• Send page
  • Print page

Niger/Mali: food crisis and economic hardship compounded by poor security

26-04-2010 Interview

Niger and Mali, two of the poorest countries in the world, are experiencing a major food crisis owing mainly to an exceptional dry spell. The ICRC is assisting tens of thousands of people in the northern parts of the two countries – areas that have likewise been plagued by armed violence over the last few years. We interviewed Nicolai Panke, who has headed the ICRC's operations in Mali and Niger for the last 20 months, to find out more.

The food crisis is affecting millions of people in Niger and Mali, but the ICRC has chosen to focus on the northern parts of the two countries. Why is that?

Because as well as having had very little rainfall since 2009, these areas have also been affected by repeated outbreaks of armed violence. In addition, there are many pastoralists in the region and assisting these people is a complicated affair, since most are nomadic. Finally, few humanitarian or development agencies, international NGOs or local actors operate in these parts owing to underlying security issues and their own limited resources.

The ICRC has been present here since 2007, supporting those living in areas affected by the violence. In Niger, this includes the mountainous Aïr region, to the north of Agadez, and the Ouallam and Fillingué departments of the Tillabéri region, in the northwest. In Mali, we are talking about the Ansongo and Menaka areas, in the Gao region, and the Kidal and Tombouctou regions.

The assistance that the ICRC provides is designed first and foremost to enable the farming communities to survive the critical inter-harvest period, and pastoralists to live off their herds. By ensuring that communities can continue with the economic activities they pursued before the fighting began, we hope also to help stabilize the situation from a security point of view and encourage the displaced to return home.

What are the causes of intercommunal clashes in these regions?  

A range of different communities and ethnic groups live side by side in these parts, pursuing very different economic activities and lifestyles. The Djerma people, for example, are mainly involved in agriculture, whereas most Peuls are semi-nomadic pastoralists, who move around in search of grazing land.

The boundary between pastoralist areas, to the north, and farming areas, to the south, is the site of frequent disputes, some of which have lasted for years. In a few of the longer-standing feuds, neither side is really sure why it began and people are simply caught in the vicious circle of revenge.

A large part of the problem is the fact that the cattle's migratory routes are changeable and communities disagree on who owns certain patches of land. During the rainy season, between June and September, grazing land is plentiful and the farmers are busy tending to their fields. Life is easier for everyone, so friction is less likely. It is during the dry season that tensions mount, as economic hardship drives some people to encroach on the land of others – or, at least, land considered to belong to others. September 2008 to June 2009 was a particularly violent period.

Fortunately, there has been considerably less unrest during the latest dry season, which started last September. This is why the ICRC is so keen to assist the people living there, to consolidate the relative stability we are seeing today – especially since the drought could once more spark competition and conflict between the two communities.

Since 2007, both Niger and Mali have experienced a series of clashes between Touareg armed groups and government security forces. What impact did this have on the local inhabitants?  

Clashes in Aïr, to the north of Agadez, created widespread instability affecting all inhabitants of this part of Niger – tens of thousands of people. The majority are sedentary Touaregs, living off cattle and market gardens. Aïr is often considered Niger's " vegetable basket " , its produce appearing on markets across the country. The local economy suffered as a result of the unrest, since it was difficult not only to continue farming but also to travel to markets to sell the goods. Anti-vehicle mines posed a particular threat.

A number of inhabitants were killed and injured during the fighting and military operations, and around 20,000 people were displaced, leaving their homes in search of safety. The ICRC provided these people with essential household items and agricultural equipment.

Last summer, a few months after the end of the unrest, the displaced started going home. All have now returned. The ICRC is helping them regain a sense of normality, conducive to long-lasting stability, even if peace has not yet officially been declared. But now they have a food crisis to contend with.

As for Mali, the large population of nomadic pastoralists in the Kidal and Gao regions lost some of their animals as a result of poor security conditions.

To what extent are mines in Niger and hostage-taking of foreigners in Mali affecting humanitarian activity?  

Armed factions in Aïr have planted a great number of anti-vehicle mines, which have killed or injured many hundreds of people, both civilians and members of the military. Mine incidents occur even today. Movement within the region is restricted as a result, affecting both the local economy and humanitarian work. ICRC delegates, for example, only use certain major roads and with extreme care.

It is now crucial that we identify contaminated areas and begin the demining process, so as to allow populations and aid organizations to move around more freely. But demining is expensive, and Niger's pockets are empty. The ICRC is trying to persuade international donors to give attention to this aspect of the problem. Demining would also contribute to the stabilization process already under way.

Kidnapping is a risk that exists throughout the Sahel region. In fact, hostages are often taken up to the north of Mali, where they are held by their kidnappers. This is the main reason why practically all humanitarian organizations have left the region. The ICRC, on the other hand, has decided to stay, in order to continue assisting local communities through its office in Gao.

 Has the ICRC been able to visit the people arrested in Niger in connection with the February 2010 coup d'état?  

Four days after the coup, on 22 February, we were able to visit all those who had been detained, including ex-President Tandja   and several of his ministers. We have seen them many times since, as well. I should add that, since 2004, the ICRC has been regularly visiting thousands of detainees across the country. We are also helping to repair prison sanitary facilities and to train prison directors. The overall aim in doing this is to make Niger's prisons more humane, and we are doing this in close cooperation with the relevant authorities.

What is the ICRC doing to help the West African and sub-Saharan migrants who pass through these regions?  

At the Tin Zaouatène border crossing, in north-eastern Mali, the ICRC and the Mali Red Cross take care of those who are prevented from migrating any further north. This is desert territory, where the lack of security is a constant concern. The migrants come mainly from Cameroon and Nigeria, but also from Benin and Togo, in search of work in North Africa or Europe.

Physical and mental exhaustion makes some of them particularly vulnerable, and some have spent weeks in prison before being deported. We offer migrants food and basic health care on the spot. The most vulnerable – women, young children, elderly people, the injured and the destitute – are taken to the city of Gao, 700 km south of the border, where they have access to more facilities and where some can get support from charitable organizations. The most important thing for us is to get them out of the remote, desert zone on the border and to preserve their dignity.