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Niger: Reasons for a Disaster

Thursday 18 August 2005

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By Nathalie Funès

"The world was deaf."

A month after the G-8 conference that promoted aid to Africa to first priority ranking, children are dying of hunger in a country cited as an example for its democratic efforts. As of October 2004, the catastrophe was foreseeable. But in the face of the emergency, rich countries, NGOs, and local authorities have competed in impotence.

The livestock eat too much sand. There aren’t enough roots, stems, leaves. Every morning, 38-year-old Harouna Abdouzana, a farmer of Haoussa ethnicity, leads his village’s flock out to where the ground is a little less dry. But the cows and the sheep are tired. Their ribs sticking out, their muscles eaten away, their bellies full of sand, they collapse one after the other. Last year, a pretty three-year-old heifer sold for 85,000 CFA francs (130 Euros) on the market. "With that, I bought 5 sacks of millet and we held on for the break between the two harvests," Harouna recounts. Now, the animals are in such bad condition, they’re sold off.

The other day, a neighbor came back from the market heart-broken. He hadn’t been able to get more than 5,000 CFA francs (7.60 Euros) for his "fattest" cow, which had nothing more than her skin covering her bones. Barely enough to return with a tia (a small measure) of grain. In Hanou, Harouna’s village, a hundred kilometers from Maradi, south of Niger, the reckoning is quickly completed. The last harvest was half as good as usual. The banco (dried earth) granaries have been empty for a long time. Not a single grain of millet, sorghum, or cow-pea. Families have sold their bicycle, their plow, to buy a little grain. Others have eaten their seed. The luckiest are able to maintain one meal a day. The most unlucky, as always when food is scarce, are the children. The last few weeks, six children have died in Hanou. And the month of August, the month of the big rains, when malaria crises and infections are often deadly, has just begun.

Niger is confronting the most serious food crisis of the last twenty years. More than 2 and a half million inhabitants, a fifth of the population, are affected, according to the UN. And among them, 800,000 children under 5 years old, 150,000 of whom suffer from serious malnutrition and are at risk of death if not taken care of. In this Sahel country, two and a half times as large as France, one of the poorest on the planet, people are accustomed to living on the razor’s edge. Normally, 63% of the population gets by on less than a dollar a day; one out of three children presents symptoms of malnutrition; one in five does not reach five years of age.

Here, almost everyone (85%) works in the fields. But they continue to cultivate the earth as they have always done for centuries. "We plant millet and wait for it to rain," summarizes Harouna Bembello, President of the association SOS Sahel, in Niamey. Irrigation, except along the Niger river, is virtually non-existent. The desert advances towards the south a little bit every year. The least climatic hazard creates a catastrophe. Last summer, in mid-August, right in the heart of what’s called the "wintry" season, the rain stopped for good. Not a drop more. A few days later, desert locusts landed and devoured the little that had grown. The famous Schistocerca gregaria, as large as a thumb, moving 200 kilometers a day at cruising speed, bombarded the crops by the billions. After their passage, there wasn’t even any bark left on the trees. Chronicle of a disaster foretold? In October, the Niger government reckoned up the situation. It was not promising. They were 223,000 tons of cereal grains short, and, above all, 4.6 million tons short of animal feed: the largest deficit of dry goods in all of Niger’s history. Prime Minister Hama Amadou then requested 78,000 tons of cereals from the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations’ organ responsible for the fight against hunger in the world. The result? Practically nothing. Donor countries played possum. Financing did not follow. Only 6,500 tons, not even a tenth of what was requested, would be delivered to Niger. "The world was deaf," is the analysis of Gian Carlo Cirri, WFP representative in Niamey. "The first appeals for aid to Niger were launched a few weeks before the tsunami in Asia, which monopolized gifts and emotion. Then, it was the civil war in Western Sudan’s Darfur region’s turn. There are, unfortunately, too many emergency situations on our planet. The international community is a little like firemen. They intervene when there’s a fire."

Today, of course, everybody is on board. Now, practically every day, Niger television announces the arrival of a new shipment of food at the Niamey airport. Bernard Kouchner, former [French] Secretary of State for Humanitarian Aid and founder of the association Réunir, chartered some Hercules C-130’s from the French Air Force and Antonov 12’s from the defunct USSR on behalf of Action Against Hunger, all stuffed to bursting with peanut oil, sugar, and Plumpy’ Nut, a high-calorie food paste. Philippe Douste-Blazy, French Foreign Affairs Minister, came with 2 tons of medicines and 35 tons of food. The former and the present ministers nearly met in Tahoua, 550 kilometers north-east of Maradi. There were also airlifts from Morocco, Libya ... promises of gifts are flowing in. The WFP tripled its appeal for funds (from 16 to 57.5 million dollars) and hopes to thus be able to bring aid to the 2.5 million most vulnerable people. "But we had to wait eight months," sighs Gian Carlo Cirri, eight months too many, for the world to wake up."

It was June 30th when the BBC broadcast the first images of Nigerois children dying of hunger. With the so-characteristic signs of starving kids. The apathetic look, the discolored hair that finally falls out, the skeleton arms and legs, the belly swollen with a hypertrophic liver, pale skin cracking open from drying out. And among some, edemas provoked by the lack of protein. Then there was talk of the "kwarshiorkor" syndrome, a word derived from Ghanaian that means "illness of a child who is no longer breast-fed." They had been filmed in Maradi, the red zone for malnutrition in Niger, in one of the 31 therapeutic nutrition centers opened by DWB (Doctors Without Borders). There, the atmosphere is virtually military. A red bracelet for "severe" cases, orange for those "at risk." The former are sent into intensive care tents, the latter into the Phase I tent. With their mothers, who, alone are admitted to the camp’s interior.

Doctor Mohamed Soumabia was an emergency hire less than a week ago, just as he was graduating from the Niamey medical school, but he already has drawn features. Every day, he sees children go by whom he is not sure he can save. Like Zeinab, a little ten-month-old girl who weighs only 3.8 kilos - the birth weight of an occidental baby - for her 61 centimeters. Her medical file is summarized in a single phrase: "state of shock." Her 45-year-old mother, who lives in the Bagalam neighborhood, one of the poorest in Maradi, hasn’t had any milk for a long time. She has had nine children, one more than the average for Nigerois women, world champions of fertility. Zeinab is the last of her siblings. She didn’t have enough strength to take her share from the family dish, nor to resist the nest of infections that boiled millet becomes. Since January, 15,000 children under five years of age have come to be cared for in a DWB center. Like Zeinab, many of them are the "little last ones," often the first to be sacrificed. 700 have died during treatment. "Since the beginning of the year, the number of children arriving at Maradi has begun to climb abnormally," recounts Milton Tectonidis, from the medical department of DWB in Niger. In April-May, an investigation by one of our teams in the Tahoua and Maradi regions showed rates of generalized acute malnutrition of 19% and of severe acute malnutrition of over 2%. We were clearly in an emergency situation." Everyone knew it them. The Azawak grazing area around Tahoua, ordinarily one of the richest in the country, was yielding virtually nothing. To feed their camels, zebus, and sheep, the Peuls and the Touaregs of the north came down very early, at the end of November. They came and inflated Niger’s border towns (Maradi has increased by close to 30% in several months) although there was already not much there to eat. Food shortages went up in a straight line. In Diffa, shepherds stripped away thatched huts from the market to give their cows something to eat; others from Maradi allow their goats to chew on plastic at the risk of seeing them succumb to intestinal occlusion. When they started back to the north in the spring, the butchers’ carts followed. The animals were so tired that many couldn’t get warm again after the May rains. Mass graves are still moldering in Tadrès, north of Tahoua. According to rumor, the Peuls, who never commit suicide, could not stand the sight, and threw themselves into the pits.

"The whole subsistence economy is based on what we call the terms of trade," explains Hélène Agnelli, the Action against Hunger coordinator in Niamey. "How many sheep and goats are needed to obtain a 100 kilo sack of millet? That’s what measures purchasing power. Now the price of livestock - too sick, too skinny - has collapsed, while the price of cereals has exploded. That meant quite simply that many no longer had the means to buy themselves food." By the end of June, a sack of millet had reached 30,000 CFA francs (46 Euros), a historic record. Double what it cost last year. Some on the Maradi market are still rubbing their hands about it. Here the food crisis seems well distant. The stalls overflow with cereals, onions, peanuts, poultry ... Forty-four-year-old Bouzou Ditbiamaradi, with a gold-plated watch, green djellaba, and a business man’s pot belly, is pleased with himself. He’s had a good year. In the spring, when "La Flamme," the local newspaper, announced that "famine is knocking on the doors north of Maradi" and that 20,000 children in the region were "threatened with kwarshiorkor and nutrition problems," he bought 50 tons of millet in the country for 10,000 CFA francs (15 euros) a sack. And then he waited quietly for prices to rise. "They always go up when it doesn’t rain," he explains, his smile reaching up to his ears. He just resold the sacks for more than double their purchase price. That’s what’s called speculation. It is estimated that around 13,000 tons of millet have stayed in Maradi’s rich merchants’ warehouses for months. Across the Nigerian border the sale prices are even more interesting.

Did the government underestimate the situation’s gravity? In June, President Mamadou Tandja’s speech during his visit to the United States - where he’s considered one of the most meritorious African heads of state - plunged impotent observers of the crisis into consternation: "If someone wants to help Niger, we are takers. But if that donor or too-gossipy journalists from his country have to show images of children suffering from malnutrition - show them around the world and create a harmful and pernicious campaign against Niger’s image - we don’t accept it."

Yet all the mechanisms that would have allowed the crisis to be softened were in place. But not a single one worked. An inventory of back-up cereals, managed by the government, was supposed to assure the interval between the two harvests. It proved to be largely inadequate: only 36,000 tons were able to be distributed to the population. As of the beginning of June, there wasn’t a single grain left in the state’s warehouses. And it was impossible to buy grain in Burkina, Nigeria, and the other neighboring countries, which more or less closed their borders out of fear of shortages for themselves. Still worse, the government continued to apply to the limit the sacrosanct principle of selling millet at moderate prices rather than proceeding to massive free distributions. To avoid, as it is murmured in Niamey, displeasing Maradi’s big traders, among whom are several intimates of President Tandja. You had to pay 10,000CFA francs (15 euros) for a sack, much too expensive for the families who needed it most.

"The law of economic development, fear of deregulating the market, the desire to follow IMF prescriptions to the letter were chosen, in spite of the food catastrophe," indicates Mego Terzian, DWB coordinator in Maradi. "They should have distributed supplies for free as soon as possible. Instead, the country is thrust into crisis. The same observation holds true for the recovery of medical costs. For rich and poor, access to care costs a minimum 500 CFA francs (.75 Euros). But when you have to knock yourself out to eat, you don’t have any means left to go to the doctor. That’s how the vicious circle of malnutrition gets started. Kids get sick, they’re not cared for, they don’t eat any more, they get skinny, they get weak, they get new infections, they eat still less ..."

Right now in Niger, the rain is falling. The next harvest, in October, should be a good one. In this country that lives on transfusion from funds donors, where the population has increased fourfold since independence in 1960, while the arable surface has diminished by 40%, the only indicator that counts remains water. "Families have lost a lot in this crisis," sighs Seidou Bakari, coordinator for the government organ, Food Crisis Cell. "their children, their livestock, their means of production, their seed ... We will take years to recover from this. And if ever the rain stops suddenly, like last year, well then, we’re dead..."

Niger in Numbers

- Population: 11.9 millions
- GDP per person: 180 dollars
- Life expectancy: 46 years
- Infant mortality: 155 per thousand (from 0 to 1 year old), 262 per thousand (from 0 to 5 years old)
- Rate of elementary education: 40%
- Average fertility per woman: 8 children
- Illiteracy: 83%
- Rank on the UN’s human development scale: 174th (next to last rank globally)

Source: World Bank, 2003.

The Food Crisis Cell, a governmental organization, estimated in mid-July that 2.7 million people suffered from the hunger crisis in the regions of Tillabéri, Tahoua, Maradi and Zinder (around 3,000 villages). 875,000 people are in an extremely critical situation (criteria established as a function of the seriousness of infantile pathologies, reduction in the number of daily meals, etc), 827,000 are in a critical situation, 26,000 confronted with very difficult conditions, 250,000 with difficult conditions, and 725,000 present warning signs.

Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.