In Niger, Hunger Grows amid Regional Instability

WFP food distribution in Bosso, Niger, funded by ECHO. (EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie)

The violence caused by Boko Haram is the latest regional conflict to harm Niger. As Joshua Meservey, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, has argued, the combination of displacement and hunger resulting from the Islamist group’s activities is producing a long-term crisis in Nigeria and the countries around it. These effects will linger even if regional forces, including Niger’s, succeed in dislodging Boko Haram from the proto-state it has built in northeastern Nigeria.

Of all neighboring countries, Niger is the worst affected by Boko Haram in humanitarian terms. Niger is, according to some measures, the poorest country in the world. Landlocked and more than 80% desert, its agricultural output often fails to meet the needs of its rapidly growing population. Alongside Niger’s recurring food crises, nearby regional conflicts have sent thousands of refugees inside its borders, further burdening poor communities and stretching the resources of state agencies and humanitarian organizations.

Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and Niger quickly began experiencing economic and humanitarian fallout. Diffa, the region of Niger closest to Boko Haram’s stronghold, has suffered greatly from the disruption of trade with its neighbor. For years, Diffa has been affected by border closures as well as by the violence in Nigerian regional economic hub Maiduguri. This violence has harmed the regional livestock trade and complicated life for everyone in the sub-region whose livelihood depends on crossing borders for trade or work. Other cities near the border, such as Potiskum, have also been badly affected, with consequences for the movement of cattle and other goods.

People have not only lost livelihoods, they’ve lost homes. Among Nigeria’s neighbors it has been Niger, and the Diffa region in particular, that has absorbed by far the greatest number of resulting refugees. By mid-2014, there were 50,000 refugees and returning Nigerien nationals in the Diffa region. By December 2014, the number had grown to an estimated 90,000, and by February 2015 to more than 100,000. Diffa’s permanent population is estimated at 590,000, with over half of them facing food insecurity. Experiencing a population increase of this magnitude has strained an already destitute region.

Niger’s authorities have long worried about Diffa becoming not just the site of a humanitarian emergency but also a battleground between Niger and Boko Haram. That fear has now come true. By 2012, authorities were arresting suspected Boko Haram members there, and in 2014 the BBC interviewed youth in the Diffa region who had claimed they had been paid by Boko Haram to fight and gather intelligence. This year, Niger’s military has joined Chad’s in a push into Nigerian territory to fight Boko Haram, which responded in early February by attacking Bosso, a border town in the Diffa region. This marked the first open assault by Boko Haram on a Nigerien town, and it was quickly followed by suicide bombings in the town of Diffa itself.

The violence in the town of Diffa has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis there. Frightened residents have fled west, reportedly emptying what was previously a town of 50,000. The violence compelled relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders to temporarily withdraw, meaning these organizations lost both their ability to reach the displaced and their awareness of where the displaced were going.

The outlook for food security in Niger this year is grim. Last fall, the World Food Program reported that rainfall was below average in the east of the country and expressed concern about prospects for adequate agricultural production there. As of March 2015, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network describes Diffa as “stressed” in terms of food, and forecasts that in the coming months it will enter a food crisis in both pastoral and agricultural zones. The network further predicts that the neighboring region of Zinder (now a new home to many of those fleeing Diffa) will become stressed.

Niger’s current government has received some acclaim for its response to food crises in recent years. President Mahamadou Issoufou, elected in 2011, has made food security a priority, launching an initiative called “Nigeriens Feed Nigeriens” and adopting schemes that seek to prevent crises through communal development projects and distributing “kits” of food and materials.

Issoufou’s attitude differs markedly from that of his predecessor Mamadou Tandja (1999-2010). In 2005—a particularly bad year—Tandja denied that Niger was facing crisis. Yet Issoufou’s greater frankness and energy in addressing the food crisis still runs into the problem of insufficient funding and resources. The government’s 2015 budget of 3.22 billion USD makes food security a target, and the country’s economy grew by an estimated 6.5% last year, but the problem of hunger is so widespread and severe that the government needs outside help to address it.

Yet international humanitarian organizations often struggle to meet their funding goals. As of this month, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had received only 60.9 million USD of the 376 million USD it requested for its 2015 Strategic Response Plan for Niger. Last year, OCHA complained of “anemic” funding for the Sahel region, with donors meeting only 30% of the organization’s appeal by July.

As the refugee crisis intersects with the problem of hunger, many Nigerians displaced in Niger face a difficult road home and an uncertain future. The Nigerian military’s recent victories against Boko Haram, along with successes for Niger and Chad, hold out the promise that towns will be liberated from the Islamist group. Yet the situation in northeastern Nigeria changes by the day, with Chadian and Nigerien forces sometimes charging that Nigerian troops fail to arrive to defend recaptured towns, meaning that some towns must be retaken twice. Swift military victories, in other words, are not translating into a durable security, meaning that the displaced could head home only to find themselves at the mercy of Boko Haram once more. Meanwhile, the long-term disruption of the regional economy means that many people on both sides of the Niger-Nigeria border will be rebuilding their livelihoods for many years to come, even as food crises continue to strike.