New study cites conflict as prime suspect in famines

By Julian Samboma

LONDON, Mar 23 (IPS) - A new study released Wednesday, isolates war and civil strife as the major causes of famines in Africa and concludes that food security will only improve in the region when the issue of resolving conflicts is successfully addressed.

Published by the London-based Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 'War and Famine in Africa' is the work of Stephen Riley of Staffordshire University, who has written extensively on war and development issues in Africa.

While previous research efforts in this area have focussed almost exclusively on inadequate and inappropriate government policies towards agriculture, drought and environmental degradation, Riley submits that more attention has to be directed towards the effects of civil conflicts upon food availability.

The study's conclusion is reached from case studies of conflict situations in Sudan, Liberia, Somalia, Angola and other war- ravaged countries in the region -- both past and present.

In his introduction Riley writes: "The continuing civil war in southern Sudan, the conflict in Liberia since 1990, and the conflicts in Mozambique and Angola have all had damaging effects upon food supply."

One theme which runs through all the case studies, is the correlation between war and conflict on the one hand, and famine, malnutrition and starvation on the other.

"In African states, such as Angola and the Sudan, civil wars continue unabated, whilst famine threatens to engulf their populations," the study states.

During the last 10 years of civil war in Sudan, the report says that approximately 500,000 Sudanese have died from famine, disease, deprivation and war -- 250,000 died in 1988 alone.

Last August, it was widely reported that 175,000 refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia faced starvation in northern Liberia as a consequence of civil war. In Liberia, some 30 percent of the children suffered malnutrition and 15 died a day as a result of the war.

Of all the continents, the report states, Africa has the most refugees -- numbering over five million in 1992 -- overwhelmingly people who have fled violent, bloody civil strife.

In attempting to isolate the causes of civil wars -- which have been a permanent feature in Africa since political independence in the 1960s -- Riley cites a number of factors, not least of which are the state system and national boundaries inherited from colonialism which grouped together different nations and ethnic groups under one state structure.

"The character of many political leaderships, their refusal to negotiate or make concessions to disaffected minorities, and the strength of irredentist or separatist sentiments, have formed the background to a series of open civil conflicts in Africa since independence," the study says.

This proposition finds corroboration in the attempted secession of Katanga from the Congo (now Zaire) in the early 1960s; Nigeria's Biafran secessionist civil war in 1967; civil war in Sudan since independence in 1958 and many other conflicts in the region.

Mass civil strife has also been evident in countries like Chad, Western Sahara, Djibouti, Rwanda and Burundi and Ethiopia. In other states, such as Cameroon, Senegal, Mali and Niger, low level conflicts simmer beneath a facade of stability.

Because very few African states are "genuine nation-states", Riley maintains, "It is likely that the 1990s will see more of such conflicts -- unless political leaderships can buy off separatist sentiments or suppress them."

The intimate links between war and famine manifest themselves in a number of ways, according to the study. War consumes resources that could have been otherwise spent on food, health, education and welfare programmes. The destruction caused by armed conflict on property, food crops and animals and the communications infrastructure is also highlighted.

In Sudan, for example, the current military offensive by the Khartoum government against the south has destroyed the agricultural base of southern communities and driven them from their lands.

One direct consequence has been the threat of famine which presently threatens these communities. Famine, as an instrument of war, has also been used by both government and rebel troops in many conflict situations in the region.

Leaders from Ethiopia's Mengistu, Sudan's Mohamed Omar al-Bashir and Amos Sawyer and the West African peacekeeping force in Liberia have all, at one time or another, tried to starve anti- government guerrillas into submission by denying food aid to rebel-held regions.

Deviating from the norm of many similar studies, Riley also focuses on the situation in many countries experiencing food insecurity which are forced by externally-imposed development policies to export cash crops.

"Export cash crop production reduces the availability of food in local markets -- with a classic example being the presence of Ethiopian food exports in European shops at the time of the great Ethiopian famine of 1983-85," he writes.

Commenting on the study, Professor William Gutteridge, director of the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, said that it was one of the most important research documents on the issue to be published in recent years.

"Apart from climatic factors and International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies over which African governments have little control, war is the single most important factor causing food insecurity in the region," says Gutteridge.

During 1992, when drought caused famine and starvation that threatened the lives of over one million people in Zimbabwe, Gutteridge says that the government was able to avert disaster by importing food supplies and properly administering foreign relief supplies to the needy.

"Such a situation would not have been possible had a war situation existed then in Zimbabwe," he said.

© 1994, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
All rights reserved