Food Security


A major famine has struck in a part of West Africa that is beset by conflict:  Northeastern Nigeria and the surrounding region.  As with the simultaneous situation in South Sudan and its neighboring countries, a very poor and sometimes drought-prone area is suffering primarily from the effects of war.  Conflict produces famine by driving people from their homes and villages, stopping agricultural production and the movement of food and other goods by road, and disrupting economic life in general.  Large numbers of people have fled for safety to a few large cities, such as Maiduguri, or to large displaced-person camps, There they become completely reliant on food aid instead of being producers or participants in a functioning economy, as they would be in normal times.  Many others simply go hungry, especially those who for various reasons must remain in their homes.

In the case of Nigeria, some 5 million to 6 million people are faced with extreme food and nutrition deficits.  They are in the northeastern corner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, which has some 150 million people from numerous ethnic groups.  This region of the country is part of the Sahel, the climate zone that stretches across West Africa and is the transitional belt between the lush forests of the more coastal region and the severe desert of the Sahara.  Still, much of it is normally a productive area for farming grains and vegetables, and herding cows and goats.


For the past eight years, there has been an increasingly violent conflict involving the Islamist extremist movement called Boko Haram, or (paraphrased), “Western Education is Forbidden.”  As with most such conflicts, this war has complex roots in the ethnic and economic history of Nigeria.  Like many African nations, Nigeria was created artificially by the colonial power (Britain) with little regard for ethnic groupings, sowing the seeds of future conflict.  The northern part of the country is poorer than the verdant and oil-rich south.  It is also the home of certain ethnic groups different from those in the South and is heavily Muslim, whereas the South is home to more Christians and followers of African Traditional Religions.  There has long been conflict between Nigeria’s North and its Southwest and Southeast, closer to the oil-producing area and home of two major groups, the Yoruba and Igbo, respectively.  Those Southern groups (and others) also have fought among themselves, including in the brutal Biafran civil war of the late 1960’s.  For a long time, governments of Nigeria were dominated by Northerners who were anxious to hold onto power so that they could share in the oil wealth which was coming from other parts of the country but which was essential to escape grinding poverty.

In the early 2000’s a leader named Mohammed Yusuf arose in Northeast Nigeria who promoted the economic and political interests of the poor in the North.  His home territory was centered on Borno State, which is about the size of West Virginia.  He saw the region as threatened by the central government, no longer reliably in the hands of Northerners.  But he combined this political concern with Islamist ideas.  Such Islamist rhetoric, influenced by extremist movements and events elsewhere in the Islamic world, included a defense of traditional social and religious values in the face of what was considered an onslaught of European-sponsored and Christian (Western) immorality, godlessness, and especially, perceived hostility to Islam.  That is why the followers of the movement became identified as those opposed to Western education—Boko Haram, or “the book is forbidden.”  That name symbolized a clash that was seen not only as political and economic, but cultural and religious.  (There are some similarities to the extremist Taliban movement in Afghanistan.)  The Nigerian government responded with force to the growing challenge of this leader and his followers, and many were killed by police and military, including the leader who died in police custody in 2009.  From that point, this movement of regional political-economic-ethnic loyalty and resistance to a government run by “Southerners” (and its abuses) expanded and became more radicalized.  Boko Haram fighters became a more hardened guerilla force.  They increased terrorist attacks, on police stations, churches, civilian villages, and even displaced-person camps.  As in other conflicts, fighters burned and looted villages to get supplies and kidnapped young people for labor, sexual slavery, and conflict use–in recent times even as suicide bombers.  The government responded with greater force, sending the military to the area.  However, the army also committed rights violations, at times rounding up supposed Boko Haram members and punishing or even executing large numbers of them with little evidence of complicity.  Boko Haram has continued to expand in response, and also has spread into neighboring sections of the adjacent countries, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, as marauding fighters fled into more remote regions for protection and loot. It also identified itself with Islamic extremism, at first with Al Qaeda, and later with Islamic State (ISIS), although its real connection with these movements is probably minimal.  A new Nigerian government came into power in 2015 promising to end the rebellion, but it has not been able to do so.  The militaries of Cameroon and Chad have also become involved in the conflict.  While there have been military victories by government forces in Nigeria, terrorist attacks have continued in various parts of the Northeast and the population is extremely affected. At least 2 million are displaced from their homes.  Thus the famine problem becomes worse.


Some 450,000 children under five in the region of Northeast Nigeria and adjacent countries face severe acute malnutrition this year, and 20% (90,000) may die without adequate help.  Some 14 million people in the region are in need of assistance, with 5 million or more of them in Nigeria.  About 1/3 of Borno State is inaccessible due to the violence.  The U.N. said that food assistance must get to 3 million people in the region by July 2017 to avert a full famine.  The World Food Program only has 13% of the funds

It needs to avert this crisis.  This is not to mention the destruction by the rebels of hundreds of clinics and hospitals, and schools, across the region.  Assistance is greatly needed for health and education as well.

For more information on the situation in Nigeria and neighboring countries:

The U.S. response to extremism is also a factor.  Unfortunately, the U.S. government approach to Islamic extremism in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, is often to promise a more militant response and destruction of the extremists in battle (the War on Terror).  The attitude is that terrorism in Africa is a unified movement, from Mauretania to Somalia, including Boko Haram in Nigeria.  The view may be that ISIS or Al Qaeda are unified worldwide movements spreading across all boundaries.  Often our response is to organize armed attacks, and to try to enlist U.S. and African organizations to join with this approach.

But this lumps all situations into one category as “the enemy” without taking into account different situations in different countries.  It also tends to overlook legitimate grievances that motivate people to take up arms against their own governments, even in the name of Islam, when the real motivation is a kind of powerlessness and economic exploitation.  To label Islam as the cause plays into the hands of extremist rhetoric and ideology.  U.S. politics also come into play, as our politicians promise to “get tough on terrorism.”  While force may be necessary in some cases, the gun as a response is not always a solution that will work, as events in the Middle East have shown.  That leads Muslims to react and say, “You are attacking our faith.”  It is important to consider the possibility of real grievances in the areas where there are terrorists.  At the same time it is important to highlight the Muslims who are refusing or are moving away from a radical and violent understanding of Islam.   There are imams and others who condemn terrorist attacks done in the name of Islam in Nigeria and elsewhere.  It is vital to connect with them and to promote joint efforts at interreligious condemnation of violence, as Pope Francis has advocated.

Thus it is essential to learn as much as possible about the teachings and life of Islam in general, particularly in Nigeria and Africa, and about the overall political, economic, and ethnic situation in Nigeria and elsewhere.  Americans must support a multi-faceted response by our own government, not solely the military option.  Meanwhile, aid to those facing famine, whether Muslim or not, is essential.

Stephen Price




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