Worsening hunger crisis could threaten Africa’s stability

The AU Peace and Security Council should manage rising food insecurity as a peace and security issue.

The African Union (AU) 2022 theme of nutrition and food security could not have come at a more appropriate time. In a year in which the war in Ukraine compounded existing drivers of food scarcity in Africa, this issue has become crucial for many of the continent’s countries. 

In June 2022, at the height of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, AU Chairperson Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat visited Moscow. Issues discussed included easing the blockade of grain and fertiliser exports from Ukraine to Africa.

The trip, which contributed to relaxing the blockade, highlighted the dependency of African states on the supply of certain crucial staples and the extent of food insecurity on the continent. Africa relies heavily on imported grains, particularly wheat. It imported about US$5.1 billion worth of wheat (44% of total food imports) from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020 alone.

The continent’s vulnerability has become evident through price rises and shortages caused by the dearth of shipments. The situation has also highlighted the impact of conflict, changing climate conditions and global economic shocks on food security. At the same time, food scarcity can lead to protests and instability.

In several places on the continent, rising food and fuel prices have in the past contributed to widespread unrest and instability. The United Nations (UN) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have warned that this could again be the case due to global price rises in the wake of the Ukraine war.

In Sudan, protests against rising food prices and the high cost of living led to the ousting of former leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The situation again last year deteriorated to such an extent that a state of emergency had to be declared. In June this year, the UN warned that a third of Sudan’s population is going hungry due to climate shocks, political turmoil, and the rise in global food prices. This could increase insecurity, cautioned the UN.

About 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity; at least one in five goes without food daily

In South Africa, serious unrest linked to rising food prices, among other issues, broke out in July 2021. NGOs are warning that food price increases are again leading to frustration and potential unrest.

Africa’s increasing food insecurity

As a result of these factors, about 140 million people in Africa currently face acute food insecurity according to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises. At least one in every five goes without food in a day. This scenario follows a year-on-year escalation of the problem in various regions of the continent over the last six years.

The central and southern Africa regions, for example, witnessed an increase of more than 5.4 million additional food-insecure people between 2020 and 2021. Hardest hit were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Central African Republic. Similarly, the Horn of Africa continues to be among the most affected regions, with more than 50 million people facing acute food insecurity in 2022, an increase of about 8 million from 2021 estimates.

According to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, food insecurity in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Niger is cause for alarm. As of the third quarter of 2022, for example, about 1.7 million in the Sahel were estimated to be affected.

The frameworks to address Africa’s food security challenges have yet to be fully implemented

Amid these trends, the war in Ukraine has worsened an already dire economic and food security situation, pushing millions of people on the continent towards starvation. As most African countries are unable to cushion the increase in food prices, this crisis, if left unchecked, could herald destabilisation of some African states.

Frameworks without implementation

The AU theme for 2022 recognises the threat food insecurity poses to Africa’s stability. It is worded: Strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security on the African continent: Strengthening agro-food systems, health and social protection systems for the acceleration of human, social and economic capital development.’ This reflects the continent’s appreciation of the challenge and the commitment of leadership to finding the right solution to manage it.

The commitment to address the issue was also expressed in May 2022 when the AU held an extraordinary humanitarian summit and pledging conference in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The summit agreed to prioritise investment in food and nutrition security data and information systems and build a sustainable and resilient agri-food system to ensure food sovereignty. It would also revitalise the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and dedicate resources to achieve CAADP’s goal of boosting member states’ agricultural productivity.

These initiatives have happened in the context of existing frameworks. These include CAADP and the Africa Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Plan of Action (2022 to 2032), which seeks a coordinated response to climate change. While these frameworks overwhelmingly crystallise Africa’s appreciation of its food security challenge, they have yet to be fully implemented to harness their intended purpose.

Link between conflict and food insecurity

UN Security Council Resolution 2417 recognises the link between armed conflict and food insecurity. Inadequate food supply results from conflicts, but can also foment insecurity among communities, especially in areas of forced displacements and shared intercommunal resources. Nationally, the rise in food prices correlates directly with political dissatisfaction, protests and agitations about change in government and with the onset of political instability.

The rise in food prices correlates directly with political dissatisfaction, protests and instability

Liberia in the 1990s, Sudan in 2018 and 2019, as mentioned and the Arab Spring are strong indications of the dangers of such situations. That the AU Peace and Security Council should treat the increasing food insecurity situation in Africa as a peace and security issue is clear and cannot be overemphasised.

What options for continental efforts?

Lack of resilience to climate change and rapidly rising global food prices are conflict-provoking issues that require management of financial, technological and capacity constraints. The AU must prioritise implementation of the 2014 Malabo Declaration and the 2003 Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security to accelerate agricultural growth and transformation. It should also enhance use of initiatives such as the continental nutrition accountability and Africa agriculture transformation scorecards to gather data and analysis to respond to the crisis.

The AU and regional economic communities (RECs) need to enhance regional trade with full implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area. This should be complemented by proper transport infrastructure, enabling the movement of surplus production from one country to neighbouring countries experiencing food shortages. This is the spirit of building African solidarity.

AU member states must improve access to finance, particularly private investment in agricultural resilience and productivity, to increase rural households' earning capacity. Well-targeted development assistance in nutrition and food production is also essential, especially in vulnerable communities.

The AU, RECs and member states have to come to terms with and acknowledge the magnitude of the continent’s food insecurity challenges and its risks and vulnerabilities. Policies and actions put in place will have a direct impact on resilience and sustainability. There need to be short-term strategies and responses focusing on livelihood saving, with long-term strategies to build resilience and address the root causes of food insecurity.

Image: EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

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