Claims that Vladimir Putin is stoking famine in Africa is a compelling red herring, which also exposes inconvenient truths about why people are going hungry in the world’s poorest continent yet again. For sure, the Russians are holding up 22 million tons of Ukrainian wheat, have bombarded grain terminals, blockaded shipping and disrupted farming. But that’s still a tiny percentage of global harvests and, though the challenges are great, crops like winter wheat are growing and there are other routes to export via Ukraine’s neighbours.
When the African Union’s chairman Macky Sall met Putin in Sochi last week, he urged the lifting of western sanctions on Russia’s own grain and fertiliser exports – apparently unaware that such sanctions do not exist. Putin grinned impishly, presumably because headlines crediting him with weaponising global food supplies inflate fears of his power.
The world has enough food. African countries, many of which normally buy a lot of their wheat, cooking oils and fertiliser from Ukraine or Russia, must look further afield. Some regions have been hit by bad weather, but Australia and the UK will have bumper harvests and global wheat production is only slightly off all-time highs. The agencies distributing relief are allowed to access markets where exports have been banned. Yet Sall still told Putin that Africans were ‘victims’ of the Ukraine conflict.
Supposedly, numbers too great to imagine are facing starvation across Africa. Oxfam and Save the Children have just launched a campaign saying that ‘one person is likely dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia’. Oxfam could not give me any evidence for the claim, and admitted reaching this figure via a computer model in Washington rather than from data on the ground. Aside from whether this is just a desktop famine, the important point is that Oxfam blames the drought on climate change and demands that ‘rich polluting nations must pay East Africa for its climate loss’.
Where I live in northern Kenya, it is very dry this year. Poor people who rely on rain-fed crops are facing hardship. But everybody here knows that severe droughts hit in roughly decade-long cycles. Nonetheless, emergencies are repeatedly declared, as if nobody knew these events could be predicted.
For all its faults, Kenya’s pluralist system enjoys a degree of rule of law. When people go hungry, relief agencies will reach the poor. The same cannot be said for Ethiopia, where an estimated 500,000 people have died during the rebellion in Tigray over 16 months – a figure perhaps 100 times the numbers of civilian deaths in Ukraine.
In Somalia, the jihadist insurgency has driven thousands of farmers off their land. Some areas are so dangerous they are unreachable. People die in countries like these because supplies cannot access the war zones. By emphasising climate change rather than conflict, charities let violent African leaders off the hook.
Africa’s farmers are enterprising but at the mercy of corrupt leaders. Oxfam does at least urge East African leaders to invest more in local agriculture, but urges a ‘focus on smallholder and female farmers’ – perpetuating a Maoist myth that commercial farming is both evil and less productive. Countries like South Sudan remain almost entirely dependent on overseas grain, because helping Africans to grow their own food was dropped in favour of globalised supply chains.
‘We can do this ourselves,’ says Maina Mwangi, chairman of Fertiplant East Africa, which produces up to 15 per cent of Kenya’s fertilisers for the tea and coffee industries. ‘We make better quality than the garbage they import from Russia and China.’ If market conditions were better, Fertiplant could double production in six months. Instead, Kenya is dumped with government-subsidised supplies from those countries. ‘It doesn’t make sense for us to supply the majority of farmers in Kenya. We can’t afford to,’ says Mwangi.
Hunger in Africa has little to do with Putin and everything to do with misrule, domestic wars and wrongheaded western policies.