Hunger could trigger civil unrest

The combination of economic frustrations and increased security force brutality is a recipe for civil unrest, commentators have warned.

29 April 2020 | Disasters



With more than a month of economic lockdown Namibia is facing a looming hunger crisis that could spark civil unrest among those stricken with increasing poverty and no social security net.

“Tough economic times always foment civil unrest. Namibians are usually peaceful people but they say a hungry man is an angry man,” economics professor Omu Kakujaha-Matundu warned recently.

“The main and immediate trigger for social unrest is hunger, compounded by income inequality. A small section of society is still enjoying their pre-crisis comfort while the masses are starving,” Kakujaha-Matundu added.

Last week agriculture ministry executive director Percy Misika warned that the economic shutdown could increase the number of food-insecure people, which already stands at 700 000.

Over the weekend an angry crowd in Windhoek confronted regional government officials over a delay in food aid deliveries in Windhoek.

Meanwhile, thousands of informal settlement residents have been forced to shut down market stalls and small businesses that are their livelihood.


Experts agree this is the time for government, and private entities, to step up leadership and to find innovative ways to address the increasing hunger in many communities.

Graham Hopwood of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the situation must be carefully and transparently managed. He praised interventions such as the opening of some informal markets and the emergency income grant.

Hopwood emphasised that a combination of economic frustrations and increased security force brutality is a recipe for civil unrest.

In recent weeks, several incidents of undue force against civilians, particularly in the poorest urban neighbourhoods, have been reported, while the economic fallout from the shutdown has dominated newspaper front pages.

Hopwood said economic frustrations can be mitigated by increasing existing social grants and emergency grants, and efforts should be made to keep uniformed forces under control.


Mutombo Leon, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled to Namibia some years ago, has been unable to sell vegetables at an Okuryangava market for the past four weeks.

“I don't know what I can do. This is the worst I have ever experienced. Even when I had to flee the DRC. I thought this would be a better life. Now, I have no job and I can't apply for the N$750 grant because I am a foreigner,” he says.

He says he subsists on meagre rations, mostly rice.

Christofin Musenge, a Namibian citizen who has worked alongside Leon, says: “If they don't allow us to open our market, we will die. How must we survive without being able to sell anything, without eating?”

Kakujaha-Matundu cautioned that if urgent steps aren't taken to address the needs of the hungry, “the feeling becomes one of 'I have nothing to lose'. If the majority adopt that, then things will spiral out of control.”

Many have pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted longstanding service delivery and other problems.

“What makes it untenable is that this is a time when lack of services is highlighted which should have been addressed a long time ago,” said Toni Hancox, director of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC).

She added that the provision of water to informal settlements in recent weeks has shown “that after years of not providing for access to water, it now appears that there is money and ability to do this in some instances.”

Urban crisis

Astrid Haas, the policy director at the International Growth Centre (IGC), recently wrote that those dependent on the informal economy, especially in urban areas, will be hardest hit by the lockdowns across the continent.

“Urban dwellers use a majority portion of their daily income on food. This is because they are less likely than rural people to be able to grow food. The poorest urban dwellers can spend up to 60% of their income on food.”

She said governments should prioritise keeping food supply chains working. In the informal settlements on the outskirts of large cities, these are mainly the street markets.

While food aid is welcome, it is not sustainable over the long term and it is tricky to identify beneficiaries in a sprawling, unplanned area, she wrote. Moreover, food aid would cause undue large-scale gatherings of people, undermining efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay.

Instead, markets and individual street vendors may “actually prove to be an advantage. It means people don't need to go far from home for food. It also may be easier to prevent crowds of people forming and be more feasible than enforcing strict distancing measures in market places.”

Haas stressed that ultimately, to ward off a hunger crisis, governments must think of sustainable solutions to keep food supply chains working. “The Covid-19 crisis may last for many more months.”

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