Famine is declared in South Sudan; the first declaration of famine in the world in 6 years; another first for Africa from the down side. The last time famine was declared anywhere in the world was 2011 in southern Sudan, before that in 2008 again in southern Sudan, in 2000 in Gobe region of Ethiopia, in North Korea in 1996, in Somalia 1991-1992 and Ethiopia 1984 - 1985.
Reuters published an article on February 22 2017 announcing that the UK will pledge more than $250 million to fight famine in South Sudan where famine has been declared, and to Somalia, facing a `credible risk of famine’. UK's International Development Secretary Priti Patel is quoted in the article saying that the real threat of famine is in four countries. These countries were named in the same article by UNICEF that `1.4 million children were at imminent risk of death in famines in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.’ An article on the day by UK’s Guardian newspaper reiterates Reuter’s article that "The worsening crisis in South Sudan comes as three other countries Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria - are at risk of looming famines."
The word `famine’ is being used currently in reference to South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. But as far as I know, famine has only been formally declared in parts of South Sudan. Humanitarian actors are careful in the use of the word. Brendan Paddy of the Disaster Emergency Committee, an organization that launches big appeals for aid overseas says; "We have to be precise about how we use it."
Famine is used to describe a hunger crisis at the worst stage of five phases by the UN and its aids agencies. Certain requirements have to be met for a situation to be called a famine.
With the declaration and formal announcement of famine in parts of South Sudan’s Unity State, it is assumed that people have already started dying of hunger in the state. The Unity State in South Sudan which borders Sudan has been on the receiving end of fierce fighting between Sudan and South Sudan. Thousands of its citizens have fled to Uganda and Ethiopia. In addition to Somalia’s long drawn war, insurgency by extremist groups have led to large-scale displacement of people internally and to neighboring Kenya. South Sudan and Somalia have recently both been affected by months-long drought across east Africa. Yemen’s multi-party civil conflict has drawn in regional powers, leading to widespread destruction, economic damage and loss of life.
The declaration of famine signals a lack of national leadership. The current drought in South Sudan has a regional dimension, so Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are also affected but while there is a sense of urgency and frenzy to declare famine in at least Somalia, which most likely would happen, this will not happen in Ethiopia and Kenya because of the strong government leadership of the response; both at national and international levels.
Ethiopia continues to respond to drought through its development achievements including its national institutions. The country very recently kick started the response to drought with 47 million USD with plans to contribute another 200 million USD. In Kenya, the government has declared the drought impact as a national disaster but is leading the response through the provision of a compensation scheme for those who have lost livestock. The Kenya Red Cross is facilitating cash base intervention as well as distributing food vouchers and aid and helping livestock owners sell off weakening animals before they die.
The Nigerian Government has recently announced that it has facilitated the settlement of at least 310,000 IDPs back in their homes in Borno state, the epicenter of the crisis, so the issue of possible famine is confusing. For famine to be declared at least 20% of the population doesn't have enough food for the average person to lead a healthy life (2,100 kilocalories a day), the population of the north east Nigeria is 24.6 million. 1.9million has been identified as facing serious food insecurity. Famine is also declared when there is acute malnutrition in more than 30 percent of children, there are 450.000 severe malnourished children in the north east according to UNICEF. Finally, for famine to be declared, two deaths per 10,000 people every day must be recorded, or four child deaths per 10,000 children every day. The Nigerian government has not confirmed this, and if anything has challenged assessment of the humanitarian situation in the north east.
So who is planning to declare famine in Nigeria and what would be the criteria. The last time famine was declared in Nigeria was during the Biafra war in 1967 – 1970. In 2005 – 2006 Niger and West Africa was affected by famine at least 3 million people in Niger and 10 million people throughout west Africa and Nigeria was not mentioned. West Africa was also affected by famine in 2012 during the Sahel drought. Countries affected by famine included Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso; Nigeria was not affected.
So who is declaring famine in Nigeria? Is the country even aware that it might be facing a possible formal declaration of famine and what this implies? A declaration of famine in Nigeria will remain in its global record; as a point of reference for future declarations of famine in Africa and any part of the world. According to WFP `Famine is made worse by governments' failure to deal with the situation.’
Firstly, the declaration signals a lack of national leadership in the crisis in the north east. But the Nigerian government has recently resettled 319,000 internally displaced persons back in their communities in the north east. The Nigerian government is also publicly disputing the assessment of the crisis in the north east by international humanitarian partners with the accusation that the situation is being exaggerated for fund raising purposes, so is Nigeria now conceding to a possible designation of the crisis as the worst it can be?
Nigeria needs to be aware of what it means when the crisis in the northeast is referred to as famine. I am surprised at the silence from Nigeria to references of famine in the context of the north east and the country as a whole. Perhaps the country is unaware that such references are being made and/or what it means. I have worked in many contexts as an international humanitarian actor where the designation of the level and state of a crisis is duly debated before a declaration is made or not made.
What does a declaration of famine mean for Nigeria; a mid-income country with a strong government. Can Nigeria still stand with its counter parts like Kenya and South Africa? The declaration of a famine does not oblige the UN, governments and charities to act or do anything. But serves as a wake-up call to the gravity of the situation, in other words it draws international attention to the country’s crisis.