Nothing could be more heart-wrenching than the sight of a malnourished child dying while waiting in line for food.
It is proof that the little help that did arrive came a little too late. It is a grim reality played out daily in some of the world’s largest refugee centers in Northeastern Nigeria.
Years of Boko Haram insurgency have left large swathes of farmland inaccessible and many roads unnavigable by aid convoys. According to the United Nations, “More than 120,000 people, most of them children, are at risk of starving to death next year in areas of Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.”
Two million people have been displaced by the fighting and terror, leaving farmers unable to harvest their crops and aid groups unable to reach isolated communities in a region of the country already prone to hunger. Meanwhile, the whole world is watching in silence—that is, if they can even locate Nigeria on the map.
Nigeria contains a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. It is an incredibly young and energetic population that is unusually literary and entrepreneurial. And while most of the country remains stable, and has recently been classed the fourth most populous democracy in the world, Boko Haram is wreaking havoc in the northeast.
Boko Haram is a radical cult linking itself to Islam, which has recently affiliated with Isis, so anyone concerned with the fate of Isis in the Middle East should also be concerned with their activities in Nigeria. And anyone concerned with the refugee crisis in Europe should also be concerned. For the displaced population of this one region of one country is roughly twice the entire influx of refugees into Europe. And if the problem is not cleared up, many will make their way to Europe, further straining their social and economic capacities for integration.
It is tempting to dismiss these horrors as part of an ongoing narrative of depressing statistics in yet another African basket-case. But the last decade has seen states across the continent developing at a rapid rate, as the number of malnourished people the world over continues to decline. Nigeria is an extraordinary country whose citizens are hopeful for a better future. Like all human tragedies, Boko Haram arose for a reason.
The insurgency grew on the edges of Lake Chad, a giant body of water that has shrunk to almost nothing as a result of overuse and climate change. Hunger drives men in the region to leave their wives in search of work and women to leave their children in the care of religious leaders. And it is many of these same children who have gone on to constitute the core of Boko Haram fighters.
It is a vicious circle in which famine drives the growth of Boko Haram and the growth of Boko Haram drives the famine. Hunger breaks up families and the break up of the family tears apart the social fabric, which is then reconstituted through the growth of religious extremism.
Nigerians sought to deal with the problem once-and-for-all in the most recent presidential election. In a country that is half-Christian, voters chose Muhammadu Buhari, a retired Muslim general many perceive as free from corruption. They hoped he would have the status and ability to muster the force needed to defeat Boko Haram, but the effort to defeat Boko Haram is displacing people and leading to famine.
Defeating Boko Haram may prove easier than defeating hunger, but if we cannot defeat hunger, the insurgency will take a new shape after the fight is done. The international community has experienced this time and time again, most notably with Al-Qaeda giving way to Isis. Boko Haram grew out of a set of socio-economic circumstances, rooted in a changing ecology that will not be so easily altered.
African states have long struggled with projecting power into their hinterlands. Low revenues and vast territories, coupled with an abundance of tribes and ethnicities, have weakened state power. But Nigeria has a higher population density than most African states and a national service program that brings urban Southerners into contact with poorer Northerners on a regular basis. It should therefore be able to find the resources needed to end the hunger.
The international aid community can also help by developing better, more targeted irrigation systems. Scientists can work to breed more drought resistant African crops, like sweet potatoes and cassava. And all of us can work to better understand African problems as specific challenges for which there are solutions. For the more we understand, the better can we direct our efforts and resources.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of children are at risk of dying from starvation in a region of the world about which few of us know anything. There are countless aid organizations to which we can and should give. But making aid work requires that a critical mass of people actually understand aid recipients as more than statistics. Perhaps the best thing you can do to help the hungry in Nigeria is thus to understand who they are and the forces driving their suffering.
Author: Greg Abolo & Theo Horesh
Image: Flickr/Mark Fischer
Editor: Travis May