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Africa turmoil looms over food price rise

by Staff Writers
Nairobi, Kenya (UPI) May 25, 2011
Africa is facing what African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka calls a "Molotov cocktail" of rising food and oil prices that analysts fear could trigger widespread political upheaval like that which has swept the Arab world since January.

There are concerns that the turmoil in North Africa, embracing Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria, could mutate south into the sub-Saharan heart of the conflict-ridden continent, where democracy is in its infancy, although growing, populations are swelling and corruption and unemployment are rife.

At the same time, popular anger is rising as foreign governments and corporations are pouncing on the continent's last great resource, its farmland, to grow food for others.

Kaberuka told the Financial Times that rising costs were hitting the continent's urban poor the hardest at a time when governments have fewer resources to counter the problem than during the food crisis in 2007-08.

"It's a delicate period," he said. "The previous decade of economic reforms had created a cushion of sound public finances … so we were able to respond to the crisis …

"Now the crisis finds lower reserves … and therefore the ability of the governments to respond across the board is limited."

Africa remains riven by wars and insurgencies, many over the continent's vast natural and mineral resources and kleptocratic dictatorships, some thinly disguised as democracies, are still in power.

Yet democracies are growing. In 1980, there were only two. These days more than 40 countries conduct regular, multi-party elections.

But population growth is outstripping economic advances. In sub-Saharan Africa, the population has risen from 100 million in 1900 to 800 million. It should hit 1.5 billion-2 billion by 2050.

Unemployment is rising rapidly, as it did in North Africa, while political and business elites are cushioned from hardship.

Such grievances played a large part in triggering the pro-democracy uprisings that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten at least three other Arab regimes.

There have been outbursts of protest in Kenya and Uganda, where unrest has been simmering for several years.

The United Nations reports that one-in-three Africans is chronically hungry despite $3 billion spent annually on food aid for the continent and $33 billion on food imports.

Wheat prices in Sudan have risen 87 percent in three months. Rice is up 30 percent in Chad. Maize has gone up by at least 25 percent in Somalia, Mozambique and Kenya. In Uganda, it's risen by 114 percent in the last year, the World Bank says.

It said much of the recent food increases stemmed from a 21 percent hike in oil prices in the first quarter of 2011 because of the wave of political unrest across the Arab world.

Climate change, which has wrecked crops globally has deepened the food crisis.

In Kampala, Uganda's capital, opposition leader Kizza Besigye led three protest marches to protest higher food and fuel prices. Police responded with live fire and tear gas. Besigye was shot in the hand. The protests have spread across the country.

"More people are suffering and more people could become poor because of high and volatile food prices," World Bank President Robert Zoellick declared.

"We have to put food first and protect the poor and vulnerable, who spend most of their money on food."

A Harvard University team headed by Professor Calestous Juma, author of the "The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa," found that while food production has grown globally by 145 percent since 1970, Africa's food production has fallen 10 percent and it continues to import the bulk of its food staples.

It has the fertile land and the rivers. But the land is being sold off or leased to rich countries like the Persian Gulf states, Brazil and Japan, which cannot produce enough food for themselves.

The World Bank estimates that worldwide 115 million acres of land are in the hands of outside investors, the bulk of it in Africa.

This is causing immense discontent.

In March 2009, the government of Madagascar was toppled because it had leased 3.2 million acres -- nearly half the Indian Ocean island's arable land -- to the South Korean conglomerate Daewoo for 99 years. The deal was scuttled.

Other African regimes should take note.

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