Africa South of the Sahara 2008-2011: hunger as a factor in political instability.

Author:Kitissou, Marcel


The 2008-2011 period was characterized by five major events that, combined, have great geopolitical consequences on the course of contemporary history: the global financial crisis beginning in 2008; the nuclear meltdown following Japan's Great Earthquake in March 2011; the Arab Spring beginning early 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the ongoing European Union's euro-zone debt crisis, and the wave of food riots around the world.

The 2008 financial crisis indicated the fragility of the international financial system. The 2011 Japan's nuclear meltdown illustrated how risky the choices to meet energy needs are. Japan's predicament involving the complex interaction of an earthquake and a tsunami confirmed China's ascension to the second place in the world economy. The Arab Spring, in addition to its challenges to or the collapse of domestic dictatorships, demonstrated the loss of control of Western powers, particularly the European ones, over their immediate periphery.

Long banned Islamic political parties won elections in Tunisia and Egypt or emerged as major political forces in MENA. This trend represents a challenge and requests diplomatic adjustments between the West and MENA countries. Furthermore, with the political death of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the Mediterranean Community project dear to former France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has lost its momentum. The current Eurozone debt crisis underlines the fragility of European powers. It raises questions about their traditional role in world affairs as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) continue to gain political clout.

On the surface, these five phenomena have nothing in common. However, they all indicate weaknesses in the 21st century global political arrangements. The combination of such events and the inability of the international community to find and implement remedies that are efficient, timely and sustainable indicate that the way our societies are run require fundamental changes. All over the world, the voice of the poor and disadvantaged is getting louder. Africa is not immune from the challenges and opportunities presented by the situation we have witnessed the past four years. In 1931, the French poet Paul Valery wrote: le temps du monde fini commence (the era of a limited world has begun). For those feeling stifled by the limited world, nothing illustrates and legitimizes the transition from obedience to resistance better than hunger. The 2008-2011 food riots in Africa south of the Sahara exemplified the global political awakening of ordinary people. What does hunger mean? And why is it potentially dangerous for political stability?

Physiological and Psychological Effects of Hunger

The following example will illustrate how hunger has the potential to create political instability. In the first half of the 20th century, when Joseph Stalin took power in the former Soviet Union, one of the first things he did was to control the production of and access to food through agricultural reform (Sorokin, 1975). The faculty at the University of St. Petersburg carefully watched themselves and regularly met to discuss the effect starvation had on them. Commenting on the book by Pitirim Sorokin (one of the professors at St. Petersburg), Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs, Frederick Kaufman (2009, p. 58) summarized the physiological and psychological symptoms of the starving as follows:

...feelings of hurt, weakness, headache, dizziness, and upset stomach, followed by nausea and terrible aches in the joints.A dull and hopeless apathy would set in, and then the infamous "famine psychosis" would reign: depression, paralysis, and an overwhelming sensation of existential emptiness. Pathological expression of anger and rage (emphasis added) would soon follow, along with hunger delirium and hallucinatory paroxysms... When people wait until the last stages of starvation, there is nothing they can do. From 1919 to 1922, as many as 5 million people died of famine across Russia. Revolt is more likely when people are organized and have leaders who can articulate their grievances. In 1789, the French Revolution did not start until the angry poor descended on streets and demanded bread or bullets. Likewise, imagine what could happen, when thousands of hungry people, mostly young, in crowded African cities, and capable of organizing themselves can do in protesting their governments' policies!


To continue reading