Author Topic: NIGER: Chasing food security  (Read 1625 times)

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NIAMEY, 29 March 2011 (IRIN) - Six months before the start of the 2009 rainy season the government of Niger was warned the rains would fail. In the drought that followed, more than half the population - 7.8 million people - faced food shortages. It was the third food crisis in seven years.

“It is part of my duties, and I gave a list of measures to the government to prepare for the drought, such as planting faster-yielding varieties of millet and sorghum (two of the main staples), but governments do not always listen to us,” said Prof Alhousseini Bretaudeau, executive secretary of the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), a scientific arm of the African Union.

“We have spent 30 years perfecting the science of predicting droughts, and developed tools to help countries prepare but few political leaders pay attention,” Bretaudeau told IRIN at a technical and scientific conference to brainstorm ways of getting the country out of chronic food and nutrition insecurity.

The Conférence Internationale sur la Sécurité Alimentaire et Nutritionnelle au Niger (CISAN) began on 28 March, hosted by a military-backed interim government that will give way to a newly elected civilian administration, headed by Mahamadou Issoufou, on 6 April. To many observers, CISAN represents a long-awaited attempt by Niger to get to grips with the food security issues that have plagued the country for decades.

“Better late than never - the conference was long overdue,” said Jean-Pierre Guengant, director of research at the France-based Institute of Research for Development (IRD), which gave the world Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based therapeutic food, and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

Niger slipped into chronic food insecurity a long time ago, without any of the former governments noticing, said Guengant, who has spent a decade in the country.

Amongst those who singularly failed to address food issues was Mamadou Tandja, ousted by the military in February 2010. “He did not accept there was a food crisis [in 2010] because he did not trust what the NGOs were telling him - he thought they wanted to make money,” said the man behind the conference, Col Aboulkarim Goukoye, head of the Higher Authority of Food Security (HASA).

“The second reason was that he was a very proud man - he did not want to accept that there was a problem,” said Goukoye, who is also the interim military junta’s spokesperson.

“Under the previous regime words such as ‘food crisis’ and even ‘nutrition’ were taboo - we would have had to pack our bags and leave,” Simone Winneg, coordinator of Humedica, a German medical NGO, commented.

“When we came in power,” Goukoye said, “all the technical people in the agriculture department came to us and said: ’You are probably thinking of security issues, but we have a food crisis.” They turned to the international community for help. Mahamadou Danda, prime minister of the interim government, asked Goukoye to find out how the country could address the recurring food crises. In June 2010 HASA was set up and the idea of developing a food strategy was born. “It naturally led to the idea of a conference where we could consult with technicians and scientists to help develop this strategy,” Goukoye said.


Will the incoming regime follow through? Goukoye said he was trying to get at least 10 of the recently elected parliamentarians involved. “Our strategy is not going to be any particular government’s strategy but a Nigerien strategy.” Over the next few days, participants including technical experts from across the world will look at ways to ease access to food, reduce vulnerability and improve governance in food security.

Ibrahim Mayaki, head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union’s development agency, who served as prime minister of Niger from 1997 to 2000 and was asked to head the conference, said the process was as inclusive as possible, with all previous Nigerien regimes invited to participate.

Governance was a key issue in tackling food insecurity. Local authorities were in the frontline of government service delivery as “the first connection between the government and the people in the rural areas, where most of our people live” and could recognize and the first signs of food insecurity. Mayaki suggested empowering them to address the issue.

Previous regimes had not paid much heed to warnings by technical experts in the country. “This is the first time someone is paying attention,” said Prof Maxime Banoin, an agronomist and head of the scientific and technical committee organizing the conference, who noted that other experts had also presented explanations for why the country was grappling with food insecurity.

So what is wrong with Niger?

The northern two-thirds of Niger, the biggest country in West Africa, is desert, so the entire food requirement depends on the rainy season from May to September to grow crops in the south. “It is a scary thought, and often things go wrong with it [the rainy season],” said Humedica’s Winneg.

Source: The Integrated Regional Information Networks (http://www.irinnews.org )


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