Boko Haram and West Africa’s Food Crisis

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Despite Nigeria’s wealth in oil and other natural resources, almost half the population lives in poverty, according to The World Bank. And while poverty is a national issue, there is a stark regional divide: in the predominantly Muslim north, the poverty rate is 72 percent, compared with 27 percent in the south, which is largely Christian. 

In the northeast, which has borne the brunt of Boko Haram attacks, the literacy rate is just under 40 percent, while the national rate is over 60 percent. Meanwhile, the under-5 mortality rate in the northeast is 160 per 1,000 live births, compared to a national average of 128. 

Many experts believe the marginalization of the north, as well as government corruption, created the conditions for the emergence of Boko Haram, which began its insurgency in 2009. The group, whose name translates as “Western education is forbidden,” aims to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria and despite its long history of targeting civilians, it was its abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in April 2014 that made global headlines.

The northeastern states most affected by Boko Haram violence are Borno, the epicenter of the insurgency, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe. Humanitarian agencies estimate that over 8 million people in the four states, more than half their combined population, are food insecure, due to a combination of poor rains and restricted access to markets and farmland, with 3.9 million requiring urgent food assistance. Up to 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in government-run camps or with host families, putting a strain on those households’ already limited resources.

Stolen harvests

While agriculture employs around 60 percent of Nigeria’s national labor force, nearly 84 percent of households in rural communities depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and the sector accounts for 56 percent of rural income.

In northeastern Nigeria, around 88 percent of rural households produce staple crops such as beans, sorghum,maize and millet. Furthermore, about 75 percent of families in the region own livestock, the highest rate in the country.

Food security in the northeastern states started to become a concern in 2012 as the violence intensified. Although households were able to plant their crops that year, a significant proportion of their output was lost to the insurgency: when crops were ready to harvest, Boko Haram fighters would raid people’s fields, says Louise Setshwaelo, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in Nigeria.

“Over and above taking what people have grown for themselves, they would go into the markets, raid the markets, raid the households. When they attack villages the first thing they are looking for is food.”

As the security situation worsened, with attacks reaching their peak in late 2014 and early 2015, entire communities fled for their lives, losing access to their lands in the process. In Borno, an estimated 50 percent of farming households are currently unable to cultivate their land. Production of sorghum, millet and rice in the state is estimated to have dropped by 82 percent, 55 percent and 67 percent respectively, compared to the five-year average. Meanwhile, in the two local government areas that produce 80 percent of the food for Yobe state, food production is at a virtual standstill due to the insurgency, according to Setshwaelo.

Market closures have further limited access to food and contributed to rising prices of staples. According to USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), most markets in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe are either closed or operating at below-average levels as the military attempts to reduce civilian casualties and restrict insurgents’ access to food. In January, corn prices in Adamawa were up 31 percent compared to the previous year, and in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, prices had increased by 25 percent, although the depreciation of the naira was partly to blame. Prices of millet were also around 20 percent higher in Maiduguri and in Yobe state.

As families struggle to feed themselves, many have resorted to skipping meals, begging, borrowing or doing menial jobs in exchange for food. According to the Cadre Harmonisé (Harmonized Framework), which provides analysis on food security in the Sahel region, more than 2.3 million people in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe are in a crisis food situation and need humanitarian assistance. A further 217,000 in Borno State are facing an emergency food situation and need immediate assistance.

The food security situation is putting children at particular risk: the prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition among children in Borno and Yobe is estimated at 13.2 percent and 12.9 percent respectively, both above the 10 percent emergency threshold.

Across the border

In Cameroon’s Far North Region, where 158,000 locals have been displaced due to Boko Haram raids and military operations along the Nigerian border, the number of people requiring immediate food assistance has quadrupled since June 2015. Around 70,000 Nigerian refugees have also fled into the region, putting additional pressure on Cameroonians living in what was already one of the most deprived areas of the country. The poverty rate in the Far North increased from 56.3 percent in 2001 to 74.3 percent in 2014 and the region is also exposed to climatic shocks such as drought and floods, according to figures from UNICEF and the government of Cameroon.

WFP estimates that 1.4 million people in the Far North, more than a third of the region’s population, are food insecure and over 200,000 are severely food insecure. As farmers have been uprooted from their land, food production has been below average for three consecutive years and the violence has also disrupted trade on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria.

An assessment in November 2015 found that there was a cereal deficit of about 50,000 metric tonnes compared to population needs in the Logone and Chari department, one of the worst-affected areas in the Far North. Malnutrition rates have also increased sharply.

Due to the food shortages reported in the region, WFP is concerned that the lean season, which usually starts in June, could start sooner, says Elvira Pruscini, deputy country director and head of program in Cameroon.

Although WFP is providing mobile phone cash transfers to enable people to buy food in markets and distributing seeds to those who have access to land, it has only been able to secure 59 percent of the $40 million it requires to meet the needs of the Far North.

If the IDPs and the local population are unable to get seeds on time or obtain the support they need to enable a timely planting season, for example, through land preparation and water management, Cameroon will face another bleak harvest, says Pruscini.

“The upcoming months will be critical, especially April and May. If we miss this planting season this means there will be no harvest next year and the situation could aggravate.”

On the funding situation, Pruscini adds: “The other big challenge is that this is a forgotten crisis. There are other competing priorities in the world. Syria, the European refugee crisis is taking away the attention…This may not be necessarily a priority for some of the donors that have traditionally been very supportive.”

Insufficient funds

In northeastern Nigeria, the number of people who will need support is expected to increase during the lean season, which is forecast to begin three to four months earlier than the normal July to September period. As household food stocks dwindle, demand for cereals is likely to increase, pushing up prices.

Between June and August, the number of people in the crisis phase in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe is projected to increase to nearly 2.7 million, while more than 330,000 people in Borno and Yobe are expected to be in the emergency phase.

The UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Nigeria is severely underfunded, says Setshwaelo. She noted that the humanitarian community requires nearly $71 million to provide direct food assistance, agricultural inputs and cash transfers to enable households to engage in income-generating activities, but only $6.1 million has been received so far.

“There’s no way that we’re going to be able to handle the situation, particularly in the coming lean season, with the kind of funding response that we’re getting,” she says. “We desperately need more support as the lean season is approaching.”

Returning home

Although the Nigerian government is encouraging IDPs to go back home, some will have little to return to. Those who wish to plant before the rainy season starts in May or June would have to go back now, but even if they did health services and basic infrastructure would not be ready, says Yannick Pouchalan, Action Against Hunger’s country director for Nigeria.

While coordinated attacks on towns by Boko Haram have decreased as the Nigerian military recaptures territory in the northeast, the group has proven to be resilient in the past and could come back stronger, Pouchalan points out.

“Some people will go back, but definitely not the majority,” he says. “Generally speaking, we have to accept the fact that many of the people that were displaced will never go back.”

According to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan, some 260,000 IDPs who returned to Adamawa came back to find the area devastated: “water sources are polluted with dead human and animal bodies, and farmland and roads are still contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance,” the document says. The insurgency has also destroyed a lot of agricultural infrastructure that will have to be rebuilt, adds Setshwaelo, including irrigation infrastructure, fertilizer plants and seed processing plants.

Another urgent priority for the Nigerian government will be to address the root causes of the insurgency, including high rates of poverty and unemployment. Between 2010 and 2013, poverty levels in the north-east region increased by 3 percent, while decreasing in all other regions of the country.

“The insurgency is poverty-driven,” says Kabir Ibrahim, president of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria. “Who will blow himself up if he has food?”

Since agriculture employs a significant proportion of the population in the northeast, greater investment in the sector would help reduce poverty, says Ibrahim, adding that the government needs to improve power and transportation, as well as storage and processing facilities.

Nigeria’s agricultural potential is staggering and the government has recognized that strengthening the sector is an important step towards reducing its oil dependency. Only 40 percent of its agricultural land has been cultivated and before the country discovered oil in the 1960s, it was self-sufficient in food production. It now imports around 4 million tonnes of wheat and 2.5 million tonnes of rice annually, making it one of the world’s top importers of those two commodities.  Studies have also shown a link between agricultural productivity and poverty reduction in Nigeria. A 2014 report by the World Bank notes that a ten percent increase in agricultural productivity reduces the likelihood of being poor by two to three percent.

“Agriculture is our next oil. It was there before oil,” says Ibrahim. “Nigeria, more than anywhere in Africa, should use whatever it gets from oil to invest in agriculture.”

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