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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 July 2005, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Niger's people living on the edge
David Loyn
By David Loyn
BBC News, Niger

Drought and plagues of locusts have caused severe food shortages in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. Aid agencies have warned that 3.6 million people could be affected. Visiting Niger, David Loyn reflects on whether part of the blame could lie with the foreign policy of other countries.

A map of Niger showing Abalek
My journey to Niger began on the train to Paris to collect a visa, and a flight to a country which, before I left, a straw poll of the newsroom uncovered hardly anyone who could even name the capital city.

Niger had after all only surfaced on the world's consciousness once in recent years, in a rather bizarre way in the build-up to the Iraq war.

The Americans quoted British intelligence sources revealing a memo which told of yellow cake uranium from Niger being sold to Saddam Hussein.

It was supposed to prove that Saddam was trying to acquire a nuclear capability. It turned out to be a fake.


Niger is a stray after-thought, carved out of the remnants of French West Africa when the region won freedom from France exactly 45 years ago this weekend.

Donor governments in the developed world with contingency funds to relieve situations like these ignored all the warning signs
As my train went through the Kent countryside in the UK, through fields of ripening corn dotted with untidy ragged fields of set-aside land, I wondered at the dubious morality of a world where at one end farmers are paid not to be productive, while at the other, people are dying from a lack of food, in a country where there is no conflict and there is even a sort of democracy after decades littered with a succession of military coups.

I wondered, too, at the power of television.

The images of babies dying, too far gone to benefit from the best of help, filmed in one feeding station in the south of the country had been too graphic and too harrowing day after day to ignore.

The world went into full emergency mode and a major appeal is about to be launched in Britain.

A man holds a bowl with the last of his seeds for sowing, in a region blighted by drought and locusts. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
Drought and locusts have blighted many regions in Niger
The response now is natural and human, but donor governments in the developed world with contingency funds to relieve situations like these ignored all the warning signs, as they are virtually ignoring half a dozen other cries for help in Africa.

The UN's emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, says: "The majority of our activities in Africa are badly underfunded".

Forty-eight hours after that train journey, I was sitting in the office of the sub-prefect of Abalek.

A town on the edge, on the line at about 15 degrees north of the equator, where human attempts to grow crops give way to the inevitable reality of the Sahara desert.

The sub-prefect, Abakada Agwanaban, a striking tribal leader, dresses in magnificent white flowing robes with a white scarf wrapped elegantly round his head in the style of the Tuaregs - desert nomads who openly carry ancestral swords in the backstreets of his mud-walled town - which looks like that one in the Star Wars film. Beyond the boundaries of civilisation.


The sub-prefect told me that there were sometimes bad years here, but not since the great famine of 1973 has there been a cycle of three bad years in a row.

There was a drought last year, followed by locusts which ravaged the region. This year the rain has been patchy, with very little falling in some areas, so they talk of a second year of drought.

Nomad farmers stand among their cattle
Nomads compete with farmers for scarce resources as they try to move their herds around

Farms are turning to barren land. Their distinctive ball-shaped storage silos empty of food.

Mr Abakada told me that his biggest fear is that the crisis could go on into a third year, leaving people defenceless since all of their own coping mechanisms would be exhausted.

In this harsh environment, people cope with hardship by selling animals, men move away to work, nomads move their animals towards available pasture.

Well, this year the price of animals is depressed since too many are trying to sell.

The men who have gone away to work, as far away as Libya and Algeria, have not come back.

And nomads compete with farmers for scarce resources as they try to move their herds around.

Dirty water

A child suffering from malnutrition in Maradi, Niger
The UN estimates that 150,000 children are starving in Niger
But there is another dimension.

In any year, one in four children does not live to see a fifth birthday here.

Child mortality in a normal year is worst around Maradi, the area where the most vivid images of dying babies have come from, because there is an acute shortage of clean drinking water there.

Climate change has made Niger a more precarious place to live, while corruption and the failure of development policies have left this as the second poorest country in the world.

While welcoming the attention and proper funding at last, some aid professionals are wondering if the spotlight is focused a little too brightly on this small country.

The respected American-aided forecast organisation, Fews, says that the crisis in Niger is serious, but is less severe and affects far fewer people than current crises in four other African countries.

They warn, too, of the consequences of the continued failure to address the root causes.

Their report concludes: "Without a similar commitment and prolonged attention to addressing the chronic issues that are at the heart of the current localised crisis in Niger, the same problems will reoccur again soon."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 July, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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