Sahelian Food Crisis: Portraits from Niger and Mali

Two days ago, UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick stated that next week will likely see the “peak of admissions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition into centres across the Sahel.” As he pointed out, the crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, including locusts, the armed conflict in northern Mali, and human displacement from war and drought.

In Niger, described as the “worst affected country” in the Sahel by McCormick, some 161,000 children under five years old had severe acute malnutrition based on a survey taken at the beginning of July.
In Chad, the agency has seen the monthly caseload doubled compared to 2010, with 630 children under five admitted to treatment centres.
The next few weeks will be “critical to see whether we can keep things under control and the funding coming in to treat the children with the special food they need which is incredibly expensive”, said McCormick.

Deutsche Welle profiles a program in Niger that is trying to make a difference amid desperation:

Because of the drought in the Sahel, oxen and cows have hardly anything to eat. [The German NGO] Welthungerhilfe buys the weakest cattle from the farmers at a price which they would never get if they went to market. In and around [the village of] Yatakala these animals now end up in cooking pots and save human lives.

Willi Kohlmus is Welthungerhilfe’s regional director for Africa. He says they are trying to do everything they can to stop people leaving the area, because that would be the worst that could happen. “It would mean they would stop growing crops and the next harvest would also be a disaster. That in turn would mean more dependence on foreign aid, in refugee camps,” he warns.

The strain of displacement is visible in Mali:

Thousands of families in Bamako and other cities are facing the same challenge: how to accommodate and care for dozens of extra relatives, mostly children, when they are already struggling to cope with high food prices and too little income. Conflict across the north has displaced some 70,000 Malians, who are now mainly living in Bamako and Mopti, an inland port on the Niger River in central Mali.
The country is being squeezed on economic, political and military fronts. “We’re fighting a lot of fires at once here,” said Information Minister Hamadoun Touré. With formal sector unemployment at 30 percent in good times, investment in the mining sector down, the bulk of multilateral and bilateral development aid suspended, and zero tourism activity, the country could be on its way to a “complete economic standstill”, said one seasoned Malian development worker.

Refugee flows out of Mali have increased hardship in neighboring countries.

Some Malian pastoralists are also finding the current situation unsustainable:

Hundreds of pastoralists in the Mopti Region of central Mali are stuck between floodplains to the south and armed Islamists and rebels to the north. They are used to the hardship of successive droughts across the Sahel, but with little or no aid for their animals and severely limited access to pasture, many are becoming desperate as their livelihood and way of life becomes increasingly untenable.

“It’s all over – it’s finished,” Ibrahim Koita, head of the Society of Social Welfare in Mopti Region, told IRIN in the capital, Bamako, where he is trying to pressure donors for more aid.

Aid is coming in – Canada recently pledged $10 million – but the situation remains grim.


A Look at the Food Crisis in Chad

The Sahel currently faces a food crisis that could affect as many as 15 million people.

This includes 5.4 million people in the Niger (35 percent of the population), 3 million in Mali (20 percent), around 1.7 million in Burkina Faso (10 percent), around 3.6 million in Chad (28 percent), 850 000 in Senegal (6 percent), 713 500 in the Gambia (37 percent) and 700 000 in Mauritania (22 percent).

The looming crisis is due to a combination of factors, including drought; sharp declines in cereal production and high grain prices; a shortage of fodder for livestock; a reduction in remittances from migrant workers in several countries; environmental degradation; displacement; and chronic poverty deepened by chronic crisis.

Total 2011 cereal production in the Sahel was on average 25 percent lower than in 2010, but as much as 50 percent lower in Chad and Mauritania. There were also localized, huge food production deficits in other countries (up to 80 percent).

As the above quotation indicates, Chad is one of the most affected countries. IRIN gives a ground-level perspective on the crisis, and sets Chad’s problems in the context of broader fallout from the civil war in Libya and the violence in Northern Nigeria:

Late Chadian government recognition of a food crisis, a slow build-up from aid agencies, and severe pipeline constraints due to closed Libyan and Nigerian borders mean food aid has not yet arrived in Chad, despite many thousands of people having already run out of food.

Residents of Eri Toukoul village in Kanem Region, western Chad, told IRIN they have nothing to eat. Most are surviving by leaving for towns and cities. Grain stores are empty and the animals they used to rely on are dead.

“Before we had 10-15 animals each, now we have nothing,” said Fatou Su Hawadriss, who has seven children. Almost every family in this village once had at least one relative working in Libya who sent back money, but now all have fled the violence there.

Oxfam, meanwhile, has produced a video on the situation in Chad.

Both Oxfam and the United Nations are calling for millions of dollars to support relief efforts across the region.

The debate continues about how best to address the problem of food insecurity, with NPR recently showcasing new research on where relief organizations should purchase food supplies. The findings seem fairly common-sense to me:

Simple, unprocessed grain or beans were clearly cheaper in local markets; processed food such as oil sometimes was cheaper to ship from the U.S. The lesson from this is a simple one, the researchers concluded: Don’t set up rigid rules that require food to be bought in any particular place. Buy food wherever it makes most sense.

The larger question about the region’s recurring food crises still remains, however: What is the best long-term strategy for reducing food insecurity? For Chad and many of its neighbors, that question is of crucial importance.

Wikileaks Roundup for Africa

See my general position on Wikileaks here. Briefly, now that the information is out there I feel it’s worth discussing it. To that end, I thought a (partial) roundup of what leaked cables say about different African countries might be useful.


  • Miami Herald: “From the Saudi-Yemen border to lawless Somalia and the north-central African desert, the U.S. military is more engaged in armed conflicts in the Muslim world than the U.S. government openly acknowledges, according to cables released by the WikiLeaks website.”
  • VOA interviews Liesl Louw-Vaudran of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies and looks at the impact of the cable leaks in Nigeria, Kenya, Libya, and across the continent. Louw-Vaudran says, “I think many Africans are a little bit disgusted, a little bit shocked, at the sort of flippant way that these American diplomats are talking about, ultimately, African heads of state.”
  • BBC: “Cables from a senior American official in Nigeria describe China as ‘aggressive and pernicious’, and that ‘China is in Africa primarily for China’. However, the memo goes on to say the US does not consider China a military, security or intelligence threat.” What about an economic threat? More here.
  • Radio Netherlands Worldwide has its own roundup here, and Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf looks at the implications for Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.


  • NPR: “Among the cables in this week’s dump of WikiLeaks documents are memos concerning shipments of arms through Kenya to Sudan. The cables suggest that the U-S turned a blind eye to the situation until Somali pirates brought it to public attention by seizing a tanker carrying 32 Soviet-made Ukrainian tanks, apparently bound for Sudan’s south.” Kenya’s Daily Nation has more on the arms shipments from Kenya to South Sudan.
  • Reuters: “One [cable] said Egypt had lobbied for a delay in the referendum for South Sudan’s independence.”


  • All Africa: “Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told top visiting American officials before elections in May this year that he would ‘crush… with our full force’ opposition leaders who ‘violated the laws of Ethiopia,’ according to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.”
  • The Guardian: “US ambassador portrays [Eritrean President] Isaias Afwerki as part menace, part weirdo.”


  • Reuters: “U.S. drugmaker Pfizer hired investigators to find evidence of corruption against Nigeria’s attorney general to convince him to drop legal action against the company over a drug trial involving children, the Guardian newspaper reported, citing U.S. diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks.” BBC: “Pfizer has dismissed as “preposterous” reports that it hired investigators to uncover evidence of corruption against a former Nigerian attorney general.”
  • CNN: “Royal Dutch Shell has people in ‘all the relevant ministries’ in the Nigerian government and has access to ‘everything being done in those ministries,’ according to leaked diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks and posted on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian on Thursday.” Business Week has Shell’s denial. Al Jazeera English has a video report.

Finally, I have some comments on Wikileaks and the Sahel here, and Congo Siasa has a roundup concerning Central Africa here.

Do you see any patterns? Any surprises? Let us know.

A US Military Perspective on AQIM and Ransoms

I missed this a few days back, but it’s worth reading given the frequent conversations we’ve had here about the pros and cons of paying ransoms to AQIM:

Paying ransom for hostages held by al Qaeda in Africa just encourages more kidnappings and hands the militant network a global propaganda boost, a U.S. military official said on Tuesday.

The same goes for the practice of releasing jailed militants to win freedom for hostages held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), added the official in a briefing about U.S. military support for governments in Africa’s Sahel region.

The official said the tactics also stirred disputes between regional countries, potentially damaging fledgling cooperation on counter-terrorism, because some governments opposed paying ransoms while others appeared to tolerate the practice.

“The countries are at each other’s throats over payments. It hurts us regionally,” the official said, adding that kidnapping also deterred tourism, an important revenue source.

“It ends up that these countries will not cooperate on various issues because a country has decided to pay…(Al Qaeda) makes hay with this. They get a lot of bang for their buck.”

The official wanted to remain anonymous, Reuters says, so we can’t contact him for a follow-up, but at any rate this article offers food for thought.

EU Aid for Sahelian Hunger Crisis

As millions suffer from hunger in the Sahel, the EU adds $29 million in aid to the $24 million it had already pledged for the region:

Humanitarian programs will target more than seven million people in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria.  The aid will fund emergency food assistance between harvests, allocation of seeds to farmers and treating acutely malnourished children.

The Sahel was pushed into crisis by erratic rains, resulting in poor harvests.  The EU says that setback, coupled with high food prices and limited job opportunities, has forced up to 10 million people in Chad and Niger to require emergency assistance.

This is the first mention I’ve seen in the press that Northern Nigeria is also considered to be in crisis, but I’m not surprised: desertification and drought have been problems there for years, and famines elsewhere send people from other Sahelian countries into Nigeria.

Tommy has more on the crisis.

A Sahel-Wide Famine?

Millions in Niger are facing hunger, but the UN now says Chad is also experiencing a food crisis. This is looking like a regional famine, and there aren’t enough resources to go around.N'Djamena area, Chad by afcone

Relief efforts for two million people facing food shortages in Chad are suffering because donors are concentrating aid on neighbouring Niger, a United Nations agency warned on Tuesday.

Niger is seen at the centre of a looming food crisis in the Sahel, the strip of land stretching across the south of the Sahara where some 10 million people are facing hunger in coming months because of poor rains last year.

But the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) sounded an alarm that Chad, which along with its neighbour is one of the world’s poorest nations, was being overlooked.

Some aid agencies (French) are also starting to talk of a Sahelian famine that affects Mauritania and Mali as well as Chad and Niger.

Meanwhile, after last year’s experience, the approach of the rainy season is bringing anxiety, not hope, in some places:

Devastating floods swept through West Africa in 2009, killing more than 100 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more in 16 countries.

As this year’s rainy season draws closer, efforts are being stepped up to prepare for the worst.  The International Federation of the Red Cross is leading the preparation effort.

A Red Cross’ spokesman, Moustapha Diallo, attended flood preparation talks earlier this month in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde.

Famines have occurred periodically in the Sahel for decades, but in recent years crises have occurred frequently. Climate change and desertification are taking a toll on people and agriculture. That in turn puts pressure on Sahelian governments, some of which have other huge political problems, such as rebellions in Chad or last year’s referendum debacle in Niger. A spirit of generosity exists in the region, and governments have often helped each other in times of need, but when everyone is suffering no one is in a position to give much help.

Sahel Kidnappings: Mali, Now Mauritania

Violent incidents are focusing international attention on criminality in the Sahel, continuing a trend that has gone on since at least 2007.

Yesterday gunmen stopped an aid convoy in Mauritania and kidnapped three Spanish nationals.

The three Spanish nationals, “two men and a woman, were travelling in a car, the last vehicle of a convoy that was heading from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott” when they were attacked on Sunday afternoon, a Spanish diplomat said.

The convoy had earlier delivered aid to Nouadhibou and was transporting donations that they intended to drop off in various towns along the route, the diplomat added.

A Mauritanian security source confirmed the kidnapping, adding the kidnappers fired several shots to force the vehicle to stop and then took the Spaniards away in a 4×4 vehicle.

A spokesman for the Spanish humanitarian group Barcelona-Accio Solidaria confirmed the three were members of their association and named them as Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gamez and Roque Pascual.

“The found all the supplies only the people were gone,” said the spokesman, adding “we don’t know anything more, if they were bandits or had any political motives.”

A Spanish humanitarian worker based in Mauritania, Montse Bosch, was able to speak by telephone with some of the other members of the aid convoy following the kidnapping.

“A group of armed men stopped and then took them, leaving their vehicle in place and without touching any of the supplies, luggage or money contained in the car,” she said.

Bosch said Barcelona-Accio Solidaria is part of the Caravana Solidaria, or Solidarity Caravan, which distributes aid in Mauritania and other African countries in the region.

The attack took place near the town of Chelkhett Legtouta, 170 kilometres (106 miles) north of Nouakchott, according to the Mauritanian security source.

Reuters adds some political context, saying the incident “will heighten security fears in the West African desert republic where al Qaeda-linked gunmen operate.”

The Mauritanian Sahara

Killings in Trarza on Saturday appeared unrelated to the kidnapping of the Spaniards, but observers are wondering about connections between the incident in Mauritania and the seizure of a French national in Menaka, Mali last Thursday. Over the weekend, a Malian official confirmed that AQIM is holding the victim, Pierre Camatte, after using “intermediaries” to abduct and transfer him.

These incidents will have an immediate and negative effect on aid delivery in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. France has issued warnings to French citizens resident in Mali, asking them to head back to Bamako. Commenter Wyndham Carter writes, “Our son has just had his Peace Corps service in Niger terminated because of these concerns about AQIM” and that “with the withdrawal of Peace Corps, these people are really left with no economic development support to improve their lives.” If foreign governments and aid agencies perceive a pattern of violence and terrorism in the Sahel, the region could see more military attention – and less humanitarian activity on the ground.

I’ve said this before, but essential for an understanding of what’s going on is the question of AQIM’s coherence. On the one hand, we could argue that AQIM are cold-bloodedly masterminding terrorist attacks from the Atlantic Ocean to the heart of the Malian Sahara. On the other hand, we could argue that AQIM is a loose organization that exploits its relationships with freelance criminals to enhance its political reputation (and income). Or we could argue something in between. The point is, the policy response that Sahelian governments and outside actors adopt with regard to these kidnappings will depend heavily on the way they view AQIM. That’s why it’s essential to work carefully to understand the group and its assorted alliances.