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How war created famine

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Famine is part of a system where access to food can be a weapon and millions can die for the profits and power of the ruling class, writes Eleanor Claxton-Mayer
Issue 2547
Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have wreaked devastation
Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have wreaked devastation (Pic: Ibrahem Qasim)

Famine threatens 20 million people, including 1.4 million children, in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and parts of Nigeria.

The United Nations has said that £4 billion is needed to combat the immediate crisis. This sounds a large amount, but it’s what the US spends every three days on its military machine.

Famines today are not about an overall lack of food. For the world as a whole, food production per person has risen from about 2,220 calories per person per day in the early 1960s to over 2,800 in the 2000s.

People die not because the food is unavailable, but more commonly because they can’t afford to buy it.

Famine is often closely connected to war, and in the present example wars are central.

Wars destroy transport routes, make it hard to move in search of food and mean that opposing forces use food as a weapon.

Somalia in east Africa is a clear example. Three million people are at risk there and six million are malnourished. It is the third famine in 25 years.

The last one, in 2011, cost over 260,000 lives.


Drought is a factor, but the key issue is the wars fuelled by outside forces.

Somalia has been a target of the great powers ever since its independence in 1960.

Its strategic position, with close access to the oil lanes of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, means that it was a prize during the Cold War between Russia and the United States.

That intensified after Iran’s 1979 revolution removed a key US ally in the Middle East.

In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War the leader of Sudan declared support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Seven million people were on the edge of starvation but the US diverted a ship away from Sudan that was bringing 90,000 tons of wheat.

In 1992 the US invaded Somalia, using famine as a pretext. Initially welcomed, the US soon became hated.

Massacres and torture by the US-led forces made them deeply resented and eventually resistance forced a humiliating US withdrawal.

Today US troops are in Somalia again as part of their “war on terror”, fighting Al Shabaab, a group that is loosely affiliated with Al Qaida.

US Marines in Mogadishu, 1993
US Marines in Mogadishu, 1993 (Pic: National Archives and Records Administration)

This group was born out of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The brutal warfare tactics used by Ethiopian troops led people to see Al Shabaab as bringing some sort of stability.

Solidifying US influence in the region are groups of special forces, private contractors and the Somali national army—trained and equipped by the US.

Africa has key natural resources that were fought over by European colonial powers in the late nineteenth century. Today there is another phase of the “scramble for Africa”—one where trade pressures are again backed by military forces.

Bombed then banned—US crimes in travel-ban states
Bombed then banned—US crimes in travel-ban states
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The US has dozens of outposts in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.

It also has a major base in Djibouti in east Africa, as does France, and soon China will also have a naval base there.


France has several major military bases and troops in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Germany has a military base in Niger and troops in several sub-Saharan African countries. Russia is accused of seeking to grab influence in Libya.

The immense military expenditure in order to control and discipline African countries stands in stark contrast to the lack of action over famine.

Far from saving people, the US and its allies are sealing their fate.

In Yemen the famine is caused largely by a bitter civil war where the side the US and Saudi Arabia backs is deliberately blockading ports to stop food shipments arriving. This means people starve.

British firms—making great profits—provided the weaponry to Saudi Arabia that enforces the starvation strategy.

The British Empire encouraged divisions

And conditions for people living in Africa are getting worse thanks to imperialism. In 1820 the average wage of a worker in Africa was a third of that of a worker in Europe. By 2010 the average European earns 20 times as much.

Economic inequality means that the effects of famine are felt more harshly.

And famine is also more likely thanks to the European colonial restructuring of African economies. Focusing on key crops and commodities for export to trade on world markets meant African countries became increasingly reliant on trade, on unfavourable terms, rather than self-sufficiency.

South Sudan has already declared a famine and has a long and complex history with the West.

Britain controlled the area until 1956. Clan tensions were manipulated and increased—where no tensions existed they created new ones.

The Sudanese shared a common language and religion. But to rule the area the British empire encouraged divisions by giving prestige and patronage to some and ignoring others.


It established different official languages and religions, and the West used this to subjugate South Sudan and plunder its resources.

Even after independence these divisions were still encouraged to maintain Western control.

The effects of this are still felt today. After independence the country was left with a flawed system that reinforced the clan divisions—often those in South Sudan were excluded from decision making.

The US and other powers were attracted by oil reserves and attacked the country if it did not follow its orders.

In 1998, under president Bill Clinton, the US launched Cruise missiles on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory near Khartoum. Claims that it was producing nerve gas were widely discredited.

Al-Shifa provided 50 percent of Sudan’s medicines, and its destruction, according to one leading German diplomat, caused “several tens of thousands of deaths”.

The remains of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 2008, ten years after it was destroyed by US cruise missiles
The remains of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 2008, ten years after it was destroyed by US cruise missiles (Pic: Bertramz)

The West still looks to exert a heavy influence. The divisions established by imperialism still play a role.

Now civil war wreaks havoc and thousands have been displaced as internal refugees and famine affects millions.

A three-year war in South Sudan has seen tens of thousands of civilians killed in horrific attacks, often targeted on the basis of their ethnicity. The US-supported government is the major culprit.

Famine is a part of this process.

A report last month by the UN Commission on Human Rights into South Sudan describes deliberate starvation and bombardment of civilians.

There were earlier reports of “warning signs for ethnic cleansing” and “indicators for genocide”, although the UN agency now says these have “diminished”.

Western countries do give some foreign aid but this is usually comes with strings attached.


Parts of Nigeria are also at risk of famine and again the common factor is war. Boko Haram is waging deadly attacks in North Eastern Nigeria and has killed thousands.

The displacement of people fleeing the violence has led to a lack of crops and cultivation and the threat of famine.

The government’s fight against Boko Haram as part of the “war on terror” has increased the violence in the regions. Some elites in Nigeria have now backed the group in an attempt to regain control of the region.

Famine is a particularly gross example of the mismatch between the potential to meet human need and capitalism’s crushing of such possibilities.

At the same time as further reports of famine appeared last week, US business magazine Forbes announced, “It was a record year for the richest people on earth, as the number of billionaires jumped 13 percent to 2,043 from 1,810 last year.

“Their total net worth rose by 18 percent to £6.15 trillion.”

As long as capitalism exists, great powers will exploit and manipulate—and famine, war and disease will emerge again and again.

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