WFP’s Chief Economist Arif Husain tells DW the humanitarian situation in Nigeria is far worse than anything he’s seen. At a donor conference in Oslo, the UN had appealed for food aid for nearly three million people.
At a donor’s meeting in Oslo, the United Nations said nearly three million people should be given food assistance to avert a famine in the Lake Chad region by July. The causes of the crisis are drought, chronic poverty and the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency. Arif Husain, the chief economist at the World Food Program (WFP), tells DW that the situation in northeastern Nigeria is one of the five worse things he has seen in his 15 year-career.
DW: You have recently returned from a tour of Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, what did you discover particularly in those three sub-Saharan African countries currently facing food shortages?
The situation on the ground in these four countries; northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, is very bad. The main reason in three of those cases is conflict. Prolonged conflicts. In the third or fourth case, which is Somalia, it is a combination of bad weather as well as conflict.
The people we are dealing with are extremely poor. Most of these communities rely on agriculture. When there is conflict that means they cannot go and plough their fields, for example; they cannot produce their own crops. That also means they cannot go and herd their livestock, which are income sources for them.
On the other side, due to these conflicts, the costs of bringing things into the country go up. That means the prices for basic commodities also go up. So on one side, they don’t have the money to buy and they are not producing for themselves. On the other side, prices have gone up and these are happening over a long period of time. This is the situation in northeast Nigeria, this is the situation in South Sudan. And in Yemen, it is not only the rural population, but the urban population is also affected.
Thirty percent of the population in Yemen lives in urban areas, where they depend on salaries and they haven’t been paid their salaries. If you haven’t been paid your salary, and the country imports more than 90 percent of their food and other essentials from outside, if the currency is depreciating and the ports are not working, you have a situation where one group of people do not have the purchasing power. But it also means that commodities may not be coming [into the country]. In Yemen we are talking of seven million people who are in situation of extreme food insecurity. So for many people in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, their only hope is humanitarian assistance.
The Islamist group Boko Haram is still active in northeastern Nigeria. To what extent do they contribute to the food insecurity in that region?
It’s no secret, it’s huge. Because of the insurgency, people are not able to go out. People are not able to cultivate their fields. The commercial traffic is not moving because of the conflict. That means the private sector is ineffective. Most of the roads are laden with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devises).
There is total destruction in many parts [of northeastern Nigeria]. Maybe 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Maiduguri, which is the capital of Borno State, there is complete destruction there.
The first time I went there was in summer, I went to one of the camps there. It was a camp for 50,000 people. They had one water point; the rooftop of their hut, the Tuchul, was a metal sheet. There was one communal kitchen preparing one meal for the 50,000 people.
This is probably one of the five worst things I have ever seen in my 15 year-career at the World Food Program. I have seen Darfur, I have seen South Sudan, I have seen Somalia, but this one was shocking.
Put it in another way, would the drought or just poverty in this region have caused destruction on a similar scale or is it just Boko Haram that plays a bigger role?
Most of the people in this part of the world, northeastern Nigeria, Lake Chad area, are poor people; there is no doubt about that. But before this insurgency, they had a life. Traffic was moving, people could move. Trade was happening. Maybe they are not producing that much, but they were producing for themselves.
We didn’t have an operation in Nigeria. We established our operation last year. In December of 2016, we provided assistance for over one million people. By the end of March, we plan to assist at least two million people. There is a reason why we came in and that reason is because commercial traffic isn’t moving, that means you cannot get out either. That means markets are not working because nothing is coming in. In that type of situation, it feels almost like a jail.
Imagine hundreds of thousands of people cannot be reached because of the insurgency. This is why full open humanitarian access, meaning not only our abilities as individuals to go in but also to be able to bring in stuff, to bring in what they need, those essential commodities, is so important. And it cannot be for one day. We need full humanitarian access.
Do you have that access to all the places where people are in dire need of food aid?
For some places, yes, but for some others, no! For me, the main thing is, number one; everything should be done to stop the conflict because until the conflict is stopped, this will continue.
While people are working to stop these conflicts, we must reach out to the women, we must reach out to the children, we must reach out to the youths not only to sustain them for today, but to make sure that there is tomorrow and that there is hope for tomorrow and they know that people out there care.
Arif Husain is a chief economist and head of the Food Security Analysis service at the World Food Program.
Interview: Chrispin Mwakideu