Niger's President Denies Food Crisis

The president of Niger acknowledges a poor harvest and problems with locusts. But he rejects international claims of severe famine and starvation. There are concerns that past delays in accepting food aid have led to a higher death toll.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne. She's on vacation.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today newspapers and television screens around the world are showing images of underfed children in Niger. The Untied Nations says millions of people are short of food. Eight hundred thousand children need help urgently, and despite those numbers and pictures, the president of the African nation says the food crisis isn't that bad. President Mamadou Tandja spoke to the BBC Tuesday night. He acknowledged some problems with a poor harvest and locusts, yet he said reports of famine were false propaganda by aid agencies and his political opponents. He said his people, quote, "look well-fed." NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has just returned from a reporting trip to Niger. She joins us now from her base in Senegal.

Ofeibea, good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: Because the president has made this statement in Niger, we have to start with the basic question: Is there famine in Niger or not?

QUIST-ARCTON: Technically speaking, no. Babies and children under five are the ones starving and dying, and apparently famine is when adults are also dying. But is this a time for semantic argument? There is definitely hunger. There is definitely starvation. Babies are latching on to their mother's empty breasts, unable to drink milk. The mothers are looking for goat milk to feed their babies and babies are dying in the hundreds. So is this the moment to start talking about whether there's famine, hunger or starvation? Most people say no.

There's an emergency in Niger. It's not only Niger. It's all these countries on the fringes of the Sahara Desert: Mauritania, Burkino Faso, Mali and, of course, the focus on Niger because the cameras have shown starving babies, but this has been a crisis in the making for almost the past year.

INSKEEP: Well, now what does it mean in practical terms when the president of a country indicates that the problem is not really that bad in this country?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's true that it's not all over Niger that people are going hungry and that people look thin, but the fact that they have had poor rains, an invasion of desert locusts and persistent droughts in Niger and in these other countries I've mentioned means that they have, with cyclical poverty, this problem of drought and now not enough food.

In Mali, where I was last year, the government apparently listened to the alert system that said, `We have to give out free food.' So they were giving out cereal grains, millet, sorghum, etc.; 18 kilos of rice per mouth per month. And it seems that they have averted a crisis. In Niger, the government was told, I believe by the United Nations and by the lending institutions, that if they were to give out free food rather than subsidized food, it would affect the markets.

INSKEEP: Well, now aid agencies are trying to get assistance to Niger. Is the government cooperating now or standing in their way?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, absolutely no. Finally food has arrived, but if it had arrived at the initial call by the government itself and the UN in November, it would have been much cheaper 'cause it would have been shipped in. Now it has to be airlifted in and it's costing--instead of $16 million in May when the UN made a flash appeal, now $81 million they are calling for to feed the people of Niger and to make sure that this hunger problem does not now affect the whole Sahara Desert belt. So it is an emergency and children are dying.

INSKEEP: This is costing more in lives as well as money?

QUIST-ARCTON: The babies I saw in Maradi in southern Niger were dying. Their mothers are working so hard trying to ensure that before the harvest during this lean season they will have something to harvest, that they weren't taking their children to the hospital. So, yes, babies are dying.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton covers West African issues for NPR.

Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you.

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