The Great Hunger

Hungry Cow eating scrabs from damaged car during the famine of 1973. Photo: AFRICA

In 1973, crops failed and pastures dried up over large expanses of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, Chad, the Northern States of Nigeria, and parts of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Dahomey. Millions of the cattle who form the livelihood of those countries’ peoples died or were in danger of death. Human lives were lost, and aid came too late to save some others. Niger diplomat talked about children dying of hunger and thirst in his country. And it appears that Mali was even more severely hit by the incipient famine. Soon, food supplies started arriving. France, the European Common Market, and other rich areas of the world rushed in supplies of grain, rice, milk and other food. Distribution of this to the people began and the danger of a “hecatomb,” about which M. Scheyven of the FAO warned was finally averted. Even so, it is difficult to find words for the extent of the disaster. The countries concerned were, generally, among the poorest in the world. But in good years they could feed themselves with maize, groundnuts, peas and beans, and their most important grain crops, millet and the related sorghum; and, of course, with beef, of which they also export large amounts to the forest lands to the south, and milk. The farmers also became, through bitter experience, careful about creation of food stocks. It was the total exhaustion of these which led to The Great Hunger.

Famine of 1914, 1927, 1942 & 1970

The 1973 famine crisis found West Africa scarcely better prepared when there was a terrible famine still recalled by older people from Senegal to Northern Nigeria. Then, because there was no possibility of an emergency airlift from far off. The death toll was appalling. Other famines have occurred since, in 1927 and 1942 for example, has nothing been learned? By the farmers, yes. plenty— they conserve food and take anti-famine precautions. But the authorities seem to have been as ill-equipped to prevent or face drought disasters as their colonial predecessors.

The Great Hunger of 1973 came only three years after another, less serious but still serious enough. Then, after drought and the exhaustion of food stocks, foreign food aid was rushed to Mali, Upper Volta, Chad, Northern Cameroon and other places. (Curiously, Northern Cameroon is not mentioned among the drought-hit areas this time, though it must be one of them. There seems to be little news about Guinea, too, though it was clear from the low level of the Niger and Senegal river floods that the drought is serious around their sources in Guinea.) Relatively good rains after the 1970 crisis were followed by two years of almost wholly blue and cloudless skies: in Agades department in northern Niger about 30 inches fell in 1972, as against an annual average (for the previous thirty years) of 65 inches. And in some areas no rain worth mentioning fell for up to seven years. These include large parts of Mauritania, a country mostly desert even before the current crisis, and of north-eastern Mali. The poverty of the people was shown when the food failed. If they could feed themselves relatively well in good harvest years, they had nothing to fall back on in time of crisis. In particular, they had hardly any money.

Causes of the Great Hunger

It is not true, however often it is stated, that African farming is wholly at the subsistence level, or that farmers are helpless and ignorant. Long-distance trade in the Sahelian region of West Africa has been well developed for centuries. The trade in cattle, which the nomadic herdsmen regularly sell for transport as far south as Lagos, Accra and Douala, is a vital business run by Africans alone, and normally it goes far towards providing the “south” with beef and the “north” with money. In Nigeria much of the grain for the whole country is grown in the north and sold elsewhere, which is why the drought in the north was called a “national disaster” when four northern states—North-Western, North-Central, kano and North- Eastern—were declared “disaster areas” in January, 1972. In Northern Nigeria too, farmers had income from sale of cash crops, cotton and groundnuts. While they also sell groudnuts in Senegal and Niger. When the crops and pastures are sufficient, therefore, trade flourishes and money circulates. The distinctive poverty of the Savannah lands is due to the relative smallness of their cash income and their total dependence on the vagaries of the weather. The smallness of the cash income is aggravated by the high cost of the transport of goods from coastal ports: the only railways reaching far into the Sahelian belt are those from Dakar to Koulikoro (Mali) and from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, apart—and this is an important exception—from Nigeria’s railway system: and good roads are few. Industries are few except the traditional ones organised at craft level in kano and other places, and these, though important, depend on the general local economic situation. Mali’s industrialisation became more ambitious than effective, Chad’s is almost non-existent: here again northern Nigeria is better off, with groundnut oil mills and textile plants and other modern industries, of which Senegal has some also. Generally the region is poor in all other sources of income than farming and stockbreeding. If this were not so, many of the now destitute people might have been able to buy what they cannot for the moment grow or rear. As it is, the withering away of the crops and the cattle pastures, from the Atlantic shores to the interior of Chad, has brought famine to the gates.

Effect on Fulani nomads

The tragedy of the nomads is that when the cattle are dead they have nothing left. And the cattle are dying like flies. The Fulani nomads of Nigeria. Niger, Mali and (probably) parts of Cameroon are reduced to destitution as their emaciated cattle succumb on the long trek to the remaining wells and rivers. Before dying some of the cattle have managed to remove all the grass of certain areas down to the roots, leaving bare earth and sand. Besides the Fulanis other nomads are moving towards the rivers, the towns and the south. Mass migration has been one of the initial results of the crisis. In Mali a large part of the population has converged on the banks of the Niger. The migrants, especially those who still have some animals to feed, have had serious disputes with local residents. From Mali large numbers of nomads are moving into Niger, where free food distribution is better organised, it seems. Herders from Upper Volta have moved into Ghana, and herders from Mauritania into Senegal, causing disturbances in both cases. Migrants from Mauritania have even been turned back, Senegal being only slightly less hard hit than their own country. Nomads are also concentrating in the area of the towns. The normal African drift to the towns has generally accelerated, swelling the populations of Dakar, Bamako, Niamey and other places, because food and money are more easily available there.

Only adequate food distribution in the rural areas can prevent this migration. It may not be only nomads who need free food distribution. Farmers have been ruined also. In Mali millet and sorghum crops are almost nil in north and only 40 per cent of normal production in the country as a whole. Chad has about 40 per cent less millet, groundnuts and rice than usual; Senegal, which normally has to import large amounts of rice, is expected to have a harvest of only 41,000 tons of paddy rice in 1973, compared with 108,000 in 1971-72; and so on. One cause of the lower crops is the relative failure of the Niger and Senegal river floods. Another is the total inadequacy of irrigation. As usual in such cases, the scarce food is very expensive. Even in towns like Dakar and Bamako prices of rice, millet and sorghum have doubled or trebled. Transport difficulties are one reason for this and for there being no question of reliance on market forces (in this case, sales of food from unaffected areas) meeting the need. In the whole region only northern Nigeria has anything like an adequate road and rail network, and that is very far from sufficient. Elsewhere food made available in the normal way would be prohibitively expensive, especially for the Fulanis and others who have no resources left when their cattle have gone. In Upper Volta some people have been reduced to raiding anthills for grain stored by the ants; others have failed to find any food.


Little is heard of the crisis in northern Nigeria, compared with the belated, publicity about the ex-French states. This is no doubt because most of the publicity is in France (apart from the Pope’s appeal for international aid). Another reason is that the Northern states of Nigeria, though more thickly populated, may be better able to cope than, say, Chad or Mali, because of the better communications just mentioned and more numerous sources of income which make it less impossible to buy food, and because the stricken area is part of a larger country which, thanks to mineral oil, has money to spare—in contrast to Chad’s empty treasury, the Nigerian Federal Government provide 10 million naira for relief.  Like Algeria, and Ivory Coast, Nigeria gave money for relieve specifically to Mali though it is also affected. Ghana has facilitated the use of Tema harbour, and Senegal the use of Dakar harbour, for relief food shipments. Food for Chad is being expedited through Port Harcourt and Douala[i].

[i] AFRICA July 1973

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer