Near-famine Conditions in the Largest African Economy – Nigeria

By Mónika Lipécz.

This article examines the causes of famine-like conditions in parts of Nigeria and the paradox of why these conditions are occurring in the largest economy on the African Continent.

Source: The Economist

If a country can boast of being the wealthiest economy on a continent, one would assume that it can feed its people. Unfortunately, this hasn’t necessarily been the case in Nigeria, and more specifically in its three north-eastern states: Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Between October-December 2018, there were still an estimated 1.7 million people suffering from severe food insecurity in the above states, and this number is projected to grow by a million by June-October 2019. This article identifies potential root causes to explain why a protracted food crisis could develop in the giant of Africa despite its vast economy. I look at the period between 2016-19, as the first warnings that this crisis could be classified as famine were being published from 2016 on.

Nigerian Economic Development in a Nutshell

To begin with, let’s have a closer look at the Nigerian economy to see whether having the largest GDP in Africa equals the highest performance as well. Looking at the table below, the weaknesses of being the largest African oil exporter begin to show. Being greatly dependent on oil prices makes the Nigerian economy highly vulnerable to changes and shocks in the oil price cycles. This is best reflected by the fluctuations of the annual growth of GDP per capita. Also, when it comes to GNI per capita – which is a better indicator of the amount of resources in the country that can be used for the benefit of the nation – its 2017 performance puts Nigeria to the 11th place among the Sub-Saharan African countries.

Source: Own table based on data from The World Bank and the UNDP.

Finally, social and well-being aspects are also important to consider in terms of economic development. The Human Development Index (HDI) serves as a good starting point, focusing on dimensions of health, schooling, and standard of living. Even though, between 2005-15 Nigeria managed to increase its HDI value by more than 13 per cent, its current ranking is still classified as low human development. Being the 157th out of 189 countries can be partly attributed to the low life expectancy at birth in the country – which was only 53.9 years in 2017.

Analysis of the Food Crisis in Nigeria

As demonstrated, having a large economy is not a guarantee for high economic development. In the Nigerian context, the unstable economy is compounded by severe food insecurity in three north-eastern states of the country. What can be the reasons for this ongoing food crisis with repeated warnings of famine?

1. Environmental Factors

This first explanation is a rather intuitive one, including natural causes, such as the rhapsodic changes of climate – resulting in heavy rainfalls and flooding, or droughts– as well as soil degradation, desertification, plant diseases or insect plagues.

In Nigeria, the main environmental shock that influenced the food security situation between 2016-19 was flooding. The repercussions of this included a negative impact on livelihoods and food crop harvests, as well as an increase in the number of Internally Displaced Persons. However, environmental factors are only proximate triggersof food crises and famine, and are not root causes.

2. The “Acquirement Problem”

The term “acquirement problem” is related to the entitlement approach of Amartya Sen, with the core idea that starvation does not necessarily occur because of a lack of sufficient food in an economy. Sen argues, that people starve if they lack the ability to “command food through the legal means available in the society” and this is exactly what the acquirement problem stands for. Hence, the approach in short focuses on underlying socio-economic and political processes and mechanisms, determining what set of commodities a person can or cannot have.

In this regards, the prevailing system of Nigerian land tenure practices is worth mentioning. In Nigeria, most of the land is up for leasehold, and statutory rights to occupy land for 99 years is granted by the governor of the respective state. Then, fixed rent is paid for the land. As for the northern region of Nigeria, there are more individualised tenure regimes. These practices can give rise to problems around food production, further worsened by the Boko Haram conflict (point 4), which continuously triggers many people to migrate from one place to another in search of better living conditions.

Finally, an additional factor that makes it more difficult to handle the food crisis in Nigeria is the high level of corruption in the country – as indicated by its ranking of 148th among 180 countries on the 2017 Corruption perceptions index.

3. Gap between Predicting and Tackling Food Crises

Despite the significance of speed in prevention and famine relief, there is often still a severe time gap between prediction and response to food crises. In this respect, the often-neglected role of media and press is interesting to consider, as these can pressure governments to put in place the necessary measures.

Warnings about famine flooded the news agencies worldwide in 2017 – especially after the hyperbolic statement by the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in March. Claiming it in a purposefully exaggerating way, Stephen O’Brien said that the world was “facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”This carefully scriptedstatement had a major impact on scaling up food and non-food assistance.

An important aspect in this sense is that famine has never officially been declared in Nigeria between 2016-19, as this can be a very rigorous technical process, but also a highly political issue. In fact, the Nigerian Government has not been willing to communicate the real severity of the food crisis situation to the public for a long while, complicating the collection of funding and hindering famine relief efforts in Nigeria.

4. Conflict and resulting Displacement and Insecurity

In the light of the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency during the past ten years, dealing with conflict is central. The Nigerian Food Security Outlook Updates (FSOUs) are organised around the developments in the conflict providing insights about its impact on the affected population. There have been repeated warnings of famine since a deepening of the conflict in August 2016.

Map of Food security in Nigeria between December 2018 – January 2019 (Source:

As the map above shows, there are currently large areas of the three north-eastern states which are in a food crisis emergency state (IPC Phase 4). The dotted areas also reveal that on bigger territories – which are extremely difficult to access – there is an elevated risk of famine (IPC Phase 5). In general, these are the areas which are the most affected by the conflict.


To sum up, being the giant of Africa can seem attractive on the outside, but by examining inner socio-economic, political and environmental factors, we can find potential explanations for the protracted food crisis in Nigeria. The analysis has found the primary driver of this crisis to be the Boko Haram insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2009 and endangered the lives of millions by pushing them into severe food insecurity. The ongoing violence and terrorism have brought about near-famine circumstances in the three most severely affected states, putting those in the most remoted and dangerous areas in the worst situation. As several territories cannot be accessed by humanitarian assistance, data is rather impossible to collect from these areas, which hinders the highly technical, bureaucratic – but also political – process of declaring IPC Phase 5 famine.

Mónika is Hungarian with a background in International Public Administration, Public Affairs and digital health. She is currently doing her second Master’s degree in Poverty and Development at IDS. Mónika is particularly interested in how improving education and health status can contribute to poverty alleviation in a sustained manner.

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