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How armed banditry is driving new wave of malnutrition in Nigeria’s North-West

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LAST YEAR, when the Nigerian government launched a five-year nutrition action plan to reduce hunger and malnutrition in the country, stakeholders in the food and nutrition sector at the Presidential Enabling Business Environment meeting were brimming with excitement. 

The action plan titled ‘National Multi-Sectoral Plan of Action for Food and Nutrition (NMPFAN) 2021-2025’ seeks to guide the implementation of interventions and programmes to address the problems of hunger and malnutrition across all sectors in Nigeria.

“The approved plan will reduce the proportion of people who suffer malnutrition by 50 per cent and increase exclusive breastfeeding rates to 65 per cent,” Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announced earlier this year. 

Osinbajo, who is also chairman of the National Council on Nutrition, also said the plan “will reduce stunting rate among under-five year olds to 18 per cent by 2025 through the scaling up of priority high impact nutrition specific and nutrition sensitive interventions.”

But analysts point out that the spate of violence across the country poses significant threats to the plan, resulting in food insecurity and high inflation.

The decade-long insurgency in the North-East and armed banditry in the North-West have led to a decline in agricultural production, displacing a large number of people and putting considerable pressure on food resources. 

Since 2018, armed banditry, especially in the North-West where terror groups sack villages and kidnap for ransom, has increased across Nigeria. This atmosphere of fear does not spare farmers in the region who have had to abandon their farms in their droves for safety.

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An estimated 1.6 million people are believed to be food insecure due in large part to raging insecurity in the region. Five per cent of the total food insecure population now live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps where children are more likely to suffer from malnutrition.

Malnutrition is one of the world’s major public health and development concerns. It causes rapid weight loss and makes under-five children 11.6 times more likely to die due to symptoms such as lower respiratory infection, severe dehydration, and high fever.

A 2019 study conducted by the World Food Programme alongside Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics showed that IDPs in Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina states faced severe food shortages.

According to the study, two in every IDP household did not have sufficient food supply, inhibiting many families from getting optimum food intake and often resulting in severe acute malnutrition (SAM).

Severe malnutrition contributes to half of the one million children who die in Nigeria every year, according to the National Nutrition and Health Survey.

An Expert on Nutrigenomics and Lecturer at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Imam Umar Mustapha said children bore the brunt of the growing insecurity in the country as a result of the effect of the crisis on their parents, as they depended largely on them.

Umar said that insecurity and the resulting food crisis ( which is fast depleting the supply chain across the country) was responsible for the deepening child malnutrition in the region.

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“Children are largely dependent on adults for food. And looking at the spate of violence in the North-West which has forced tens of thousands of people from their primary base and source of livelihood, parents are under so much pressure that providing food for their children may not even be their major concern because they do not even have food for themselves.

“There is also a decrease in food supply in the region which means that the one in circulation is not even enough to feed everyone. If an adult cannot provide nutritious food for a child, then it means hunger will set in, which could degenerate into severe acute malnutrition among children.” 

This is also the position of a Pediatrician at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Teaching Hospital, Sokoto, Udah Inalegwu. 

“Malnutrition has been a major problem in Nigeria even before this raging instability plaguing the country. Insecurity only made it worse. Nigeria has always grappled with food security. The mismatch between production, storage and transport of food produce contribute significantly to the lack of enough food to satisfy the basic needs of Nigeria’s rural population and provide them with good nutrition

“Insecurity has aggravated these issues, and women are mostly vulnerable. Their children are more so. With insecurity, most families have lost their homes, their means of livelihood, their homes and access to sanitation and clean water, the children sometimes even lose their parents. All these add up to worsen the situation.”

Rising cases of malnutrition

In May, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cautioned that at least 9.2 million Nigerians faced crisis or worse levels of food insecurity this year because of the country’s conflicts.

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Umar corroborated the report, stating that malnutrition had both ‘immediate and long term consequences.’ Apart from weakening the immune system, it also slows the pace of human capital development which invariably affects the economy.

According to the World Bank, a one per cent loss in adult height due to childhood stunting was associated with a 1.4 per cent loss in economic productivity.

“We are just starting to understand the effect of malnutrition on individuals, and the picture doesn’t look good. Any person that suffers acute malnutrition at a younger age, they tend to develop chronic diseases later in life.

“And it doesn’t look good for a country when a large number of its population suffer malnutrition-induced diseases later in life. They will not only depend on others but also be unproductive as the government will spend more on them at the expense of other developmental services.”

Solving the crisis

For the national action plan on nutrition to be effectively implemented, experts believe the rising cases of insecurity in the North-West and the resulting food crisis must be addressed.

“Tackling severe acute malnutrition in crisis-ravaged areas like the North-West is as simple as tackling the root causes behind people moving from their primary places to camps where they are likely to suffer malnutrition. Banditry, terrorism and other form of instability must be scrubbed away. And this requires political will on the part of the government,” Umar submitted.

Inalegwu added that an awareness campaign on proper feeding habits needed to be strengthened to cover rural communities.

The efforts should, therefore, be complemented with the expansion of the Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM), one of the many programmes introduced to tackle severe acute malnutrition in the country, analysts said

The initiative seeks to “educate the community about acute malnutrition and availability of services through community mobilization, early detection of severe acute malnutrition in children through screening using mid upper arm circumference (MUAC) tape.”

In addition, CMAM allows timely treatment for those without medical complications, with ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) at home. 

If expanded and integrated with other preventive measures, it could halt 19 per cent of the death of children in the country as it has a high recovery rate and can be 90 per cent cost-effective than conventional treatment.

Additional reports by Abiodun Jamiu

'Niyi works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via [email protected] You can as well follow him on Twitter via @niyi_oyedeji.

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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