Hike in world food prices sparks deadly riots in Africa

African governments are nervously confronting a mounting wave of often deadly social unrest caused by the soaring cost of food and fuel.

Forty people died during price riots in Cameroon in February. There also have been deadly troubles in Côte d’Ivoire and Mauritania and other violent demonstrations in Senegal and Burkina Faso — where a nationwide strike against price rises is to start on Tuesday.

Egypt warned of tough measures against anyone taking part in a general strike called for Sunday to protest soaring inflation and low pay.

Governments across the continent — where the crisis ranges from 100 000% inflation in Zimbabwe to Morocco, where subsidies for key commodities have grown fivefold over six years — are becoming anxious about public anger.

The rise in international food prices “poses significant threats to Africa’s growth, peace and security”, African finance ministers warned in a statement at the end of a meeting in Addis Ababa last week to discuss the crisis.

“Escalating social unrest as we have seen in Cameroon, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and in Senegal could spread to other countries” warned Kanayo Nwanza, vice-president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a United Nations agency.

The cost of rice has risen by 300% in Sierra Leone, already one of the world’s poorest countries, and by about 50% in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Cameroon. The cost of palm oil, sugar and flour, nearly all of which have to be imported, has also surged.

Africa is now a major oil producer but the explosion in the cost of crude to over $100 a barrel has backfired on poor populations who depend on public transport to get around congested African capitals.

In Guinea, where the government could no longer subsidise petrol-reliant services, prices have shot up by 61%, halting buses and taxis.

In Guinea-Bissau, fuel prices have gone up eight-fold due to shortages.

Senegalese economist Moustapha Kasse said the rise in global oil prices and rapid urbanisation in Africa explains why demand for food and fuel has shot up.

To meet the crisis, the governments of Cameroon, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire have suspended value-added tax (VAT) on some key consumer products. Cameroon increased wages for public workers, while Sudan increased subsidies for some foods and Egypt suspended rice exports for six months.

Calls for a strike in Egypt were circulated on a social-networking site, prompting the Interior Ministry threat of “immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate”.

There has been an unprecedented wave of strikes and protests, even by Egyptian government employees. The UN World Food Programme said this month that average household expenditure in Egypt had risen by 50% since the start of the year.

In the long term, experts and politicians said self-sufficiency and alternative sources of energy were needed to cut demand for imported food and oil.

Sierra Leone has already set an example by announcing aims to start producing rice by next year. The government says it plans to make rice imports illegal.

Despite the alarm bells, Africa’s success as an exporter of oil and other commodities could still exacerbate its own inflation troubles, experts said.

The African finance ministers predicted in a report that African economies would grow by 6,2% in 2008, despite poor infrastructural development, price increases and political instability. — AFP

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