Anatomy of a famine

The landlocked Republic of Niger, on the southern edge of the Sahara, is one of the few countries on earth where famine is an everyday fact of life. Niger is officially the worst place on earth to live, according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index.

Every year, more than 80 per cent of Niger’s children suffer malnutrition. One in three die before they reach the age of five and there are barely three doctors for every 100,000 people. Average life expectancy is 42 years.

The famine that has gripped the country for much of this year—and belatedly made international headlines before media attention turned to Hurricane Katrina—had many causes: the Nigerien government’s unwillingness to acknowledge there was a famine and jailing of local journalists who dared say otherwise; the men of southern Niger locking up food supplies when they went away to work, leaving their wives and children to go hungry; the international community subsidising its own farmers to outflank impoverished Africans able to produce the same food at a fraction of the cost; and the international community, which ignored the crisis until images of starving children started appearing on their television screens.

Crimes by the powerful men of Africa contributed to Niger’s chronic food insecurity, but it must be galling for ordinary Africans who have little power—particularly Niger’s nomadic peoples—to know they are also partly responsible for the droughts and famine that have cursed Niger for decades.

By forsaking their traditional patterns of life and their flagrant overgrazing of camels and cattle, so the argument goes, the nomadic herders of the Sahel and Sahara—primarily the Tuareg and the Fulani—ruined an already precarious land.

This premise of African responsibility for African woes has a long history. At the height of Niger’s first great famine, which lasted for six years until 1974, and with abject disregard for more complex realities, Claire Sterling wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that:

Carried away by the promise of unlimited water, nomads forgot about the Sahel’s all-too-limited forage. Timeless rules, apportioning just so many cattle to graze for just so many days within a cow’s walking distance of just so much water in traditional wells, were brushed aside.

Niger was once a land of relative plenty. In the 1950s, when it was still under French administration, farmers in the south of the country were encouraged to move away from growing the crops that had sustained their families for generations. Encouraged by international companies, French authorities and, later, the Nigerien government, farmers planted peanuts, a cash crop that could help meet world demand and integrate Niger into the increasingly global economy. The French guaranteed high prices for Nigerien farmers, shielding them from the vagaries of the world market.

The early years were promising. Growth in production to the late 1960s was almost exponential, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land devoted to the humble peanut. It was Niger’s green revolution, an African success story. Already, by the early 1960s, more than half of the income of farmers in the Maradi district of southern Niger came from peanuts while 64 per cent of the peanut harvest came from Tahoua, farther north. Few if any of the farmers were nomads.

At harvest time, the joy of successful crops was tempered by new demands on farmers to repay the costs of the seeds and machinery. New seeds were introduced and productivity increased. With limited resources to buy the fertilisers these new seeds required, and with even less advice forthcoming from European salesmen on the benefits, few farmers (under five per cent according to one estimate) chose to fertilise their soil. Output continued to climb, but this was the result of good rains and increasingly hard-working farmers as much anything else.

When Niger became an associate of the European Common Market in 1965 it lost its price guarantees, although the French made up the shortfall through a decreasing system of subsidies. Between 1967 and 1969, the price paid to farmers fell by 22 per cent. Many farmers went into debt, so much so that by 1968,
more than half of all loans by farmers in the Zinder region were in default.

Oblivious to the hidden costs associated with peanut farming and drawn by the combination of high yields and artificial inducements, more and more farmers chose to plant peanuts. The peanut is a thirsty crop and the new seeds required an even shorter growing cycle. Fallow periods, which for centuries had been used to let the land regenerate, were dispensed with. Without fertilisers, the soil was becoming exhausted. The rising quartz content prevented the anchoring of topsoil, causing erosion.

With more farmers to accommodate, the boundaries of agricultural land moved northwards, bringing farmers into confrontation with pastoralists all along the Sahara’s southern fringe. The often-strained relationship between the nomads of the north and the south, between those of the Sahara and those of the Sahel, degenerated into conflict.

Pastoral nomadism had once sustained an environmental balance of resources, representing an effective use of land that was not suitable for agriculture, and enabling regeneration of the soil. Now the southern village reserves, which Tuareg nomads and Fulani herders had used for grazing and pasture in the months between their treks north and south, were given over to the peanut. Short-term gains were outweighed by the loss of natural fertilisers left behind by cattle and camels.

The Niger government, with an eye on exports, was complicit in extending farmlands to cover the pastures and grazing lands that had provided refuge for the northern nomads during dry years; they were no longer welcome in the south. At the same time, advances in animal husbandry—vaccination programs and better understanding of animal health—led to increased herd sizes. With demand for cattle growing across international markets, large cattle farms, with European backing, fenced off large tracts of land for commercial cattle breeding. These farms benefited a landowning élite at the expense of grazing land available to traditional pastoralists.

Another grand, apparently well-intentioned scheme, with European and International Monetary Fund backing, was the construction of wells and watering points along the traditional migration routes. But there were no pastures to feed the increasing numbers of stock using the routes. The landscape became denuded of vegetation with no prospect of regeneration. Without ground cover, the soil was scorched by the sun and scoured by the wind. Domestic but hardy desert goats, a mainstay of the nomadic subsistence, ate what little cover remained, even the thorns that had bound the soil, protecting the roots. With nothing to bind it, the earth turned to sand. Patches of desert began to form around villages and watering holes, then spread to merge with the desert. Soil was picked up by the wind and lifted high into the atmosphere as dust, blocking the sun: the perfect conditions for drought.

In 1968—some say a year later—the rains failed to arrive and did not return until after 1974. By then, Niger was probably the worst-hit of all Sahelian countries. Entire herds disappeared. Reports began to emerge from Tuareg areas that people were forced to eat animal feed, of men abandoning women and children in the desert.

One eyewitness account of the time reported that:

Dazed Tuareg men gather in the towns and cities to seek jobs and they gaze glumly at a noisy, bustling world they would never inhabit willingly. Families huddle in relief camps there existing on the grain and powdered milk that is airlifted in. Some Tuareg have committed suicide, some have gone mad.
The proud Tuareg were reduced to an existence described by Mohamed Aoutchiki Criska:
I have seen these proud men, my brothers, clustered around food distribution centres. Obliged, like beggars, to receive food ladled out to them by strangers who could not even guess the extent to which these nomads were forsaking their dignity as men.

Others died of starvation because they waited too late to seek assistance; in traditional nomadic society, it is considered ill-mannered to admit an absence of self-control, to admit suffering. From the beginning, those with the power to rectify the situation and halt the land’s decline failed to understand that destroyed land is as much a cause of drought as a consequence of it. They ignored the reality that overgrazing by the herding and pastoralist people of the north was a symptom, not the fundamental cause of the destruction.

All the while, they wilfully turned a blind eye to the evidence that massive ecological damage had been wrought for the sake of what remained a colonial economy benefiting international business and African élites.

By 1974, there was little that could be done beyond calculating the devastation. By one reckoning more than 60 per cent of the country’s livestock—cows, goats, sheep, camels—was lost, including two million head of cattle from 1972 to 1973 alone. At the height of the drought, a USAID study revealed that hundreds of thousands of square kilometres had been added to the southern Sahara, which was said to be moving south at 50km a year in some places. Previously arable land was forever lost. The quietly dispersed populations of villages and shifting nomadic encampments slowly emptied from the land, joining Africa’s disastrous migration into the cities. In less than a generation, the ecology of West Africa changed irreversibly.

Six years after the first famine came a second. Those trees that were left, the last barriers to desert encroachment, were cut down by the Tuareg and Fulani desperate for fodder and firewood. Conflict was by now almost endemic between once interdependent sedentary and nomadic communities. Hundreds of thousands died between 1980 and 1985 as the rains again failed and the world did nothing.

These are the real causes of Niger’s 2005 famine, just as they were in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They will also be the causes of the Niger famines of the future, for they will surely come.        

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Sundays in Stornoway

  • Martin Elliott
  • 23 April 2006

Locals might find it boring, but this visitor to the Outer Hebrides found more than enough to make the sabbath special


Fair go, Prime Minister

  • Nicholas Dunstan
  • 23 April 2006

Scrapping unfair dismissal laws will leave most Australian workers vulnerable. The effect on society could be profound.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up