational and service fields,” Shawki said. “Even with a technology advanced enough to face the repercussions of the climate change challenge, all partial solutions would remain insufficient.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: