Nigeria and Starvation in Niger Republic
Our immediate northern neighbour, the Republic of Niger, is faced with a serious humanitarian crisis. Over 10% of its 12.5 million inhabitants are starving due to drought and pests. In this article, I have appealed to Nigerians, at home and abroad, to contribute generously to alleviate the condition in the short run while discussing what measures are needed to reduce the risk of recurrence in the future.
First, it will be useful if we cast a contrast between Nigeria and Niger. Let us begin by counting our blessings as Nigerians. We are privileged to have the sea in which we can fish, with ships bringing imports all year round; we have rivers which carry ferries and serve as sources of water for irrigation and fishing; we have streams from which we can fetch drinking water for our animals and our population in rural communities; and almost all over the country, the water table is close enough for modern hydrological equipment to drill and serve us with potable water. Any water shortage has to do more with our mismanagement than with natural scarcity.
As for food, the rains fall for a period that varies from four to nine months, enough to support one sort of crop or another, not withstanding desert encroachment in the North. The North in particular is rich with variety of weather that makes it amenable to cultivation of hundreds of crop species. It is even doubtful if we are cultivating as much as 7% of our arable land. In addition, we are blessed with petroleum and mineral resources which we can always use to import food in the event of any shortage.
If at any time we want to boost food production, we can increase the size of our arable land without any hindrance just as we can also engage in dry season farming by drawing water from our several large dams and rivers. If our people are suffering from food shortage, it has everything to do with the mismanagement of our abundant resources than with any natural scarcity.
On the other hand, Nature has not endowed Niger with anything more than a vast desert that covers over 85%; the Sahel, which in Nigeria is considered the poorest in terms of farming, is the richest soil accorded to Niger. Their longest rains would last between three to four months, and much lesser than what obtains in Borno, Katsina and Sokoto states. Irrigation is thus limited, especially with the damming of some rivers in Nigeria which flow into Niger Republic. Equally, they are not blessed with petroleum and other minerals that could earn them foreign exchange, apart from Uranium which has since the early 1980s ceased to be an important export commodity. The little annual rains they have, or its absence, therefore defines whether many of them will survive for another year or not.
The cynic among us will query why we have to bother with the hunger afflicting our neighbour when 70% of our population is under poverty. Heal thyself, he will cry. Well, the answer lies in the difference between poverty and starvation. While the indices used in evaluating poverty include things like availability of VIP toilets and protein content in diets, starvation means living under complete absence of any kind of food, and eventually dying as a result. This is a situation where even children cannot afford a meal in a whole week. They degrade their tissues into carbohydrates, emaciate and eventually die. Reports indicate that over 180,000 children, alone, are now living in Niger under that condition. More are joining them daily. The situation is expected to last around September, when millet would mature; that is hoping that the season this year would be better, with more rains and less pests than last year.
There are many reasons why we should come to the aid of our brothers in Niger. The first is moral. Nigerians, both Muslims and Christians, are perhaps the most dedicated worshippers on earth. Our dedication is reduced to mere pretension if we cannot follow the universal precept of good neighbourliness which engenders not only non-aggression but also aiding our neighbour in times of want or danger. This imperative is more on states that are contiguous with Republic of Niger, i.e. the states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Jigawa, Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, and Borno. The Qur’an has listed the duties that will place man on the Right-hand side of God in the Hereafter as including, “freeing a slave; or feeding – during the days of hunger – an orphan relative or a wretched poor.” The Prophet (SAW) once denounced the faith of anyone who sleeps satisfied while his neighbour is hungry. With all the above states purporting to implement Shariah, assisting Niger has become a moral obligation which Shariah has placed right at their doorstep. They must pick it.
As a nation it appears that Nigeria is endowed with a good dose of African brotherhood. Today, we have our troops working in various parts of the continent as peace keepers. We spend billions of naira annually on such projects, with very little assistance from the United Nations or advanced countries. On Liberia alone, we have spent over a billion and a half dollars. Then came Sierra Leone and, now, Sudan. It is difficult to rationalize this expenditure in light of the poor performance of our economy without ascribing it to our African heart. What Niger requires immediately to feed its starving children in the regions of Maradi, Tawa and Damagaran is reported to be $16million only. Nigeria, I think, can again do something remarkable here.
Our assistance to Niger can also be rationalised economically. Crisis in our neighbourhood will inescapably affect us. This is simple logic. The high rate of armed robbery and banditry in the Northeast is largely as a result of the crisis in Chad; the illegal immigrant crisis that took place in the 1980s, in which 50 people from Niger Republic were suffocated to death by our Police in a Black Maria truck in Lagos was as a result of famine and poverty in countries like Ghana, Togo and Niger; the Liberian crisis, as we mentioned earlier, had engulfed a chunk of our foreign exchange; and we are not yet done with Sierra Leone and Sudan. Nations today have realised the potential of crises to spread like a virus; and for that reason, they rush to avert it, or mitigate its escalation. If there is starvation in Niger, many of its citizens will immigrate into Nigeria; and when the condition becomes unbearable, they will even invade it, justifiably. This will heighten unemployment, as it did in the 1980s.
There is another reason why we must be interested in the condition of living of our neighbours. They are our second home. Any investment we make to their political stability or economy can be interpreted correctly as made against a rainy day. Things may go terribly wrong with our economy or polity, and our neighbours will be the first point of call for succour. When we are in problem we will rush to them for space, food and security. If we assist them to live in abundance today, it is the abundance we will share one day, and vice-versa.
Here, I am compelled by History to remind us of a debt we owe the Republic of Niger. When the Civil War broke out, the first country to respond to Gowon’s request for assistance was Niger. Its President, late Haman Diouri, declared, “What affects Nigeria also affects me.” With this he generously assisted Nigeria with virtually all he had in terms of weapons and ammunition. I am afraid that this is a lifetime debt that we will never be able to settle in full. However, the present humanitarian crisis in Niger grants us a rare opportunity to express our gratitude.
Then the question of who will give what form of assistance. First, we expect the Federal Government to announce, and give, a generous cash donation to Niger Republic. This is not a war that will consume a billion dollars or so. The $16million immediately required would have been only a two weeks’ expenditure in Liberia. Nigeria alone, I suggest, can donate up to a quarter of the initial demand.
Secondly, the Federal Government can allocate some tonnes of grains to Niger from our grain reserves, especially now that they are open to distribution. This will have an immediate impact on the situation.
Thirdly, Obasanjo in particular, being the current Chairman of African Union, should demand from other African leaders their contribution, especially those that are afflicted by similar problems. South Africa, Libya, Ghana and many others can come to the aid of Niger through the African Union initiative.
I have earlier mentioned the governments of Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa Bauchi, Yobe and Borno States. These states share a common culture, history and geography with Niger Republic and they will be the worst hit if the situation deteriorates further. We will be very pleased if they respond generously to the call by donating food and cash directly to Niger or through the Federal Government. If each of the nine states will contribute N50million, they will yield the total of $3million. To my judgement, this amount, though a token in the basket of their annual expenditure, is enough to express the concern of these governments for the lives of their neighbours. There could be further contributions from other ten northern states not mentioned above. If they will be generous enough, as they did to Obasanjo Library project a month ago, and contribute N50million each, that will bring the total contribution of Northern states to $6.3million. The Federal Government can top it to $10million.
Lastly, we individual Nigerians, can also make our contribution. From people like Dangote whom we expect to contribute both grains and haulage, to the media that will give the call the required publicity, and to those of us who may contribute a sac or two, something tangible will be realised, enough to feed dozens of villages in the next four critical months. Already, there are expressions of willingness. What is required is the mass mobilization that will mop up every little contribution that will come from our towns and villages.
The immediate demands not withstanding, we must assist Niger to solve its problem of food shortage in the long run. Though we can blame nature for the disasters and arid geography, we must concede that Nigeria shares a portion of the blame. Niger has resisted the temptation of damming River Niger that passes through its territory before reaching Nigeria. It has done this principally in consideration to Kainji, our main power station. Though it gets some electricity in return for that kindness, I doubt if damming the river and using it for irrigation would not have been of greater economic significance to them. If Niger were to follow the footpath of Mali and Cameroon, we would be in a complete mess. Since the two countries dammed the Niger and Benue respectively, the water level in the two rivers has reduced drastically. As if to add salt to injury, former Kaduna and Kano states have dammed rivers flowing into Niger Republic. This has reduced the amount of water available to it for irrigation. Regrettably, those dams are today lying idle, grossly underutilised.
I think we should pursue the Mambilla alternative to River Niger. In Mambilla, we can generate enough electricity to share with our neighbours, if our leadership is interested in doing so. With the increasing decline in the water level of River Niger, a more secured alternative is necessary. This way we can allow Niger Republic to utilize the river upstream for irrigation purposes and it will also help to put an end to the perennial flood at Yelwan Yauri and other towns on the banks of the river. There is also the need to release the dams constructed in the present Katsina and Jigawa States such that, as we continue to neglect them, our brothers in Niger can use the water for irrigation.
I am also convinced that we need to open our lands to our brothers from Niger. Why are we interested in calling Rhodesian farmers, with all their apartheid record, to cultivate our lands, if our immediate neighbour is interested in these lands? Let interested farmers from Niger Republic come in, clear lands in Nigeria, pay rent and return with their harvest to their country. With this arrangement, we will beat nature and the colonialists who drew a pencil line that has divided us since the nineteenth century.
A third suggestion is for Nigerians to wake up and boost their agricultural production mainly through improved seeds, mechanisation, pest control, post harvest technology, elaborate network of feeder roads, and profitable market. This way, food will be available not only in our markets but there will also be enough to export to our neighbouring countries. We will then brag of founding a healthier Africa.
At the technical level, both the Lake Chad Research Institute and Institute for Agricultural Research, Samaru, need to intensify their research and extension services to match the challenge of desertification. We need pest resistant varieties of cowpeas, sorghum and millet with periods of maturity between forty and fifty days only. Such seeds which will boost the agricultural productivity of the Sahel in a brief period will be needed in Niger, Chad, Mali and Sudan, along with necessary extension services especially for Niger and Chad.
I have written this article in sympathy for a people with whom I share a common history. A very large portion of ancient Borno lies in Niger today, including its one time capital Birni Ngazargamu. To the West, a good part of the Sokoto Caliphate is also in Niger as do portions of ancient Daura, Gobir and Katsina states. The people and the languages are the same. Niger is a Hausa State with a large population of Zabarmawa, Fulani and Kanuri.
Back in the seventies, I remember the famous Hausa singer Muhammadu Gawo Filinge who composed a song called Nigeria da Niger, saying, “Nigeria and Niger are the same.” The Republic of Niger has proved so especially during the Civil War when we were in dire state of need. Today, the town of Filinge itself is among the most devastated by famine in Niger. Though Haman Diouri is dead, Gowon is alive to pay the debt. It is a crucial moment for us. Gawo Filinge has every reason to recapitulate on our brotherhood until he sees us drive into his town of Filinge carrying tonnes of grains as our donation to his people. I believe we can do it.