The famine sweeping across Africa has its roots inpolicies which favoured the use of the best soils forthe production of crops needed by European industries,notably: fibres like cotton, sisal and flax; oils likegroundnuts and palm oil; beverages like coffee, teaand cocoa. Under colonial rule all this was done atthe expense of food production. Products likegroundnuts were exported for feeding livetstock inEurope while livestock in Africa (including northernNigeria's vast stocks) continued to suffer fromprotein malnutrition.
The policy might not have resulted in famine if thefunds earned by colonial produce marketing boards(which were set up in the late 1930s),from exportcrops were re-invested into rural economies to supportrural industrial growth, and start the spiral of newsources of income by exporting industrial products toEurope, Asia and the Americas. Japan and Britain,afterall built their economies on importing food whilethey increased their exports of industrial products.Instead, earnings from export crops were loaned toinvestors in colonizing countries and their allies.New Zealand, for example, borrowed money earned byNigeria's various colonial produce marketing boards.Consequently, increased production of export cropswent side by side with deepening poverty in the ruralareas. In colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Algeria andCongo (Belgian), Africans lost their lands to Europeansettlers and suffered permanent collapse of theiroriginal food economies. They would receivesubsistence food rations as wages for their labour;and remain permanently on the edge of poverty andstarvation despite the high levels of production onthe white-settlers' farms.
It is this deepening poverty which explained themassive exodus of populations out of rural Africa intourban areas immediately after independence. Incountries like the (Belgian) Congo (now the DemocraticRepublic of Congo), European land owners often treatedworkers whose lands they had seized with terriblebrutalities while labourers worked on farms from dawnto sunset. Little wonder that the end of Belgiancolonial rule was also accompanied by spontaneousoutbreak of violence against Belgians; followed by ablind exodus out of rural poverty into urban slums. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fundreturned to this economic formula. It is becameclothed as "reforming the agricultural sector". Thereform has avoided borrowing from the European Union'smodel of the "Common Agricultural Policy" with itscommitment to ensuring high incomes to Europeanfarmers; including buying excess production fordumping in African markets, thereby lowering pricesbelow production costs for local farmers. Likewise,the industrial processing of agricultural rawmaterials as a means of "adding value" to raw productsand expanding the consumption patterns of Europe's andNorth America's urban populations, has not beensupported in Africa by the Bretton Woods institutions.
This historical legacy is at the root of the terriblestatistics of famine across Africa. THE GUARDIAN ofThursday July 21, 2005 (a London -based newspaper)reports the following figures of populations "at risk"of famine and malnutritions: Sudan (1.2 million);Eritrea (2.2 million); Somalia (1 million); Kenya (1.6million); Uganda( 2.6 million), and Burundi(2million). Ethiopia has the horrendous figure ofbetween 10 to 12 million.These are terrible figuresand tell shameful tales of failure of political andeconomic governance since the end of colonial rule.
The Republic of Niger is also telling this sad talenow. The country is ranked 176th out of 177 in theUnited Nation's human development index. In Zinder andMaradi regions of the country, reports show that 350children out of every 1,000 die before they reachtheir fifth birthday. Famine and malnutrition playcentral roles as the country perpetually totters on thebrink of famine disasters. A little shock, such asfailure of adequate rains in one year, starts ahumanitarian disaster because investments into sourcesof water for agriculture (such as small dams and spraypumps) remained neglected since the beginning ofFrench colonial rule. The indifference of Frenchcolonial officials to powering internal development inNiger is blamed on Niger being treated as a reservefor cheap labour for coffee and cocoa farms in Coted'Ivoir. A continuation of this policy is reflected inFrance donating a meagre total of 5 million euros fordealing with the current famine; while failing to useher influence to generate donor support for Nigergovernment's appeal for support by rich countries.
It is a sad commentary on a world that both promised adevelopment dividend following the end of the Cold Warcountries like Niger have waited in vain. Since theSeptember 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Centerin New York and the discovery of a new hot war against"international terrorism", a vigorous willingness toexpend billions of dollars in military muscle-flexingagainst invisible al-Queda moles in the West Africangeographical belt which runs from Senegal to Mali,Niger and Chad, has drowned appeals for investmentsfor developing the zone. Appeals for help by thegovernment of Niger since the January 2005 wentunheeded. Jan Egeland, the UN Undersecretary forHumanitarian Affairs is to be commended for having thecourage to insist that "Niger is the example of aneglected emergency" in which the rich countriesrefused to respond with help.
There is a need for the establishment on an AfricanFood and Agricultural Organisation with a vigorouscommitment to supporting food production both forlocal markets and for export to vast markets likeChina, Japan, India, North America and Europe. Thiswould mark a critical turning away from slave-cropslike coffee, cocoa, and tea which for over a centuryhave taken up Africa's richest soils for the servileservice of Europe's luxury tastes; while having theterrible anti-people attributes of not being foodcrops for feeding local populations. In any case,theirvalue as "comparative advantage" assets have, forlong been cancelled by the monopoly of their marketvalue in the rich markets of Europe and North Americagoing by their merchants. When in the 1990s Japancharged her consumers 20 U.S.dollars for a cup ofcoffee, the funds did not come back to African coffeegrowers, but went to subsidize Japanesemultinationals.
There is a need for African access to the richstomachs of urban populations in the rich countries.Africa's rich diversity of tropical food crops are yetto penetrate these markets even to the limited to thelevel that flowers and temperate fruits and wines(from South Africa) have done. The genius ofversatility in Nigeria's "gari" as a "fast food"; and"kunu" as a generously nutritious beverage, need theurgent services of "economic diplomacy", effectivepackaging and vigorous marketing skills.
National discourses all across Africa need to focus onthe vast frontier of inventing food technology for theprocessing and industrial multiplication of tropicalfoods and food products. For too long a conspiracy ofsilence has sheltered national imaginations fromseeing food processing and industrial multiplicationas fields waiting to be cultivated for bearing thehistoric burden of economic and social development.