AFRICA: Millions for military aid, a pittance for the starving

Issue 

Norm Dixon

For more than eight months, rich Western governments have refused to respond to successively more urgent appeals by aid agencies and the United Nations for emergency assistance to avert mass starvation in the drought-ravaged Sahel region of Africa, in particular Niger. Yet even as the West's purse strings have remained tightly tied for the hungry, Washington is to lavish US$550 million on the region's regimes as part of its bogus "war on terror".

According to aid agencies, a vast "hunger belt" stretches across the Sahel region, from Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali in west Africa, through Niger and Chad in central Africa, to Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and reaching as far as Somalia on the Indian Ocean coast. The US-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net), which brings together aid agencies active in Africa, estimates that more than 20 million people in at least seven countries are facing "food emergencies".

Recently, media attention has focused on the hunger crisis in Niger, where some 3.6 million of the country's 11.5 million people are hungry due to drought and locust plagues last year. More than 2.5 million people are described by the World Food Program as being "extremely vulnerable and in need of food assistance", including 800,000 children. There are fears that 150,000 kids could starve to death before October.

Yet this unfolding humanitarian disaster was studiously ignored by the leaders of the world's richest countries meeting in Scotland on July 6-8, where they supposedly proclaimed a "new deal" between the rich countries and the poor in Africa. Nor did the world's capitalist media — which was busy lauding the Group of Eight industrialised countries' "historic" plan to conditionally cancel multilateral debts owed by a few African countries as the dawning of a new era of international social justice — interrupt the hype to note that millions of Africans were starving at that very moment due to the G8 governments' miserliness and their imposition of free-market policies.

It was only when a BBC reporter and camera crew emerged from Niger in mid-July with shocking footage of starving children, threatening to expose the G8's massive hypocrisy and cynicism, that Western governments reluctantly increased aid to Niger from virtually zero to an inadequate trickle.

It soon emerged that the UN had first issued an alert in November warning that the poor of Niger faced severe hunger and called for Western governments to fund aid. Next to nothing arrived. In March, another appeal for $16 million resulted in a meagre $1 million. A May 25 call for $30 million again resulted in little. It was repeated on July 8 and only resulted in $10 million, the vast bulk of that only coming in after the BBC aired its report. On August 5, the UN announced that $80 million was now required to make up for the tardiness in responding to its earlier calls.

IMF's role

The severity of Niger's crisis has been compounded by the free market policies imposed by governments of the rich countries, the acceptance of which were the condition for its inclusion in the G8's latest debt cancellation scheme. The severe hunger gripping Niger is not wholly due to shortages of food: total grain production last harvest was well below the last five-year average, but was still 22% higher than the 2000-01 season.

The poor majority — subsistence farmers and cattle rearers, 63% of whom live on less than $1 a day — simply cannot afford to buy the available grain to tide them over until the next harvest in October. This is because "economic reforms" mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) scrapped price controls and the buying and selling of grain by the state. A 100-kilogram bag of millet, which could be bought for the equivalent of $24 last year, now costs $44. The class of profit-seeking wealthy traders created by the IMF policies have diverted grain to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where they can get higher prices.

On top of that, in April, at the behest of the IMF, the Niger government attempted to impose a 19% GST on milk, flour and sugar but mass demonstrations and a general strike forced a partial backdown. At the same time, Niger has been pumping government funds into state enterprises in preparation for their privatisation, another Western condition for debt cancellation. Niger's essential water utility has already been privatised, while the World Bank is funding private irrigation schemes in the countryside that poor farmers will not have access to. Taxes on petrol, imposed to pay its foreign debt, have also increased the cost of grain for the poor.

Crisis downplayed

However, US officials continue to downplay the seriousness of Niger's crisis and to defend free market policies. US officials refuse to utter the word "famine", because it suggests that urgent action is necessary. The July 26 British Guardian reported that the US government's Agency for International Development prefers to call it a "very severe but localised food security crisis" and warns that "sensational" media coverage and aid agency reports of famine may "impede the market in delivering lower food cost".

Edward Fox, a USAID assistant administrator, told Agence France Presse on August 8 that the number of people in need of assistance in Niger was "under a million, probably around 800,000 ... that means in some cases, maybe occasionally, supplemental food and in other cases it will mean a daily ration of food to keep them alive [but] if we sent massive amounts of food aid over there the harvest will come in next month and the prices will drop through the floor and it'll destroy their economy."

Niger's loyally pro-Western regime led by President Mamadou Tandja continues to bend over backwards to meet the West's strict free market policies. From the beginning of the crisis, Tandja has refused to meet the demands of protesters in Niger and distribute free food to the most hungry, offering only to sell it at "subsidised" prices that remain too high for the poor. This approach was supported by both the USAID-dominated FEWS Net and the UN. Johanne Sekkenes, Medecins Sans Frontieres mission head in Niger, told the August 1 British Independent that "there is food on the market. The trouble is that the price is beyond anyone's reach. Given this situation, it was criminal of the UN this year to tackle the emergency in a gingerly way, putting 'moderately priced' cereals on the market. The UN should have immediately organised free food distribution."

Dr Alka Oumarou, director of a medical centre in the famine region, told the August 8 Guardian: "It took our government four months to do anything after we all started reporting how bad the situation was. Even then they did not give out free food but made people buy it. They offered a complicated loan scheme; it did not work and people died. Our medical centre is government-controlled, and the government insists we should charge people ... We had to turn away those who could not pay, and some of them died. They are getting free treatment [now] only because of the [aid] agencies."

Tandja went so far as to tell the BBC on August 9 that reports of famine were "false propaganda" being circulated by the UN and opposition parties. "The people of Niger look well fed", he declared.

Meanwhile, aid agency appeals to assist 1.1 million people at risk of starvation in neighbouring Mali have also gone unanswered. Oxfam revealed on August 3 that only 14% of the $7.4 million requested by the WFP from Western governments in December had arrived.

Millions for military

In June, Tandja was in Washington with four other African presidents to hear US President George Bush tell them that "the United States will do our part to help the people of Africa realise the brighter future they deserve". Tandja did not mention his country's hungry millions, nor did Bush.

What Tandja and Bush did discuss was Washington's $550 million Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), a military training and cooperation package involving nine African countries, including hunger-stricken Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania. It also involves Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The pact was launched with the arrival of 1000 US troops on June 6 to take part in a 20-day military training exercise.

Using the "war on terror" as cover, the program is designed to give the US military a foothold in the strategic, oil- and mineral-rich region and to prop up unpopular and authoritarian pro-US regimes. It provides forward facilities for rapid US intervention in other parts of Africa, in particular oil-rich west Africa around Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea. It is estimated that that region alone will supply 25% of US oil needs by 2015; currently it is the source for 15%. (The pact suffered a setback when the pro-US dictator in Mauritania, where large deposits of oil have recently been discovered, was overthrown on August 3.)

Under the TSCTI, some 3000 African troops will be trained and equipped, supposedly to stop the "infiltration of terrorists". Washington will post more US military officers in the region's embassies, share intelligence with governments and carve out airstrips across the Sahara and Sahel for use in "emergencies". US special forces are in Chad to train a presidential guard to defend the country's notoriously corrupt regime of President Idriss Deby. Chad has extensive oilfields.

Clearly, the "emergencies" envisioned by Washington that will require rapid intervention do not include saving the lives of tens of thousands of victims of the mass poverty and hunger that result from the West's continued economic exploitation of Africa.

From Green Left Weekly, August 24, 2005.

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