Africa

Violence in Nigeria adds to Niger food crisis

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Media captionMike Wooldridge in Niamey says the problem for Niger is as much to do with poverty as with a lack of food

The latest upsurge in violence in northern Nigeria will only add to the challenges facing Niger - the landlocked nation immediately to the north - as it tries to contain the potentially severe impact of its latest looming food crisis.

There have been increasing warnings of only a brief window to mobilise substantially increased resources for Niger to avoid the risk that the world will have another humanitarian disaster on its hands.

It follows a cereal harvest seriously affected by drought and pests. Much of the Sahel region has been hit, but it is Niger - one of the world's poorest nations with chronically high levels of child malnutrition - that has the largest number of vulnerable people.

The European Union's Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Kristalina Georgieva called it "a race against time". She said that because of the poor harvest the traditional hunger season was expected to start in February or March rather than two months later.

Calling on other donors to follow the EU in increasing aid to the Sahel, she said: "If we act quickly to protect the most vulnerable we can prevent a catastrophe from happening."

The "prepositioning" of food stocks - getting them within reach of the worst hit places and the worst hit people - will be crucial.

But the people of Niger and aid organisations in the country are clearly watching the events in their southern neighbour with growing alarm.

Alarm bells

The increasing frequency and violence of the attacks by the Boko Haram Islamist militant group in Nigeria inevitably have a significant impact here when kinship ties with people across the border are strong.

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But another worry is the potential for more disruption to cross-border trade and to free movement when it will be so vital for the welfare of the people of Niger in the coming weeks.

In the bustling alleyways of the market in Maradi, a town a short distance north of the border, I saw that there were sacks of millet on sale but traders said the price was around 50% higher than normal.

Much of the grain sold in this southern belt of Niger - the most heavily-populated part of the country and the most at risk if this food crisis deepens - comes from Nigeria.

One of the key strategies to protect poor families who had little or no harvest of their own is to give them cash or cash vouchers to buy food. But the success of that, of course, depends on food being available in the markets.

I asked one of the Maradi cereal traders, Hadi Mohamine Laminou, how he saw the prospects for the next few months. "It all depends on Nigeria," he said.

But the people of Niger also have their own ways of coping in times of shortage and hunger - and one of them is for the men, in particular, to go to northern Nigeria to look for any work that will help them support their families.

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Image caption Much of the violence in northern Nigeria is blamed on Islamist militant group Boko Haram

That now appears to be in jeopardy.

I was told that, at Friday prayers in Maradi, it was announced that more than 1,000 people had come back from northern Nigeria - some had actually been caught up in the violence while others feared they could be.

No-one doubts that more people could return, adding to the pressures on the distribution of relief and on the efforts to prevent more children becoming severely malnourished. And already security around aid operations in the border area has been stepped up.

Brian O'Neill, a senior EU official who oversees the humanitarian operations in the region, says unconfirmed but "pretty solid" figures suggest that up to 250,000 people might have died of hunger in the last major food crisis in 2005 and perhaps 40-50,000 in 2010, another crisis year.

This time the alarm bells have been rung earlier - and crucially, aid officials say, by Niger's own government.

But if Nigeria becomes even more volatile, it is only likely to complicate the already considerable challenge of reducing the impact of hunger and saving lives in Niger this year - and of breaking the cycle of crises.

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