Wednesday, May 05, 2010

What is different about the current famine in Niger

Niger has really suffered from food shortages and droughts repeatedly for many years. A similar famine caused the last overthrow of government in 1974. Since then, the government would only respond angrily to the cries of it's people and humanitarians. This year it is different, as the government is distributing food and asking for international help.

From the New York Times, writer Adam Nossiter gives us this background on the Niger famine.

Once again Niger is facing a food crisis, a grimly familiar predicament in a vast desert country with an explosive birthrate and rudimentary agriculture. Rains and crops failed last year — rainfall was about 70 percent below normal in the region — and now half the population of 15 million faces food shortages, officials say. Thus it was in 2005, 1985 and 1974.

But there is a big difference this year: the new military government here is acknowledging serious hunger, trying to do something about it — and asking for help.

Before the country’s autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, was overthrown in February, the state warehouses remained stocked, despite the people’s need for help. Now they are largely empty of grain, a sign of how much has been distributed in recent weeks.

The new prime minister travels the suffering countryside, asking about the food shortage. Before, Mr. Tandja would fly into a rage at the very mention of the word famine, according to officials and newspapers here.

And when John Holmes, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, flew in last week, his extensive caravan received a military and police escort. Though Mr. Holmes was inquiring about what had been one of Niger’s most politically delicate topics, chronic hunger, government ministers with retinues of functionaries barreled into the dusty villages with him, and everywhere he went he was treated like a visiting head of state.

In the 2005 famine, by contrast, United Nations agencies were accused by Mr. Tandja of collaborating with the opposition to discredit him.

“Before, we didn’t speak about famine; it was forbidden,” said Idrissa Kouboukoye, head of the Niger Foodstuffs Agency office at the edge of town here. He chuckled softly, noting that this year, sacks of grain started to be dispensed from the massive concrete warehouses behind him on March 1, less than two weeks after Mr. Tandja was deposed.

“When people who don’t have enough to eat have to say that everything is fine, this is a problem,” Mr. Kouboukoye said of the previous government.

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