African leaders must end hunger crises now

In my heart and practice, I am a farmer although I also presided over the affairs of my country Nigeria for several years in the 1970s, was elected president in 1999, re-elected again in 2003 for a four-year period
 Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo
Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo

In my heart and practice, I am a farmer although I also presided over the affairs of my country Nigeria for several years in the 1970s, was elected president in 1999, re-elected again in 2003 for a four-year period.

Since retiring from the army and politics, I have mediated conflicts in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire and lobbied world leaders hard to deliver on their promises to Africa – including pushing G8 countries to support the Make Poverty History campaign calling for debt relief and more aid for the continent. But I am particularly proud of the livestock and vegetable farm I started back in 1979 where I now spend much of my time.

The farm spans hundreds of hectares of land in Ogun State, not far from Lagos, where I rear chickens, pigs and ostriches and other livestock. I built this to show my countrymen – especially the young – the huge potential of agriculture and what can be done with the land. This followed from the policies I pushed in government to enhance agriculture and promote food and nutrition security, increase the number of farmers and raise awareness on the role agriculture plays in the economy which is crucial to fight hunger and alleviate poverty through wealth creation.

But we still have a long way to go. In Nigeria, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, children and families are still going hungry in many areas of the country. Not to mention millions in other parts of Africa and around the world who suffer from malnutrition. The current crisis in East Africa has tragically brought this issue to the forefront, with more than 13 million people affected by extreme hunger across about half a dozen countries.

There is no reason why this should be the case. Our continent has the resources, science and technology is there, and our people have the know-how to stop hunger crises permanently by producing adequately and surplus to be able to prevent scarcity of food and starvation no matter the climate or weather condition.

Now we face a historic opportunity to end extreme hunger in Africa.

In the forthcoming African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January 2012, African leaders can choose to ignore this growing crisis or step forward and lead the world to stop hunger and prevent emergencies such as the one in East Africa from occurring ever again.

They must place hunger high on their agenda and endorse the new Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a document drawn up by a coalition of international and African aid agencies. Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister of Kenya, signed the Charter when it was launched at the United Nations in September 2011. The Charter outlines concrete steps that governments must take to make extreme hunger crises a thing of the past. Governments at the AU should pledge to fulfil its commitments.

These include heeding early drought warnings and setting up social safety nets for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of people are also forced into hunger due to rising food prices. Yet there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this effect: supporting local food production, limiting the use of food export bans, judiciously and carefully tapping into emergency food reserves are some ways this can be done.

More specifically, African countries should back initiatives such as the Productive Safety Net Programme funded by African and Western countries and African-led whereby cash and food transfers are made to millions of poor farmers in Ethiopia, which gives them a more secure and predictable income, protecting them against sudden hunger crises. In exchange, they participate in public works like building roads which helps improve the agricultural output of their communities.  

Another programme, run by Save the Children in partnership with local authorities in north-east Kenya, involves providing vouchers to pastoralist communities in areas hard-hit by recurring droughts. They can use them to buy food in local markets, giving a boost to local traders and herders while also putting people in control of how they manage food crises. And the list goes on.

Science and technology have done their bit to feed the world. Farmers are ready to do whatever it takes to get the soil to produce adequately to feed the world. Now it remains for political leaders to get the products of science and technology into the hands of farmers together with adequate inputs - financial and non-financial - to eliminate hunger and starvation from the face of the Earth. This is particularly challenging for African leaders and a general challenge for world leaders. The world must not become inured against the plight of hunger victims in Africa or anywhere for that matter.

Time is running out. Prices of food keep rising and the effects of climate change worsen, leading to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and bouts of severe drought. By taking action, African leaders can show the way to the rest of the world on how to end extreme hunger. I was born and bred on a farm and though foreign donors need to assist us, every time I walk among the fields I am reminded that the solution ultimately lies in our hands.

The author is a former president  of the Republic of Nigeria

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