Special Report: Fear of famine pervades the North, as malnutrition cases rise.


  • Experts speak on direct impact of COVID-19
  • Inequality, conflicts, lack of education, bad governance etc

By Ismail Auwal

While Nigeria is the second most affected nation, by indices, of stunting, northern part of the country holds the medal for the highest region affected by malnutrition as evidenced by markers of stunting and wasting.

No less than 2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition in Nigeria. These horrifying figures keep rising as more factors push people into poverty. Records have also shown that, between January and May of 2020, Kaduna state has seen 12,246 new cases of malnutrition among children under five. In Katsina state, over a million children under five are stunted, whereas more than 200,000 suffer from acute malnutrition.

The situation is not any different in Sokoto, where 7.9% of children aged 6 months and 5 years are severely malnourished.

Borno state, where insurgency has displaced more than 2 million people from their homes, is faced with hunger crisis with hundreds of thousands of children severely malnourished.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has stated that child hunger in Nigeria is declining by about 3 percent per year, but the rate of malnutrition or starvation is on the rise in Kano and other northern states of the country.

Kano state has one of the highest prevalence of malnutrition cases in Nigeria, which is reportedly seen in about 10.8% of children.

Our investigation has revealed that over the past three months, pediatric wards in public hospitals across Kano state have witnessed a surge in the number of malnourished children coming with acute emergencies.

This sudden rise in malnutrition has overburdened the already overstretched health facilities, adding to the work pressure on overworked physicians and other health workers catering for patients.

A malnourished child in Kano

Impact of COVID-19 on rising malnutrition in Nigeria:

Sahelian Times has interviewed some of the experts at the frontline on this disturbing trend of the rising malnutrition. Dr. Abba Yusha’u, a pediatrician with Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital, mentioned the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the already weak health system, as the major trigger to the current rise of malnutrition cases in the state. He noted that, “During the lockdown, hospitals were forced to close.

We could only attend to few emergency cases. Therefore, it would not be surprising that malnutrition cases had risen so high immediately after easing the lockdown.” He adds, “Looking at our healthcare setting, for example in Murtala Muhammad Hospital, in just a session a doctor is compelled to attend to more than 100 children.

This makes the work overwhelming and unbearable. Naturally, you cannot give the utmost care to children in a situation like that. In an ideal setting, we shouldn’t be seeing more than five children per session, yet you end up seeing over 100 or even 200 children.”

The raging COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected many programs that are geared to tackle malnutrition, such as childhood immunizations, antenatal services, water supply and sanitation, and several primary care interventions, which combined, have impacted on children’s wellbeing and nutrition.

Increasing poverty rate and inequality also contribute to malnutrition:

In our interview, Dr. Yusha’u has related the increased cases of malnutrition to pervasive poverty and lack of awareness among parents, particularly about the important issues like “exclusive breastfeeding” that gives children a better start in life. “Only a few mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding,” he added.

“Economic status of parents directly translates into the type of food a child will get. For example, a child born into a poor economic background, who is being fed with pap (koko) cannot be compared with a child that is being fed with custard,” Dr. Yusha’u explained.

In the same vein, Dr. Fatima Hamid, a Senior Medical Officer with the department of pediatrics, Murtala Muhammad hospital, confirmed the increased cases of malnutrition in Kano state. In her expert opinion, the rise in malnutrition can be due to lack of awareness, low level of education, and also population explosion.

 “These children usually come in around the age of weaning (1-2 years), which is the most critical stage when parents attempt to take them off breast milk.

As a result of lack the awareness on how to do it correctly- both knowing what to supplement with, and even how to do the supplementing, become a problem,” explained Dr. Hamid. “Kano being the most populous city in Nigeria, obviously it is not surprising if it is said to be the state with the highest rate of malnutrition cases,” she opined.

In a recently released data tagged “2019 Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria”, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) highlights that almost 83-million people live below the poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) per year. This staggering figure amounts to 40 percent of the total Nigeria’s population. Poverty in Nigeria seems to have geographical predilection. The World Poverty Clock projected Nigeria as the world poverty capital, where 87% of the poor people live in the northern part of the country. Additionally, this geographical inequality is more evidenced in the fact that almost half of the Nigeria’s poor live in the Northwest and rural areas.

There are reasons why poverty is overwhelming in northern Nigeria. The region that was most peaceful just a decade ago was now bedeviled by protracted insurgency, banditry, poor quality education, dilapidated infrastructures, and harmful cultural practices (such as child beggars). Millions of children are out of schools, and millions of people are internally displaced by conflicts.

A Malnourished child in Kano

Government neglect of the situation:

The Executive Director of Advocacy on Human Rights and Equal Opportunity, Barrister Halima, believes that Kano state government is not doing enough in terms of creating awareness, and providing ready-to-use-therapeutic-food (RUTF) to the affected communities.

“We have seen community-based management of acute malnutrition center in one of the local government areas with the highest cases in the state, but the center has not received even a sachet of RUTF, for over a year during our visit to the locality,” explained Halima.

A mother to Abdulrahman, a child suffering from malnutrition, in Sumaila local government area, told Sahelian Times that she had never given him RUTF, even as he was not her only child that suffered from malnutrition.

A dilapidated CMAM Center in Sumaila.

Imminent famine to worsen the situation:

 The spokesperson of the World Food Programme, Shaza Moghraby, recently warned that 4 countries (Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, south Sudan and Yemen) faced immediate risk of famine. The major factors driving this imminent famine is a toxic mix of conflict, extreme climate, ongoing pandemic, and declining economic fortunes. In an editorial by Punch newspaper, it was reported that the country is facing the danger of imminent famine as a result of continuing conflicts across the agrarian northern region. “The largest maize producing areas – North-East, North-West and North-Central regions, that contribute 25.43 per cent, 22.9 per cent and 25.88 per cent respectively – are under siege from terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and Fulani militants.”


Malnourished children in Kano


Foods inflation and border closure:

 In an attempt to boost local production, Nigerian government came up with some drastic measures that included border closure. This policy has made the country to rely on local industries for self-sufficiency in its most consumed commodities like rice. Although the number of industries that joined the agribusiness had increased over the past few years, the local supply of paddy rice was grossly inadequate to meet the growing demands of the nation and even the existing rice milling industries. One of the industrialists operating Rice Mills in Kano state, told Sahelian Times that none of their peers had a stock of paddy rice for production to last for the next 3 months. The situation looks gloomy considering the devastation that floods have done to farmers this season.

Current food scarcity has already resulted in inflation of prices. Currently, a bag of local rice sells at 23,000 naira in Singa market (largest food market in West Africa), Kano, and is projected to reach 30,000 naira in the next couple of months, should the scarcity persist.


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