Niger, Mali: Hunger, famine or both

Kidal Region dead herds

A herd, starved to death, in North Mali. These animals represent many years of saved wealth and future investment for Malian pastoralists.

Hopefully by now everyone knows that parts of West Africa, especially pockets of Chad and Niger, are struggling with the worst food shortages since 2005. Alex Thurston reports that international humanitarian agencies, as well as increasingly concerned governments, are now worried that this crisis is more generalized than first reported (last September), striking areas of Mauritania and Mali.

In Mali, there is a crisis in the north (mostly Kidal Region) right now, with press reports of huge numbers of animals lost to the mostly pastoralist residents. As in Niger, prices for forage have skyrocketed, prices for animals have plummeted, so that recent reports have talked of Malians trading female goats – the future of their herds – for a single bag of rice in Algerian border markets. Malian press reports talk of traveling through rural Kidal last week, counting corpse after corpse of starved livestock, the very source of pastoralist livelihoods. Those that can have moved south, increasing the pressure on pasture and farm land, surely also risking more communal tension. Kidal Region is already rife with armed unemployed men, competing smuggling rings, and simmering tribal vendettas. The overflow from this must add sparks to the already smoldering Tombuctu and Gao Regions, not to mention the areas south of the Niger where pastoralists head during the dry season. The tragic destruction of Gao market, north Mali’s largest commercial center, by fire last week has got to be a final nail in the coffin for some people, even if the rains have now started there.


The April-June 2010 food security conditions across West Africa, according to FEWS net.

There are also reports that Bamako is hoarding food aid, sending only the old supplies stashed at Mopti north and keeping the rest in the south, where the crops were good last year. True or not, people report it as such in Kidal.  On the other side, some southerners accuse Kidal politicians of profiting from the misery of their own people.   Other reports again, more neutral, document intense efforts on all sides, facing nearly insurmountable shortages and logistic impossibilities.

So things in Mali, if they receive the international focus or not, are as bad as in areas of Niger.

In Niger many more farming communities were stricken by the start-stop rains of June 2009, and the pockets of Tillaberi, Tahoua, and Maradi Regions (mostly) have long reverted to crisis mode. Men are on extended “exode”, the dry season trips abroad for wage labor. Other communities have picked up en masse, fleeing to towns, other regions, or even to Hausa northern Nigeria, where some have trade or family contacts. Others still remain, depleting the last of their food stocks, and somehow making it on less and less each day.


"We are experiencing, like all the countries in the Sahel, a food crisis due to the poor harvest and the locust attacks of 2004," Mr Tandja said in 2005. "The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see."

It’s important to differentiate between drought and famine (one may cause the other, or may not), and recognize that some places like parts of central Niger have suffered chronic seasonal malnutrition since the 1990s, and recurring drought caused famines since 1968. The causes are debated, and while climate change no doubt is happening, one should not discount the structural changes we have seen over the last 30 years. The IMF’s austerity policies which did such obvious damage to urban West Africa in the 1980s, and triggered much of the 1990-2 democratization wave thereafter, also had pernicious effects on rural areas. The “free trade” treaties of the 1990s — as Bill Clinton recently admitted in the case of Haitian farming — drove world commodity market forces into even the most protected rural communities. Subsidized western industrial agriculture can produce food and cash crops cheaper than most smallholders in the Sahel, but can also cause basic food prices to swing wildly on the back of market speculation, as we saw in 2008. As Marx famously said, in the face of commodification, structures, forms of productions, and traditions have no recourse. “All that is solid melts into air…”, and much of the rural economic structure of the developing worlds has so disintegrated in the last decades. Some areas might survive, sending farmers flooding into urban export driven production. For whatever reasons, Niger, like Haiti, never saw enough of this to absorb the mass of small farming which supports %80 of its people. They continue to literally scratch a living out of dusty millet fields, with less and less ability to turn to either community or markets when things go wrong.

FEWS net's projected food security situation (July-September 2010), Niger.  We expect a normal harvest to come in in Niger.

FEWS net's projected food security situation (July-September 2010), Niger. We expect a normal harvest to come in September.

Some pastoralists in North Mali and Niger never really recovered from the loss of herds in the early 1970s. They starved in 1984 because of this, and (arguably) supported armed struggle in the 1990s in part because of this. [It's more complicated that this, with longstanding communities of grievance, and militants trained abroad, but the 72-74 drought can't be discounted]. These are as much political and economic/structural problems as environmental, and they need to be treated once this hungry season passes in September.

In Niger, as grim as this is, some things have improved. Then President Tandja (and current opposition leader Hama Amadou, as well as some “progressive” westerners, for the record) purposefully denied the food shortages and deaths in 2005 were “famine”. They were seeing severe seasonal malnutrition in limited areas, and most children were dying of malnutrition related disease rather than starvation. This is how people die in famines, but the “f” word has political connotations which were painful, and so it is better to try and trivialize the suffering of the rural poor, apparently. I hope there is a special ring of hell for such people. We are not hearing that this time, in part thanks to the Nigerien Junta. Salou Djibo can play on an oft repeated trope in Niger (1974 being the model) of military rule justified by food emergencies mishandled by corrupt civilians. I would hope those in Niamey recognizing this as famine would do the same if they had been in power last year. I also hope they target the structural causes that allow this to happen, after they face the monumentally complicated distribution of food aid.

Aid Agencies (links to give, and learn more)

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