The spectre of famine haunts parts of Africa again, with more than 20 million people facing starvation across Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan.
Only15% of the $4.4 billion that the UN appealed for has been delivered despite horrendous images of emaciated babies and forlorn men and women in flimsy tents made of rags emblazoned on our television screens.
How does such a scale of suffering occur on a continent of 1.2 billion people, so rich in mineral wealth and oil and so huge that it can hold almost every other continent in the world?
While famines frequently occur in different parts of the world, a closer examination of the recurrence of this misery in Africa suggests there is little natural about it.
From the 1950s African national liberation movements broke the yoke of colonialism and were granted independence but it turned out to be fraudulent and the continent continued to be invisibly looted under private auspices.
Former and current imperial and colonial powers such as France, Britain, the US and Israel, use the military-industrial-corporate complex, the IMF, World Bank, and the United Nations to exploit Africa’s resources.
African governments have been forced, through structural adjustments, to divert funds from agriculture, health and education, and into areas that benefits the West.
A major cause of the famines, however, is conflict and war. Strategically located Somalia has been at war since 1995 with numerous foreign interventions and famine has been a parallel occurrence. It now faces its third famine in 25 years, the last one in 2011 that claimed 250,000 lives.
South Sudan with half its population facing starvation is a country floating on oil. Emma Jane Drew, Oxfam’s Humanitarian programme manager, described the famine as “a man-made tragedy”. In 2014 the New York Times put the blame for the conflict on the US.
The third African country in dire need of humanitarian aid named by the UN is Nigeria. Independent journalist Thomas Mountain states that up to a third of Nigerian oil is stolen, secretly loaded onto oil tankers after bribes are paid to corrupt government officials.
Western oil companies loot some $140 billion a year of Nigeria’s black gold while nearly two-third of its people live on less than $2 a day. It boasts of the biggest economy on the continent but still in constant need for IMF bailouts.
Nigeria has the largest, best-equipped army in West Africa, benefitting mostly Western military industries. Instead of being wealthy and the envy of the world, its cities are filled with homeless children begging for bread.
Tom Burgis describes in his book The Looting Machine about a network of anonymous multinationals, corporate investors and bankers, who strike opaque deals with coup leaders and African elites to drain the continent’s resources.
This is illustrated by the colonial pact where 14 West African countries are obliged by France to put 85% of their foreign reserves into France’s national bank under the French minister of Finance control.
It is estimated that France now holds nearly $500 billion of the African countries’ money in its treasury. African leaders who object or resist are killed or become victims of coups. Those who obey are rewarded with security and a lavish lifestyle while their people endure extreme poverty.
Nearly 200 million people in Africa are malnourished. Malaria, dysentery, TB, HIV/AIDS, and pneumonia, ravage the continent. More than 5 million children under the age of five die annually and millions more face death by starvation, conflict and famine.
There is minimal primary health care, schooling, electricity, clean drinking water and sanitation. Many revolutionary leaders who freed their people from colonialism now rule through the same oppressive structures they overthrew.
Robert Lupton in Toxic Charity states that in the last 50 years, the continent has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid. Country by country, Africans are worse off today with more than half living on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy plummeted.
And yet charity has become a mammoth global industry worth $138.8 billion and employs 600,000 people, more than the most valuable industry, US Oil and Gas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is worth an annual $55.8 billion, making it equal to the yearly output of Africa’s 20 poorest countries.
Dambisa Moyo, an Economist and author of Dead Aid, says that humanitarian aid is “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure”. It is not enough to treat the symptoms but not the cause.
Charity should not become a substitute for real justice merely to patch up the effects of fundamental injustices. An alternative socio-economic-political order must be developed where wealth is deployed to meet human needs.
(Dr Firoz Osman is with the Media Review Network of South Africa)