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Looming famine in the Sahel

Imperialist militarism & mining can’t help

Published Jun 10, 2010 9:11 AM

In West Africa’s Sahel region the threat of famine has caused dislocation and suffering for millions in Niger, Mali, Chad, eastern Cameroun, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and other states. This region, located south of the Sahara Desert, has been hit by drought and crop failures over the last several months.

In Niger, the worst affected country, it has been reported that 7-10 million people are experiencing serious food deficits. In Chad another 2 million need assistance after large-scale crop failures and livestock deaths.

Chad’s military government, which took power Feb. 18 with a coup, has initiated an ambitious campaign to distribute food to 1 million people. This effort would still leave Chad’s majority hungry without the aid that is so desperately needed.

The United Nations reported in April that international donors have only supplied a third of the $190 million in assistance needed to prevent widespread regional famine. (Angop, May 17)  On May 19, ministers responsible for agricultural, livestock development, trade and humanitarian affairs in West Africa held a meeting in the Togolese capital of Lome to plan a course of action aimed at food distribution and to address the needs of the civilians displaced by the crisis. (News 24, May 19)

A recent report issued by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has its headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, indicated that in the 2009-10 harvest year there was a significant fodder production shortfall in the pastoral areas of the eastern sections of the region.  The report also indicated that the region has seen an overall 2 percent decrease in cereal production; in Niger the reduction is 31 percent. (News 24, May 19)

ECOWAS provided a $550,000 grant to Niger in April. Much more is needed to acquire and effectively distribute food to the growing numbers of people facing starvation. ...

The European Union announced in early June that it would increase its assistance by $29 million to the region over last year’s $24 million, aimed at supplying food to 7 million people in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria. (VOA, June 2)

According to a report issued by the Charities Aid Foundation, “Families with young children in Niger are being forced to travel up to 1,000 km due to a worsening food crisis in the West African country. Rachel Palmer of Save the Children in Niger said that the crisis is forcing children to beg for food, while Niger already has the highest rate of child deaths in the world.” (CAF, June 3)

Crisis reflects failure of capitalist agriculture

During the early 1970s, the mid 1980s and in 2005 there was drought, locust infestations, sudden floods that provoked food deficits and the dislocation of population groups in the Sahel region.

Agricultural and livestock production constitute almost 50 percent of the economy in Niger. Throughout the Sahel, lack of rainfall can create monumental social crises that extend beyond the respective governments’ ability to intervene in time to prevent famine.

International aid agencies based in western imperialist states often must to appeal to the imperialist governments to increase assistance to African countries, which still depend on revenue from exports of natural resources and agricultural commodities to these same former colonial powers and the United States. The prices for these exports are determined by the ruling classes within the industrialized countries, who themselves are facing the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Nonetheless, when the Europe and U.S.-based corporate media report the impact of this unequal distribution of economic power, they give little emphasis to the root causes of food deficits and famine.  The powerful capitalist countries themselves face huge budget deficits, rising unemployment and the cutbacks in social spending. There is little attention paid to the impact of the global economic crisis in the former colonial countries.

According to the head of the World Food Program operation in Niger, Richard Verbeeck, “When there is an emergency, usually the flow of contributions is more quick. The level is different. Now if we turn to longer-term development activities, it is sad to say that the interest is going down, and the investment in longer-term activities is not the same or what should be expected.” (VOA, May 19)

However, there has never been any real interest on the part of the imperialist states to provide the necessary assistance for African states to become self-sufficient in agricultural production and food distribution. Although Niger is the world’s third largest source of uranium and is slated to double its production over the next two years and supplies it to imperialist countries for nuclear technology, Niger’s people remain largely poor.

France’s government-controlled nuclear energy firm, Areva, recently signed a contract with Niger’s leaders to conduct uranium mining in the Imouraren region in the North. This contract will make Niger the second largest supplier of uranium to the international market.

Niger’s mined uranium supplies nearly all of the raw materials for running of 50 nuclear plants providing electricity in France. Spain, Canada, South Korea and South Africa have expressed an interest in Niger’s uranium.

China’s National Uranium Corporation signed an agreement with Niger in 2007 to extract 700 tons of uranium per year from the Azelik region in the north. The People’s Republic of China has increased its investments and economic cooperation with various African states over the last several years.

The deposed President Mamadou Tandja had sought alternative political and economic relations with the progressive states of Libya in North Africa and Venezuela in Latin America. It was rumored that Tandja had been discussing greater economic cooperation with Iran, which is under threat by the United States, Israel and various other western imperialist states.

U.S. sends guns, not agricultural assistance

The Pentagon has been escalating its military involvement in West Africa. In Mali, there are joint military training exercises taking place with the United States under the guise of fighting the growing influence of “Islamic extremism” in the Sahel and Maghreb regions of the continent.

“The U.S. is trying to help nations bordering the Sahara and the arid Sahel region to contain a growing threat of terrorism. More than 200 U.S. Special Forces and 500 African troops trained together in May, in the latest of several large military maneuvers over the past few years.” (AP, June 5) This same report says U.S. intelligence officers claim al-Qaida is active in the Sahel and Sahara regions.

Washington aims to advance U.S. ruling class strategic interests in West Africa rather than seriously addressing the monumental food deficits. An official visit to Africa by Vice-President Joe Biden set for the week of June 7 will steer clear of the current food crisis in the Sahel.

CNN reported that the Vice-President will make “several stops, including South Africa where he will represent the United States at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup. Among other engagements, Biden will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on June 7 ‘to discuss a full range of bilateral and regional issues’, according to a White House statement.” (CNN, June 7)

The imperialist states have no interest or desire to tackle these agricultural problems since it does not fit into its overall political objectives. The African continent must rely on its own resources in the long run to solve these problems. Only when Africa breaks the chains of imperialist dependency can a genuine program for economic and social development come into being.