Famine doesn’t just ‘happen’ – and those who cause it must be held to account

Aftermath of a Boko Haram attack on the village of Mairi in north-eastern Nigeria in February 2-16. EPA/Stringer

The relationship between food insecurity and conflict is almost so logical that it appears to state the obvious: conditions of food insecurity contribute to the outbreak of social, political and military conflict, which in turn produces further food insecurity.

Many studies concerned with making sense of food insecurity and conflict focus on these causal linkages blaming one on the other in an attempt to identify ways of breaking through the vicious cycle. But it’s more helpful to view the creation of conditions of food insecurity (or food security) as a broader social and political process, by which food and agriculture are controlled by a powerful group – whether that is the state or private interests.

In this way, food has long been used as an instrument of power – and a quick glance at the historical record shows that the ability to control food production, distribution and consumption constitutes a form of power that lets populations live or die.

History throws up countless examples of this. Take the way that, in the Middle Ages, walled cities under siege could be starved out to force their capitulation. More recent history gives us the systematic deprivation of food, including the well-known German Hungerplan of World War II, which involved a deliberate policy decision to rob millions of Soviet citizens of their food. Or the lesser-known, long-term British occupation of the port of Aden from 1839 to 1963, which allowed it to control Middle Eastern food distribution channels, with sometimes devastating consequences that weakened independent forces in the Arab region.

So creating or exploiting different kinds of what we now describe as “food insecurity” have long been an integral part of conflict.

The case of north-eastern Nigeria is a harrowing present-day example that clearly shows how food security is implicated in longer-standing social and political conflict. In explaining the rise of religious extremism both today and in the 1980s, Nigerian scholars Abimbola Adesoji and Elizabeth Isichei stress the links between poverty, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread corruption and receptiveness to militant Islam in Nigeria’s northern region.

Since 2012, however, the conflict between government forces and the jihadist organisation Boko Haram has escalated into widespread violence. Agriculture has often been a direct target in the infliction of violence and Boko Haram has attacked farmers and farm resources, including land and livestock. Large numbers of livestock have been killed and farmers murdered. Crops have been destroyed and land mines have rendered land unusable.

The resulting shortfall in food production has not only contributed to scarcity in the north-eastern region, but is also linked to price rises for food in southern Nigeria and neighbouring countries Niger and Cameroon.

In January 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported that: “More than 4.8m people are in urgent need of food assistance and 5.1m are predicted to be food insecure if not supported by the humanitarian community.”

Regional humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer appears somewhat reluctant to use the word “famine”, but warns that such extreme prolonged and general scarcity of food is but one step away in northern Nigeria.

Language matters

In spite of the clear indications that it’s almost always a combination of social, political and environmental factors that leads to situations of widespread hunger, many news outlets continue to represent famine through language that uses natural metaphors.

Juba market in South Sudan, where conflict threatens to bring famine in its wake. EAP/Philip Dhil

The Huffington Post, for example, speaks of a “perfect storm” of contributing factors while other publications outline how drought and war “spark” famine or contribute to its “outbreak”.

The consistent use of such language suggests that the onset of famine is rapid and calamitous, like a fire or infectious disease. But the reality is very different. As the cases of both Nigeria and South Sudan make clear, the development of famine is a dynamic social and political process with a long build-up.

The continued representation of famines as disastrous events largely sprung upon populations by the forces of nature, prevents us from understanding famine – and food insecurity – as a socio-political process, even though doing so is especially important for realising its future prevention.

Famine as a war crime

South Sudan is in a similar situation to north-eastern Nigeria. A lengthy conflict has produced a situation in which 4.8m people are facing “severe” food insecurity and “more than 8m people "face some degree of food insecurity”. Referring to the situation there, Leslie Lefkow, deputy director at the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, has written that creating some mechanism of accountability is one of the only hopes of resolving the conflict there. Lefkow recognises that:

There is no offence of ‘creating a famine’ under international law but in a conflict – civil or international – ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’ may not be attacked. They have a protected status as civilian objects and because their protection goes hand in hand with the prohibition on using starvation of the civilian population as a weapon of war.

Put this way, willingly contributing to the increased food insecurity of populations can be linked to war crimes. Importantly, recognising that famine – but also various other conditions of food insecurity and food security – results from socio-political processes is a prerequisite for developing such legal accountability.

Once we do this, we’ll be in a better position to acknowledge the power embedded within the ability to organise and control food production as well as the multiple ways in which food products circulate the planet. And this is as true during times of war as it is in times of peace.


For more on understanding famine as a socio-political process, see Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid by Jenny Edkins & Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa by Alex de Waal.

_This article is part of a series by The Conversation on food security. Read other articles here.

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