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Stinting to Survive in the Sahel Region of West Africa


In the Sahel area of West Africa, millions of people face the brink of starvation as international aid is being diverted to the war in Ukraine and prices for food and fuel globally have skyrocketed because of the conflict and other factors. © UNOCHA/MICHELE CATTANI

When Kimba Abdou went to a local store a year ago to buy a 100-kilogram bag of millet, a staple grain for Nigeriens, he parted with 20,000 West African francs, known as CFA, or about $31. The last time he checked, the price had gone up by more than 50 percent — with a bag now costing $55.

The 57-year-old farmer and his family of seven sons, five daughters and two wives live in the village of Mougoudjougou in the Tillabéri region in western Niger, which has been hit hard by attacks from Islamic State militias. Now their community is being hit again — this time by rising gas and grain prices and the fact that international aid is being diverted to the conflict in Ukraine.

“Four weeks ago, we were the victims of an attack, which cost us three wounded, who have been admitted to the hospital,” Abdou told PassBlue during a phone interview from his village. “It is very difficult to make ends meet; we have nothing — we only need assistance.”

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More than half of the people living in Mougoudjougou have fled, leaving just under 1,000 villagers, including Abdou and his family, remaining.

Tillabéri straddles Niger’s border with Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso. The region has been enduring cycles of droughts and flooding, forcing residents like Abdou to depend on humanitarian aid. But this year, aid agencies operating in Niger and the rest of the Sahel region of West Africa say they are desperately overstretched due to the conflict in Ukraine. The region generally consists of parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

‘We need food, we are hungry’

Last year, Abdou and his family survived on food rations from the Red Cross and whatever work they could pick up in the main principality of Ouallam. But help has not been as forthcoming as it has in previous years.

Development agencies working in the region and other troubled parts of the Sahel are finding themselves in a bind, as pledges for funding were made in December 2021, without foreseeing the 50 percent hikes in staple grains like millet and maize that have been amplified by Russia’s war in Ukraine, a major food exporter. Aid agencies, like the United States-based Mercy Corps, which has been operating in Niger since 2005, say they can only help residents like Abdou cope with 2021’s failed harvest and the lingering insecurity but can do little to address the hikes in food and fuel prices.

“When you want to implement a program like social cohesion and you go to the communities, they will tell you, ‘We need food,'” Siaka Millogo, Mercy Corps’ director of program for Niger and Burkina Faso, told PassBlue. Millogo says people are not expressing concern about insecurity but rather hunger. “‘We need food, we are hungry.’ That is what they will tell you.”

In Sahelian countries like Niger, sourcing food is becoming ever more difficult. Last year, imports in staples like millet flowed more freely, but the war across the Mediterranean Sea, in Europe, has sharply focused the importance of Russia and Ukraine in the global food economy.

“In 2021, either the Russian Federation or Ukraine, or both, ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed and rapeseed oil, sunflower seed and sunflower oil,” the Food and Agriculture Organization said in a June publication. “The Russian Federation also ranked as the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, the second leading supplier of potassic fertilizers, and the third-largest exporter of phosphorus fertilizers.”

Russia’s invasion that began on Feb. 24 and its naval blockade of Black Sea ports in Ukraine that have followed have hindered Ukrainian grain exports to countries like Niger and Burkina Faso — as well as other countries throughout Africa and beyond. Western sanctions have made it more expensive to access Russian fertilizers used in agriculture. Difficulty in accessing Russian gas as well as sanctions placed on petroleum exports have made energy and fuel costlier, driving up the price of transporting food.

“When you touch fuel, you touch everything,” Millogo of Mercy Corps said. “That means the prices of the cereal in the market have increased by 30 to 50 percent.”

The United Nations and the government of Türkiye are continuing to broker negotiations with the warring parties to ensure that Ukrainian grain can depart the port of Odesa, at least, despite the blockade of the Black Sea by Russia. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that a “critical step” in discussions occurred last week, but no final agreement had been signed yet.

Aid to the Sahel dries up in favor of Ukraine

In the first month of Russia’s invasion, starting on Feb. 24, the US, European Union member states and institutions and the Europe Investment Bank committed approximately $14.11 billion to Ukraine, including military aid. Europe’s total pledge to the Sahel and Lake Chad region (in west-central Africa) to combat food shortages in 2022 is $565 million. The US’s promise is $311 million. The pledges from the US and Europe total $876 million, a little above five percent of what was given to Ukraine in one month. Not all of these monies are new pledges.

“We welcome the European Union for playing a vital role in co-hosting a high-level donor meeting on the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel and Lake Chad conference and announcing an additional €67 million [about $68 million] for the response,” said Mervyn Joullie, Mercy Corps’ deputy regional director for Africa, in a press release after Europe announced its total drought pledge.

“We also welcome new pledges from other donor governments, notably the U.S Government, which has pledged $311 million,” the release added. “However, many pledges were simply confirmations of existing funding commitments, and the overall outcome is disappointing in light of the region’s urgent and growing needs.”

The humanitarian needs for the estimated 3.4 million vulnerable people living in Burkina Faso were valued at $599 million by the International Organization for Migration, $30 million more than Europe is offering to spend across the countries that make up the Sahel and Lake Chad sectors.

In the village of Yebi, in the Diffa region of Niger, near the border with Nigeria, a 60-year-old herder named Maina and his family received building materials and food from the International Committee of the Red Cross. SYLVAIN CHERKAOUI/COSMOS FOR THE ICRC

Forced to leave their homes 

Droughts, intercommunal clashes and attacks from nonstate actors — jihadists, for example — have forced many people from their homes in Niger and Burkina Faso. These factors have led to the displacement of 83,000 people in the Tillabéri region, where Abdou’s village is located, and the neighboring region of Tahoua. The displaced people in these areas alone make up a third of the 224,000 persons who have been living in camps in Niger as of Dec. 31, 2021. The situation is worse in Burkina Faso, where more than 1.7 million people are internally displaced.

In Abdou’s village, more than 1,000 people have fled to camps in the main city of Ouallam. In Ngaba, another village in the Tillabéri region, 800 people have sought refuge in Ouallam, including a 72-year-old farmer, Adamu Foga. The only positive thing in his life, he says, is that a school was opened recently for internally displaced people (IDP) and his daughter can resume her studies.

“It is very difficult for us to cope with the high cost of food products,” Foga told PassBlue in a phone interview from an IDP camp in Ouallam. “Now we no longer benefit from food distribution.”

“We are given a derisory sum of 4,000 CFA (around $8) per person living in a family,” he added. “We wonder how we can feed a family even with 40,000 francs; we are living in very difficult times.”

Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a communications officer for Central, East, West and Southern Africa at the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees, said its fund for the Sahel has been depleted by the war in Ukraine and the agency’s reach in the region has been restricted. (Nearly 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine in the five months of war.)

“Recently, we’ve had to reduce our interventions to refugees in urban areas,” Lejeune-Kaba told PassBlue from Geneva. “We are not able to provide as much support as we want to those who are in towns.”

At Mercy Corps, Millogo said the organization cannot increase its cash aid or reach more beneficiaries. The agency is partnering with the World Food Program to add food to its intervention initiatives.

The refugee agency does not distribute food, but instead is giving enough income to families to meet their basic needs and providing minimum shelter to those residing in camps. Lejeune-Kaba said the organization was increasing its funding base by partnering with the private sector in Africa.

While food remains a struggle for Foga in Ouallam and Abdou in Mougoudjougou, so too does the future of their daughters, who they say must perform well academically for them to stay in class.

“My children who are with me go to school, they are registered in a school newly created for displaced persons,” Foga said. “Our daughters go to school, and those in the exam class who will pass will continue their studies. But those who will fail will certainly get married. We have nothing — our animals, everything has been abandoned to escape enemy fire. We no longer cultivate our fields, even the projects that support us are flat.”

Gare Amadou contributed reporting from Niger. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Damilola Banjo

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Stinting to Survive in the Sahel Region of West Africa
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1 year ago

In ten years people will be hijacking planes to get out of central Africa

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