Africa This Month: Famine Fears After Drought and Flood
Climate change, droughts, floods, growing populations, civil strife, slowing economies and flailing states are putting lives of millions at risk.
As these authors have pointed out earlier, Africa’s landscape is on uncertain ground as the global economy experiences a downturn. Of course, some parts of Africa are doing better than others. Indeed, it is obviously difficult to generalize for the entire continent. Yet it is the case that large parts of Africa are facing economic challenges. It is the sad truth that certain parts are experiencing grave crises. The specter of famine looms large. Despite the missive of this crisis being echoed across the globe, its message does not seem to be making the top docket in most international capitals.
The obtaining backdrop of global affairs is a telling one. This is a time of turbulence in world politics. Turmoil in Washington, DC, Brussels and Beijing means there is less bandwidth for the international community to focus on Africa. In the long run, this might embolden the continent to double down on its widely-articulated mission to address its problems internally, without external interference. In the short run though, many Africans will experience more suffering.
FAMINE STALKS THE LAND
In February, António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations (UN), warned that “more than 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and north-east Nigeria are going hungry, and facing devastating levels of food insecurity.” Three of these places are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
On March 8, the World Food Programme declared an emergency in South Sudan. It called for urgent action to prevent more people from dying of hunger. Failing adequate assistance, up to 5.5 million people might be at risk at the height of the lean season in July.
South Sudan’s plunging economy and continuing civil war make matters worse. In 2016, inflation touched 50% per month. This is the conventional definition of hyperinflation. The country’s currency might not even be worth the paper it is printed on. In 2014, this country earned 99.8% of its export revenues from oil. When it gained independence in 2011, oil prices were north of $100 a barrel.
Those happy times are long gone. South Sudan now produces around 120,000 barrels of oil a month. This is merely half of what the country produced during its 2011 peak. In a double whammy to its finances, the price per barrel has dropped to half of what it was in 2011. This drop in earnings means the government spends much more than it earns. To cover its revenue shortfall, it frantically prints new banknotes that results in hyperinflation.
South Sudan’s worthless currency makes transactions tedious. Buying anything requires a bag of currency notes. Printing money recklessly has made government salaries worthless. Furthermore, savings have been wiped out and food prices have soared. To add fuel to the fire, the raging civil war ensures that farming has no productive capacity. In short, South Sudan’s economy is in near total collapse and its government is neck deep in debt. Such is the dire state of affairs that South Sudan’s government has raised “the cost of work permits for foreign aid workers from $100 per person to $10,000” in a desperate bid to increase revenues.
The African adage, when two elephants fight it is the grass that bears the brunt, aptly describes the situation in South Sudan. The crisis in the world’s newest state is caused to a great degree by the South Sudanese government and principal rebel. Both sides have employed scorched-earth tactics. With unnerving cynicism, both sides have indiscriminately harassed and attacked civilians and their property. This has created a toxic environment in which millions of innocents have been forced to abandon their livelihood and have seen their land ravaged. Houses have been burnt, cattle have been stolen and entire communities have been displaced from their homesteads.
Further, the South Sudanese government, ever skeptical about the intentions of the international community, has dragged its feet in allowing aid agencies access to its starving people. The specter of famine is caused more by lack of access to food because of a brutal civil war and less by drought because of adverse weather conditions.
Somalia is in a similar situation to South Sudan. This month, Guterres made a field trip to this country in the Horn of Africa. Six million people, half of South Sudan’s population, are suffering from malnourishment and cholera. Skeletal men, women and children abound. Crops have withered, cattle have died of starvation and rivers have dried up. In Guterres’ urgent words, “people are dying.”
The country continues to be chaotic. A dual US-Somali citizen has taken charge. Not too long ago, the suit-wearing new prime minister, Hassan Ali Khaire, worked for Soma Oil and Gas, a British company that has been accused of paying Somalia’s oil ministry nearly $600,000. Lawmakers have already challenged his cabinet appointments. They want more power for Somalia’s formidable clans. Meanwhile, the al Qaeda-linked al Shabab insurgency continues to rage on.
In northeastern Nigeria, 4.5 million people need emergency food aid. Nearly half a million children are severely malnourished. Even as famine threatens, the conflict between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces rages unabated in the northeast. This is the region where Boko Haram began. It still retains much influence here. So far, 1.8 million have been displaced. Nigeria faces a humanitarian crisis just like South Sudan and Somalia. Unfortunately, the country’s economy is not doing so well, limiting its ability to tackle the crisis.
In 2016, the Nigerian economy shrank by 1.5%. In 12 months, inflation has doubled to 18.7%. The naira is sinking in the black market, but terrified authorities dare not let it float. They are running scared of the bottom falling out of the currency and ensuing runaway inflation that might cause unrest. It is this fear that causes Nigerian leaders to continue with petrol subsidies that they can ill afford. Debt servicing already devours 15% of government revenues and the debt burden is rising.
Even as the economy suffers, violence plagues Nigeria elsewhere. Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers are battling it out in the central region of the country. In the Niger Delta, militants continue to blow up pipelines and attack oil rigs. Incongruously, the president is missing from the country at such a critical time. Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator-turned-popularly elected leader, has been out of the country since January 19. Apparently, he is receiving treatment for a “mysterious illness,” posing the question: who’s running Nigeria?
Given the rundown economies and ineffective governments of Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, it makes sense for international agencies to step in to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Guterres has asked for a relatively paltry $4.4 billion, but the money has not proved forthcoming. To put things in perspective, this is more than tenfold less than the $54 billion hike that US President Donald Trump has proposed for the 2018 American military budget. Mark Zuckerberg, who is worth more than $55 billion, made $1.6 billion in a week last year, more than a third what the UN needs to tackle the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.
FLOODS CAUSE WIDESPREAD DESTRUCTION
As nature would have it, the southern part of Africa appears to be facing the opposite problem. Floods, instead of drought, are to blame.
In 2016, El Niño in southern Africa caused a drought that decimated agricultural production. A parched land failed to sustain harvests. Over half a million children suffered acute malnutrition, while 3.2 million could not gain access to safe drinking water. In 2017, the suffering continues.
In February, a tropical storm hit Mozambique. It triggered heavy rainfall that has “left a trail of destruction across parts of southern Africa.” Far too many villagers are camping on high ground, marooned by fast flowing waters that are often too dangerous to cross. The situation is particularly dire in Zimbabwe and could lead to another humanitarian disaster.
Angola has also suffered from floods after torrential rain. Like other parts of southern Africa, it had suffered from drought for years. Now, floods have killed many, washed away hundreds of homes and left much of the farmland in Luanda province under water. As a result, thousands if not millions of people are likely to suffer.
In 2013, the International Food Policy Research Institute published a book that examined the implications of climate change on southern African agriculture. Many of its findings seem to be coming true. Farming is becoming difficult in parts of the region. Migration to more habitable parts is already a phenomenon. Population growth and increased agricultural demand for water are adding to climate change woes.
Africa will have to come to terms swiftly with climate change. Dealing with it will require not only better seeds and farming practices, but also “better roads and education systems.” Droughts and floods are wreaking havoc in the continent. Africans need better connectivity and new strategies to deal with them. With the ground shifting, Africa must come face to face with and find a way of slaying a deadly two-headed serpent, comprising old challenges it has yet to tame and is still grappling with, and the new demands emerging from contemporary realities that changing environmental circumstances foist upon the scene.
DEATH OF A GIANT
Ahmed Kathrada, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero who spent more than 26 years in prison, died at the age of 87. One of the closest friends of Nelson Mandela, Kathrada was affectionately known as Uncle Kathy. With his commitment to human rights, he was one of the giants who created modern South Africa.
As per the BBC, “along with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, [Ahmed Kathrada] was part of a group untainted by corruption, acting as a moral compass for the nation.” This was South Africa’s golden generation of anti-apartheid heroes that spent the best years of its life behind bars but emerged from prison to preach peace and reconciliation.
Kathrada was an Indian Muslim by descent. He was not at the bottom of the totem pole. In the apartheid system, whites got the most privileges, followed by Indians and blacks got the least. Many Indians were fine with apartheid. Others wanted equality with the whites but did not want to treat blacks equally. In the September 2016 edition of Africa This Month, the authors examined the uncomfortable legacy of as venerated a man as Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa.
Gandhi did fight the British Empire with almost superhuman decency and dignity but, in 1896, he held the African to be a “raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
In the May 2016 edition of Africa This Month, the authors observed the daily racism that Africans still endure in India that led the African Group of Heads of Mission to boycott Indian celebrations of Africa Day. Even this month, mobs attacked African students in India, sparking outrage. Racism runs deep in the caste-divided Indian mindset. Therefore, Uncle Kathy’s participation in the anti-apartheid struggle was both noble and historic.
People like Kathrada and Albie Sachs, the renowned former judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, deracialized the anti-apartheid movement. They proved it was not about ending white rule and instituting black rule. Together with Mandela, they stood for the principle that all discrimination on the basis of skin color, class, caste, gender or any such factor was fundamentally wrong. In prison, Uncle Kathy was offered certain privileges because he was Indian, not black. He refused to accept them unless they were extended to his black comrades.
In a moving interview with the BBC, Kathrada reminisced how many of his colleagues were hacked, tortured to death or assassinated. Sachs himself lost his right arm and sight in his left eye when the apartheid regime exploded a car bomb meant to kill him. So, in Uncle Kathy’s words, “prison was a bonus.”
In today’s South Africa with its sordid politics, sagging economy and soiled spirit, Uncle Kathy stands for a time when the human spirit soared despite all that was hurled against it. In the age of Donald Trump, the world could do well to learn from men like Kathrada, Sachs and Mandela.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Hadynyah