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Anatomy of a famine

  • 23 April 2006

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