According to the development charity Oxfam, more than 3 million people are facing starvation in Niger out of a population of 11 million. Of these, 800,000 are children. This became alarming weeks after the leaders of the G8 countries met in Scotland pledging to make poverty a thing of the past. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has operated in Niger for the last 15 years, has described the famine as “the biggest nutritional operation in MSF history.” Terrible and graphic images of dying children has finally made the world wake up and has forced the West to shed crocodile tear.
Is the famine a “natural” disaster?
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) issued an urgent-action-required notice in its December 8, 2004, briefing. In this it noted that in “agro-pastoral areas hit by locusts, dryness and early end of season, household food deficits are emerging.” Last August in Niger, the expected rains failed and locusts consumed much of the crops that survived, leading to one of the poorest recorded harvests this month.
The UN first called for aid in autumn 2004, but received close to nothing. In March 2005 it put out an international appeal for $16 million. It was estimated on the first day of the appeal that just $1 per day per individual could have offset the crisis, but no rich nation responded; at the same time billions of dollars are being wasted on the murderous episode in Iraq. Now it will take over $80 to save each starving person. Jan Egeland (UN’s relief coordinator) said recently that, “We have received more pledges in the past week than we have in six months but it is too late for some of these children”.
Suffice it to say, as MSF’s Sekkenes pointed out, “This is not a famine, in the Somalian way. The harvest was bad in 2004 and the millet granaries are empty. Yet there is food on the markets. The trouble is that the price of food is beyond anyone’s reach.” A New York Times story made the same point about food being available at markets, but too expensive for the already impoverished population.
Sekkenes continued, “Given this situation, it was criminal of the UN this year to tackle the emergency in a gingerly way, putting ‘moderately priced’ cereals on the market. The UN should have immediately organised free food distribution.” But is this likely under this profit-seeking, bloodthirsty capitalist system?
Directly linked to this extreme poverty is the IMF and its “Structural Adjustment Programmes. Mamadou Tandja, the President greeted the poor people of Niger last December with 19% VAT, which led to skyrocketing increases in the price of goods and services in Niger. The tax was imposed despite the fact that the price of basic foods has risen between 75 and 89 percent over the last five years. At the same time, the sale price of livestock ‑ the main income of the country’s nomadic herders ‑ has fallen by 25 percent.
The immediate response of the people of Niger to these inhuman economic policies dictated by IMF was to come out on one of the most historic street protests ever seen in the history of Niger, led by the working class. This was in March and was mainly against the extremely high price of goods. The response of the regime was to imprison the leaders of the opposition movement and to press on with the IMF measures.
The role of the Western powers
Interestingly enough, Niger’s regime is highly regarded by the great powers, as it presides over a country with strategic importance as a major exporter of uranium. President Tandja met with President George W. Bush in June to discuss security issues ‑ and there was apparently no mention of the famine.
Niger, along with eight other African countries in the region, is having its troops trained by the US military for “extended desert and border operations” to supposedly head off infiltration by international terrorist groups. In addition to military training, a recently announced initiative, costing $500 million over the next seven years, will also assign more military officers to US embassies, pick out landing strips for use in emergencies, and secure new bilateral agreements giving “greater access and legal protection for US troops.”
This seems much more important strategically to the US government than the hundreds of children dying daily in the republic of Niger.