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Following food crises in 2005 and 2008, Niger is once again reeling under a famine that has reached Chad and northern Mali, with repercussions for other countries in the Sahel region. As appeals for solidarity increase, Tidiane Kassé cautions that by tackling the consequences rather than the causes of the crisis, the region’s people are likely to remain vulnerable to hunger.

When we talk of a ‘food crisis’, what are we referring to? Beyond cold and disembodied statistics, a Malian journalist has visited a few parts of Niger and reports on means of life, indeed, to surviving.[1]

‘We eat once a day rather than three meals,’ tells Abdou Garba, a farmer from Tarna, a small village in the Maradi region (south-central Niger).

‘We and our animals are hungry; the crisis of 2005 is repeating itself,’ murmurs Ali Galadima, Tarna’s village chief. Millet and corn, basic grains, ‘began to grow well, but then the rain came to a brutal stop for two months and the heat burnt everything,’ he recalls. The consequence? The harvests are but a third of what they would have been and the majority of farmers have been unable to harvest anything.

‘During the previous season, I harvested 30 bundles of millet versus only 11 this time, and our reserves are already exhausted,’ laments Mamane Garba, a father of 18 children.

‘In Tarna, between 300 and 500 people have already fled to Maradi,’ according to Ali Galadima. Since her husband left for neighbouring Nigeria a month ago, Nana-Aïchatou has to feed her eight children alone and care for her sick mother. In order to survive, each morning she leaves to chop wood in the bush, and then makes her way on foot along the three kilometres separating her village of Nassarawa and Maradi, where she sells her merchandise. ‘I earn on average 500 FCFA [Franc CFA]. It’s just enough to buy two kilos of millet to make a meal’, the young women explains.

For the 50th anniversary of Niger’s independence, the junta in power had the foresight not to fall into the burlesque. In a country ravaged by famine, there are more important things to do than feast. In contrast with other former French colonies in Africa, where independence parades have been held in a manner devoid of substance and sense (and built on the failings which have reinforced the links of subject to metropole and other examples of power –political, economic, etc), Niamey’s authorities are to limit themselves to a military parade on 3 August. With symbolism put aside, the reality needs to be faced up to: some 8 million Nigeriens – or half the country’s population – are affected by the famine.

The crisis is not limited to within Niger’s borders. The situation is critical across a band of the Sahel, from northern Mali to Chad, where 10 million people find themselves in a state of distress, beyond the critical threshold. In addition to the 8 million affected Nigeriens are some 1.6 million Chadians and 500,000 Malians.

These statistics are only, however, the visible aspect that institutions and international non-governmental organisations display. They suffer from the limits around reading data on Africa, notably on rural areas and a region of the Sahel in which pastoral traditions and a nomadic lifestyle are a prominent feature.

The first alarm bells around this crisis were sounded last March. The threat of the catastrophe was visible in the concern of farmers. The granaries, filled only from the last rainy season, were nonetheless enough for the population’s survival. But the tension weighing on the pastures and livestock foretold the crisis. At the time, the Billital Maroobé network of farmers and pastoralists published a declaration to call upon the leaders of the Inter-États de lutte contre la sécheresse dans le Sahel (Inter-State Committee against Drought in the Sahel), on the eve of the summit being held in Lomé on 30 March 2010.[2]

The misfortune of these people across the Sahel will interest no one. Even where the fire smouldered, the evidence went unacknowledged. The former Nigerien president, Mamadou Tandja, had in effect systematically rejected the diagnosis, speaking of a difficult situation but one under control. Following his overthrow in a coup on 18 February 2010, the new powers in Niamey officially recognised the famine affecting the lives of half of the population.

During these last few weeks, Niger has thrust itself into the spotlight on the strength of a serious crisis. In this country, as in Mali and Chad, peasants are currently living through a lean period. This is the time when the first rains fall (irregularly and modestly in certain regions) and when, waiting for the first harvests, reserves from the previous rainy season are practically exhausted. Up until September, the date of the first harvests, the affected populations will live through a critical time.

In the face of empty granaries, Niger’s people have begun to develop a strategy for survival. ‘In Niger, women cover a desert-like environment in search of anthills in order to dig up and retrieve grains of millet, corn and other crops that the ants have collected,’ tells Charles Bambara, in charge of communications for Oxfam GB in Dakar. In the north of Mali, farmers, keen to allow their livestock to drink, have taken to using the water points actually intended for elephants (in a bid to protect the last pachyderms alive in the country).

In this way people begin to weigh on their environment, to destabilise the ecosystem in order to survive themselves in the face of a nature that has become hostile. This perpetuates a terrible, vicious cycle and leads herders to sell off their livestock that they can no longer support in order to earn enough to supply the market. These peasants, who used to produce for themselves and sell their surplus, therefore simply come to live from others. But when they sell off their livestock in order to supply themselves with food, they end up facing a level of inflation marked by deteriorating terms of exchange. In Chad, where animals have fallen to half-price, inflation has reached a 35 per cent increase on 2009. In the six regions of this country of 10 million inhabitants, 1.5 million people find themselves food-insecure.

With the Sahelien area transcending borders and with interacting markets and the migrations of populations, it is to be expected that the geographic dimensions of this food crisis go beyond the area in which it is currently defined. Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria will be already affected to a lesser degree. Everywhere there is a risk of a snowball effect resulting from the crisis. Already, in Chad, the level of malnutrition has reached an urgent threshold, with more than 100,000 children at risk. In Niger, some 500,000 children from 6 to 23 months are affected, or 18 per cent of the population of this age group, according to the minister for health.


The disorder of the world food crisis in 2008 did not become hazy, and this new peak comes to remind us that, in the Sahel, the crisis results from an endemic problem. This is a problem that, as the thrust of recurrent fever testifies, is more a question of structure than conjuncture, that these are the failings of agricultural policies that impose their own tough realities, and that the recommended solutions are not different from those pushed in the 1980s with the establishing of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) which sounded the death knell of Africa’s agricultural policies.

The reduced investment imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank had then destroyed the base of an agriculture geared towards food sovereignty. Industrial cultures were promoted which washed the soil (leading to greater soil erosion, the use of pesticides and chemical fertiliser) and disrupted the balance of the systems of production behind subsistence and the generation of complementary revenues on the strength of access to local markets. From this point it was a question of food security, no matter where stocks came from. This was the period in which food aid poured in. Africa was to produce no longer, with African stomachs wagered on agricultural surpluses from Europe, the US and elsewhere. As a result, since 1980 sub-Saharan Africa has been the only region of the world where average per capita food production has continued to decline over the last 40 years.[3]

With respect to the current famine, the food security strategy developed by organisations and institutions is again active. While it is clear that the situation is one of urgency, should we not be sure to pull up the problem at its root? Niger lived through this food crisis in 2005. It hit 3.5 million of the country’s inhabitants. The punctual arrival of aid simply postponed the problem. Today the same crisis has come back and appeals for international solidarity will simply prove a cautery on a wooden leg. And perhaps two years down the line, with rainfall critically low again, Africa will again be playing beggars.


For the time being, it’s ‘open your heart to Niger’! At the end of June, the president of the Haute autorité à la sécurité alimentaire du Niger (High Authority on Food Security in Niger) launched the ‘2010 Food Crisis in Niger Programme’. It is funded by USAID and carried out by three international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with US$2.154 million behind it. The European Commission announced that it will provide an additional €24 million for victims of the food crisis in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and in the north of Nigeria. Further contributions have been announced here and there. But it seems that Niger’s famine has ‘sold’ itself poorly.

In a declaration published on 9 July, co-signed by Oxfam, ACF, Acted, Care International, Save the Children, Secours Catholique, Secours Islamique and others, it was noted that ‘Despite six months of appeals, the funds obtained to respond to the crisis have been slow to arrive and insufficient. For Niger, a further US$107 million (€85 million) is needed in order to reach the amount of US$130 million announced by the United Nations. Oxfam regrets the absence of food security actors in the affected zones, notably the FICR, Intermon Oxfam, ACRA and Africare.’ And note that the response of UN agencies such the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and the WFP (World Food Programme) still cover only 50 per cent of needs.

The strategies currently developed to speed up aid – in a bid to face up to the famine in the Sahel and to make the system of alert more responsive, indeed, to increase financial means and mobile food stocks – again come back to facing the consequences of not looking into the real causes.

African agriculture has suffered a series of difficulties which, over 30 years, have left it vulnerable to the smallest of changes on both the international market and climatically. Agricultural policies applied by states, under donors’ pressure, have in effect turned their back on policies which, formerly, assured technical assistance to producers, backed up by a price-stabilisation mechanism and subsidies for commodities.

The fragility of this sector has been reinforced by an all-out liberalisation and the opening of markets to imported products, something which has practically strangled a scarcely competitive African agriculture. Today African markets are crumbling under the weight of Asian and European labels and so on, save in rare pockets of resistance and alternatives where the ‘local consumer’ is promoted. In this way, in a few decades, agricultural practices, in both urban and rural environments, have changed.

We could go even further towards the worst of it and look at the development of biofuels and the extent to which more and more land is being diverted away from food production. Essentially, we will be growing to power cars rather than fill granaries. And in July this year, Burkina Faso has inaugurated its first industrial unit of production, while the country remains vulnerable in the face of a food crisis.

A year ago, Djibo Bagna – president of the Peasant Association of Niger, agro-breeder of his state and who became president of ROPPA (Réseau des organisations de producteurs et de paysans d’Afrique de l’Ouest) – outlined the terms of a crisis already known by the ‘peasants’ sense’. He said:

‘Previously, we would work for three months and be able to eat throughout the year. A field of 100 hectares would produce 300 bundles of millet. Now, with the same area, it’s hard to get 40 bundles, because the soil is worn away and the rain is less reliable. Two, three months after a harvest, the food is used up. People are forced to look into other ways of making a living. The problem is that today, such income is not enough as all the prices have gone up. Two years ago, a 100kg sack of maize would be around 10,000 CFA. Today, it costs around 22,000 CFA. It’s unbearable!

‘Our areas have come to resemble the food crises which followed the drought of the 1970s. And it hasn’t stopped since. In 2005 and 2007, for example, millet completely dried up. Before, our governments supported agriculture: agronomists worked with farmers, livestock vaccination was free… But since structural adjustment, our governments have gone away from agriculture. Of course, when this sector involves 85 per cent of the population, this has consequences: lower production, a rural exodus, growing slums, with everything that that implies like poverty, idleness and delinquency…

‘Today, in the smallest village, people eat bread, milk and coffee… This wasn’t part of our customs; we used to eat maize-based dough, sorghum and millet. But when you can’t live anymore from your field and you’re reliant on others (neighbours, food aid), you eat what you’re given.

‘In 2005, while Niger lay in fear of famine [editor: From the end of 2004 to the summer of 2005, the country endured a terrible famine caused by drought and a locust invasion], there was food in Burkina Faso, in Ghana, in Benin. Instead of getting food from these neighbouring countries, the politicians opted to import it from Europe and Taiwan. This costs more and is not adapted to our customs.

‘Niger is a country of the Sahel. But the “dallo” (tablecloth) is not very deep. When predictions are poor, the authorities could develop areas so that locals can work on irrigation. But agriculture is not a priority for our politicians.’

The challenge, in the face of these recurrent food crises in Africa, is to make agriculture more human, to think of it according to its original function. The foundation of real food sovereignty lies in the promotion and consolidation of family agriculture, as well as the development of an agro-ecology which offers the best antidote to the wasting-away of fragile ecosystems at the mercy of deregulation. Thirty years after the new agricultural policies imposed as part of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), the failure and the causes of the failure no longer escape anybody. In a commentary published on 30 April, a Burkinabé paper commented:

‘There is a need to ask ourselves how, after 50 years of independence, these countries have yet to achieve self-sufficiency in food. Can we only speak of autonomy when we are hungry and when we’re unable to feed ourselves without external help?

‘In other words, a starving man won’t be a free man, as another would say. Education, health and food remain the three indispensible factors to initiate development. “A hungry stomach has no ears”, as the saying goes. And without self-sufficiency, we can’t talk of development.

‘Let’s hope that international solidarity can come to the aid of Nigeriens. It’s the fault of their leaders that they’re in this position. Cultural methods and bad governance are the precursors to this situation. The improper character to agriculture of our soils won’t be a pretext for carelessness, because countries like India, China and – to an extent – Israel, who got off to a bad start, have been able to achieve self-sufficiency by overcoming the natural obstacles which confronted them thanks to appropriate policies and new cultural approaches. It is right to rethink agricultural policy in sub-Saharan Africa. For the gallant heart, nothing is impossible!’[4]

Gallant hearts there will always be…


* Tidiane Kassé is editor of Pambazuka News in French.
* Translated from the French by Alex Free.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] Oumar Niane (Agence malienne de presse – AMAP), jeudi 22 avril 2010.
[3] “Assuring Food and Nutrition Security in Africa by 2020” -- Proceedings of an All-Africa Conference, April 1-3, 2004 -- Kampala, Uganda,” International Food Policy Research Institute, 2004.
[4] Passage extrait d’un entretien diffusé dans «Ligueur» n°16 du 10 juin 2009