Nigeria food crisis could have long-term effects on children’s development

Early childhood development

Six-month-old Falmata is weighed to determine her nutrition status at Dalori IDP camp in Maiduguri Picture: UNICEF/Esiebo


Huge numbers of children are starving in the conflict-hit northeast of Nigeria – and 50,000 of them could die unless urgent action is taken.

The warning came from the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, with about 250,000 children under five in Borno state at risk from severe acute malnutrition this year.

As the terror group Boko Haram is pushed out of the region, the full extent of the food crisis is becoming more apparent. This will be the third year without a harvest.

“There are two million people we are still not able to reach in Borno state, which means that the true scope of this crisis has yet to be revealed to the world,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for Western and Central Africa.

He added: “Some 134 children on average will die every day from causes linked to acute malnutrition if the response is not scaled up quickly.”

Behind the immediate food crisis, another longer-term catastrophe may be unfolding. 

Peter Augustine, 15, sits in a classroom in the Dalori IDP camp school Picture: UNICEF/Esiebo

Early childhood, from pregnancy to the start of primary school, is a critical period in a child’s development. A vital element of that is nutrition.

About 80% of brain development is completed by the age of three and 90% by five. The lack of good nutrition – among other key factors – can impact a child’s ability to learn and affect their chances of fulfilling their potential at school and then at work.

A report by the Global Business Coalition for Education said: “Quality ECD (early childhood development) interventions lead to better school readiness and academic achievement, and help develop essential skills that are key to success both in school and in the workplace.”

The report explains that nutrition does not simply mean food. It adds: “It means having the right balance of foods and nutrients in the diet, or provided as supplements if necessary.

“This is especially important for pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant, to improve their own nutrition and to ensure good nutrition for their children.”

About one in three children in low and middle-income countries are stunted – chronically malnourished and too short for their age. Their bodies and brains will never grow to their full potential, holding them back in school, work and life.

Dangote Foundation managing director Zouera Youssoufou distributes food to internally displaced people in Maiduguri

In Nigeria, some agencies have been warning for months of acute food shortages in the northeast, following seven years of Boko Haram violence that has killed more than 15,000 people and made more than 2.6 million homeless.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that in the wider Lake Chad Basin, more than five million people are “severely food insecure”.

Dangote Group President Aliko Dangote has called on wealthy Nigerians to step up and help to ease the food crisis. The Dangote Foundation donated about $6.7 million plus food items recently when he visited a camp for internally displaced people in Borno’s capital Maiduguri.

He made a commitment to end malnutrition and hunger in camps and other parts of the country.

Mr Dangote said this week: “The first major challenge is the physiological needs of these people – and food, nutrition rank right on top of that ladder.

“So we will first make serious effort to ensure that hunger is eliminated from the IDP camps and thereafter, we will begin to make effort to create jobs and boost entrepreneurship.”

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