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Why Africa goes hungry

Nigeria: Fighting hunger and Boko Haram

The militant Islamist group Boko Haram has been terrorizing parts of northeast Nigeria for years. The violence is pushing the region to the brink of a hunger crisis.

The village of Rann in northeastern Nigeria lies amid soggy green fields dotted with the occasional tree. Although it lies at the edge of the Sahara, it's the rainy season and the roads leading into town are waterlogged and impassable by car, turning the town into a swampy island. 

Rann is in Borno state, the heartland of Boko Haram's 8-year insurgency to create an Islamist caliphate. In the past months, tens of thousands of people have thronged to a refugee camp in Rann, seeking safe haven. 

Woman squats on the ground holding her very skinny child

A mother holds her malnourished child

Devastated farming and chronic food shortages

Although the region is poor and underdeveloped, people around Rann can normally feed themselves. But farmers are currently facing huge problems growing enough to feed their own families, let alone the newcomers. 

Because of the terror lurking in the countryside, the Nigerian military has banned farmers from going more than five kilometers outside of town. 

Read more: Trial of Boko Haram suspects in Nigeria poses legal nightmare

"We had to leave fields outside [of Rann] to Boko Haram," said farmer Goni Issa Abba, as he tended to a tiny patch of land belonging to his grandfather. His own field is too far away to cultivate. 

The Boko Haram insurgency has drastically changed the lives of farmers in the region, said Abba Gambo, the head of crop production at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State.

The military has even told farmers not to plant crops that grow higher than a meter so that Boko Haram fighters can't hide in their fields, Gambo said. But the region's traditional crops are maize, millet or sorghum — all high growing crops. 

"That meant 75 percent of their food was lost, which was the first warning sign of hunger in Borno," Gambo said. 

Boko Haram losing ground but not defeated

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has announced the "technical defeat" of Boko Haram several times since he was inaugurated in 2015. While the armed group has lost most of its territorial strongholds in northeastern Nigeria, it is still terrorizing the civilian population. 

Read more: After long absence due to ill health, Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari slams divisions, terror

Arial photograph of a destroyed village

This village near Rann was destroyed by Boko Haram

According to the UN children's agency UNICEF, between January and the end of August, Boko Haram used at least 83 children as human bombs, often blowing up soft targets such as marketplaces, schools and camps. The group still raids and destroys villages. As a result, UNICEF says, at least 1.7 million people have been displaced, 1.4 million of them in Borno State, where most of the attacks take place. 

Severe nutritional crisis unusual

In the past, said agriculture expert Gambo, we endured our poverty with dignity. 

"Now, you go to a camp and the faces of men, woman and children show the symptoms of nutritional deficiency," he said. "We are talking about serious hunger. This didn't exist before Boko Haram."

Portrait of Amma Gambo

Abba Gambo, the head of crop production at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State

In August alone, aid organizations reported hospitalizing more than 100,000 acutely malnourished children under the age of five in Borno. This will have long-term consequences for the children, such as developmental delays and lower intelligence scores, warned Gambo. 

"This is a security crisis that has become a food crisis," said Peter Lundberg, United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator Nigeria. In northern Nigeria, 8.5 million people are now dependent on humanitarian aid. The UN has asked its members for more than a billion dollars in support — less than half has been paid so far. 

"We are waiting and hoping that supporting farmers with seeds, tools and fertilizer will improve the harvest and improve the situation," Lundberg said. 

Abba Gambo isn't that optimistic. Because people have been displaced for years, he said, many fields have lain fallow for so long that they need significant work with heavy farming equipment before they can be used again. 

Growing rich on the hunger of the poor 

Another problem, said Gambo, is that the local government is failing to properly coordinate humanitarian aid. 

"The funds are definitely not being used properly," Gambo said. "If the funds would arrive here and reach the right people, then no babies would have to die of hunger in the camps. Sometimes they even lack basic baby food in the camps."

Nigeria's Senate has investigated several cases where relief funds have disappeared in what it called "vague and corrupt schemes." But despite the anti-corruption stance of President Buhari, such investigations are slow and have had limited success. 

Man-made hunger

Close up of face of farmer Abba

Nigerian farmer, Goni Issa Abba

Back in the village of Rann, farmer Goni Issa Abba has managed to scratch together some money for herbicides. But, he said as he sprayed his field, this year's harvest won't do much to hold the hunger of his two wives and nine children at bay. 

"I need at least 40 bags of millet a year to make ends meet, but look at the little piece of land here," he said, adding that last year he stopped counting the days when he went to bed without something to eat. 

Another farmer works a patch of land next to Abba's. He can't afford any products such as herbicides or fungicides, he said, and is worried about a scarce harvest without them. 

And with the region only having one growing season a year, if his harvest fails, he'll be reliant on food aid again next year. 

Watch video 02:54

Life no better after Boko Haram

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