The 11.6 million inhabitants of Niger (in West Africa, southeast of Algeria) are among the poorest people in the world. Like so many resource-rich countries, Niger’s natural wealth has been the principal source of its grinding poverty, as it has meant that the profit-crazed imperialist countries simply have not been able to leave it to its own devices. The country is heavily reliant on foreign trade, totally bound to the conditions of the Bretton Hills institutions (The World Bank and the IMF) and the EU, is experiencing a desertification that shows no signs of letting up, and has a literacy rate of 17.6 percent (as compared with the 90.7 percent achieved in the ‘pariah’ state of Zimbabwe, the country most often singled out by the imperialist press as an example of all that is wrong in Africa).
The food crisis in Niger has become severe, and has caused a number of the more thinking bourgeois journalists to point out the irony of the current famine in the light of the supposed massive success claimed by Bob Geldof, Bono and associated worthies at the recent G8 Summit in Gleneagles. Apparently, we ‘civilised’ Europeans were finally going to do our bit, shoulder our white man’s burden, and distribute a few billion dollars to these unfortunate blacks in order to ‘make poverty history’. And yet, a few months down the line, we see the all too familiar story of an African country undergoing extreme, criminal poverty at the hands of imperialism, with the perpetrating countries unwilling even to provide a little bit of conscience-salving aid.
According to a report by UNIRIN (the United Nations news agency), an estimated 3.6 million out of a population of 12 million are currently affected by food insecurity, with 2.5 million identified as extremely vulnerable and requiring food assistance.
Reasons for the crisis
Niger is a naturally wealthy country with massive mineral deposits. Although it suffers from limited rainfall, this is a problem that could be addressed adequately with a thorough programme of irrigation. However, Niger’s economy is well and truly beholden to the interests of international monopoly capital.
At the beginning of the present decade, the Niger government signed the country up to the IMF’s notorious Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), under which the country’s economy has been made totally subservient to the needs of foreign capital, thereby completely undermining Niger’s ability to produce for its own needs.
Under the conditions of the SAP, nearly all the large former state-owned companies have been privatised in the interests of “free and fair competition”. Privatisation of the water supply has, as in other countries, been a disaster for the ordinary people of Niger, as it has meant that water is only supplied to those areas where it is deemed profitable for the water company to provide it, regardless of the level of need. Hence, hundreds of farms are insufficiently irrigated. A school child could point out the criminal inhumanity of forcing water privatisation in a semi-arid region such as Niger; however, humanity is not the domain of the IMF or any other imperialist organisation.
The World Bank has stipulated an enormous tax on fuel, in order to provide revenue to service the country’s debt. This has led to extremely high transportation costs, which in turn has led to food prices that are increasingly out of reach. Furthermore, “the World Bank is promoting commercial livestock exports to the detriment of the pastoral economy. Veterinarian services have been privatised, which has also contributed to decimating the herds” . (‘Niger, the year of starvation ahead’, GlobalResearch.ca, 7 August, 2005)
According to a report by UNIRIN, earlier this year the government raised taxes on a range of basic goods, including milk and flour, in order to obtain budgetary aid from the IMF. The price of millet, the staple grain, has doubled since last year.
The Independent of 9 August notes that “some aid specialists blamed the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Their economic programmes have contributed to sharp rises in the prices of staples such as sorghum and millet … At the same time, the sale price of livestock – the main income source of the country’s nomadic herders – has fallen by about 25 percent”.
The same article cites Johanne Sekkenes, the mission head of Médecins Sans Frontières, as saying: “The harvest was bad in 2004 and the millet granaries are empty. Yet there is food on the markets. The trouble is that the price of the food 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.”
The article continues: “Ms Sekkenes said the International Monetary Fund and the European Union had pressed Niger too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. ‘No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 percent VAT on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished.’” (‘IMF and EU are blamed for starvation in Niger’)
In addition to the direct result of the implementation of the SAP, there is the long-term factor of desertification of the country. Deirdre Griswold, writing in Workers World on 10 August 2005, notes that “it is widely recognised that global warming — which comes from the burning of fossil fuels in the developed imperialist countries — has contributed to the desertification of the Sahel and the resulting suffering of millions of people”. (‘Pentagon spends $500m on troops in Africa’)
Imperialist interest in Niger
Niger is the world’s third-largest uranium producer, and as such it is considered a key resource for nuclear power and ‘defence’. Furthermore, according to the US State Department’s website, “Substantial deposits of phosphates, coal, iron, limestone, and gypsum also have been found in Niger.” Oil exploration is also proceeding at a fast pace, as Niger is known to have oil potential. “An ExxonMobil-Petronas joint venture now holds the sole rights to the Agadem block, north of Lake Chad, and oil exploration is ongoing.” (Ibid)
The US and EU have a clear motivation in their ‘liberalisation’ of the Niger economy, and it consists solely of keeping their filthy hands on Niger’s vast mineral wealth.
Whilst the liberal petty bourgeoisie will complain bitterly about how the leading industrial countries were not sufficiently quick in mobilising to prevent famine in Niger, this is, in the final analysis, only a diversion from the real issue. Niger is a naturally rich country, with a capable population. Niger should be thriving, but it is starving. The culprit? Imperialist control of Niger’s economy and the subservience of the latter to the interests of the former. End imperialist interference and no charity will be required.
The story of post-colonial Niger demonstrates yet again the choice that lies before the working class and oppressed masses of the world. In Africa today, the road of independence and freedom is that adopted by Zimbabwe: say no to the Bretton Hills institutions; take control of your land; take control of your economy; forge relations with those countries that are interested in trading on an equal basis; unite with like-minded countries and strengthen your ability to defend yourself against imperialist predators. Only on this basis can small nations free themselves from the grip of neo-colonial oppression.
Joseph Stalin, who stood at the helm of the international struggle against imperialism and for socialism for three decades (and who, consequently, is the favourite prey of the paper tigers of bourgeois history), was a thousand times right when he said: “Either eke out a miserable existence and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon. That is the choice imperialism puts before the working class. Imperialism brings the proletariat to revolution.”
This choice referred to by comrade Stalin also lies before those nations oppressed by monopoly capitalism. Either eke out a miserable existence, servicing debt, submitting to the provisions of the IMF, and sinking lower and lower into starvation-level poverty, or stand up for yourself. We hope that, as a new ‘non-aligned’ type bloc of trade and co-operation is emerging between countries such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China and North Korea, small countries will start to feel more confident about spurning imperialism and taking the road of independence and freedom.