Nine countries in West Africa and three in Central Africa are among the 20 countries with the world’s lowest Human Development Index. Existing vulnerabilities are further exacerbated by regional trends and threats such as socio-political tensions, trans-border crimes, continuing food insecurity and malnutrition, epidemics and natural disasters that, coupled with violent conflicts, generate large population displacements. Growing terrorist threats, particularly in West Africa, limit the space for humanitarian action.
Despite democratic progress in some countries, electoral processes tend to generate tension, violence and turmoil. In Côte d’Ivoire, a long-overdue presidential election degenerated into a major post-electoral crisis; in Nigeria, the fairest election in its history was followed by a brief but deadly outburst of violence; the democratically elected presidents in Niger and Guinea faced a coup and an assassination attempt during their first months in office; and in Gabon election results were contested. Since mid-January 2012, Mali has faced conflict in the north, which has exacerbated vulnerability of many communities and increased the need for humanitarian assistance. Clashes between Tuareg movements, other armed groups and the Malian military have resulted in massive population displacement. Moreover, the March 2012 military coup d’état further complicated an already fragile security and political environment. Politics in the region are often based, or perceived to be, on ethnical lines, and incumbents often attempt to amend constitutions prior to elections to remain in power. In 2012, several West and Central African countries will organize their elections. This could cause additional tensions and result in additional humanitarian needs. Other socio-political challenges include social unrest involving armed forces; religious and ethnic tensions; increasing corruption; drugs trafficking, rapid demographic growth; rapid and ill-planned urbanization and rural exodus; and high rates of youth unemployment.
Food Insecurity and Malnutrition
Food insecurity and malnutrition remain major threats to communities in the region. Following the 2010 food crisis, an excellent harvest in the Sahel allowed for some recovery. However, food prices still remain at a higher level than the average recorded from 2005 to 2010. The 2011/2012 harvest is likely to be worrying for some countries given the delay in the start of the rainy season in several regions, followed by unevenly distributed rains. Food insecurity could affect a large share of the population despite it being considerably lower than in 2010. In Niger, a national cereal deficit of around 500,000 metric tons is predicted for 2012. WFP estimates that some 700,000 people in Mauritania and up to 1 million in Niger will be severely food insecure by the beginning of the 2012 lean season. Though malnutrition also decreased in much of the Sahel region, Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) has remained above the 10 per cent alert threshold. In Chad and in some south-west parts of Mauritania, the overall acute malnutrition rate stands at 15 per cent. Several factors have attributed to this including structural poverty, demographic pressure on land, high food and fuel prices, inadequate farming practices and lack of access to micro credits. The Libya and Côte d’Ivoire crises have affected communities that depend on remittances from returning migrant workers.
Health – Epidemics
Health indicators are a deep concern in West and Central Africa. Recurrent infectious disease outbreaks and the disruption of basic health services remain major challenges. Despite positive results following the introduction of a new vaccine for meningitis (MenAfriVac) in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger that saw a 13 per cent drop in the number of registered cases and a 17 per cent drop in fatalities during the peak season of January to June in 2011, an outbreak in 2012 led to high fatality rates in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. A reluctance to vaccinate in northern Nigeria and weak medical coverage in Côte d’Ivoire have created pockets of polio virus. Cholera, endemic in several countries in the region, has been on the rise in 2011. Cameroon has faced a continuous cholera epidemic for more than 14 months and Chad experienced in 2011 the worst cholera epidemic it has ever seen. It has spread to 10 countries in the region and over 900,000 cases were reported in 2011. While HIV/AIDS prevalence is much lower than in Southern Africa, the region accounts for some serious cases, particularly in Central Africa: CAR (6.3 per cent), Gabon (5.9 per cent) and Cameroon (5.1 per cent).
Western and Central Africa will continue to face complex challenges arising from climate change. The acceleration of the recurring drought in the Sahel zone and the progress of desertification are expected to hasten rural exodus. In turn, urban humanitarian caseloads may also increase with the combination of violent climatic events and unplanned urbanization.
Humanitarian Space and Security
Humanitarian access in various parts of West and Central Africa remains a concern. The rising presence of criminal and terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, and the increased number of abductions and killings of civilians, especially in some areas of the Sahel, impairs the delivery of principled and quality humanitarian services to people in need. In Nigeria, the resurgence of the Boko Haram sect and its supposed links to Al-Qaeda creates additional risks, as demonstrated by the bombing of the UN offices in Abuja on 25 August 2011. Several humanitarian organizations have been forced to suspend their operations, resort to armed escorts or rely on local NGOs to deliver aid. The influx of weapons and mercenaries in the Sahel belt because of the Libyan crisis, and the slow demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants could lead to further deterioration, particularly in northern Mali and Niger. Given the socio-political and security contexts of these areas, it is probable that strengthening humanitarian access and protecting civilians will remain top priorities over the coming years.
Displacement and Protection
More displacements have been recorded in 2011 in addition to the high number of IDPs and refugees in the eastern part of the region, in Chad and Sudan. The post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire generated massive displacements in early 2011, both within the country and abroad. As of October 2011 an estimated 250,000 people remained internally displaced of which only 18,000 were in camps or sites. The number of Ivorian refugees was about 190,000 spread across 13 countries, including 163,000 in Liberia. Refugees are unlikely to return home soon, given the perception of insecurity and the absence of real peace. The Libyan and Ivorian crises, as well as violence in Nigeria, forced hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to return to their respective countries, primarily Niger and Chad. The collapse of the former regime in Libya also led to the return of hundreds of often heavily armed mercenaries to countries in the region. Attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in Libya who appear to be systematically assimilated to mercenaries contributed to additional returns and may prevent migrants to move back to Libya in a near future. In this context of conflict and violence, human rights and international humanitarian law abuses continue to be reported, highlighting major protection issues. Concerns include forced military recruitment (especially of children), exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence, presence of ex-combatants and mercenaries in refugee camps, trafficking, and attacks on humanitarian staff.
Implications of Regional Trends
The compounded impact of the various regional trends will pose serious threats to the vulnerable livelihoods in West and Central Africa. They will require a robust, combined humanitarian and development response. The region is more prone to slow-onset crises, such as food insecurity and malnutrition, than to sudden and media-focused crises that require sustained advocacy strategies towards humanitarian and development donors.
The combination of high food prices, rural exodus, high unemployment rates, low agriculture productivity and deepening poverty is likely to disrupt political stability and social cohesion. Related tensions and conflict may lead to an increase in humanitarian needs, including in urban contexts. Socio-political instability has a direct impact on population displacements, which is likely to pose continuing challenges for humanitarian actors in terms of access and needs assessment, particularly of IDPs and their host communities.
The increasingly unpredictable patterns of natural disasters and climate variability will not only affect rural populations, but more urban populations for which humanitarian response mechanisms are still mostly inadequate.
Regional Capacity for Preparedness and Response
Real discrepancies exist among countries in the region in terms of disaster preparedness and response capacity. Some countries have opted for full-fledged disaster management agencies with a strong presence throughout their territory, such as Nigeria and Ghana. However, other countries still rely on a narrow top-down approach with a weak national structure and no real regional or local response capacity.
Several countries and sub-regional entities, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), have recognized the importance of investing in disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness and management. This includes developing national response plans, establishing national platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and strengthening coordination mechanisms as in Benin, the Gambia, Ghana, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Mauritania and Senegal.
As a result, a regional committee for disaster management in West Africa was formally established in June 2011, comprising disaster management agencies, and civil protection and Red Cross societies. It is a forum for information exchange on best practices and harmonizing preparedness strategies. A similar committee for ECCAS countries is being formalized with support from ROWCA and other humanitarian partners.
Also at the regional level, the ECOWAS Department for Social and Humanitarian Affairs has developed documents on humanitarian policy, humanitarian response mechanisms and a plan of action, all in cooperation with regional humanitarian partners. ROWCA facilitated this process. It is expected to pave the way for a strengthened involvement by ECOWAS and its Member States in responding to humanitarian crises. Other regional initiatives on preparedness include the Permanent Committee against Droughts in the Sahel (CILSS), the regional meteorology agency and four river basin authorities (Senegal River, Mano River, Niger River and Volta River).
OCHA supports capacity-building for preparedness and response at the regional and national levels. Strategic regional humanitarian policy and coordination are taking place at the level of a regional IASC-type structure, comprising heads of regional humanitarian organizations and donors. In Dakar, eight regional technical working groups comprising regional humanitarian organizations and donors meet each month to coordinate preparedness and response initiatives in Food Security and Nutrition, Health, WASH, Protection, Education, Logistics, Public Information, and Emergency Preparedness and Response. These groups provide technical guidance and surge support.