Famine has gripped all regions of Niger. There are nearly four million people on the edge of starvation across the country.
To add to our misery the rains have finally arrived, but too late for this season’s crops, and many peasants are too weak to begin planting next year’s crops.
Peasant farmers have also lost their livestock because there is no fodder.
Some international aid has begun to arrive but unfortunately the government is not doing enough to relieve the suffering. President Mamadou Tandja is denying there is a famine, claiming it is “false propaganda” spread by the opposition.
But everybody knows the situation is very grave and that not enough aid is arriving.
Hunger is now beginning to touch the capital Niamey, with more and more people finding it difficult to feed themselves. The price of food in the market is rising.
It is too expensive for ordinary people to buy a bag of rice.
This is a tragedy as many in the country already lived in extreme poverty — more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day.
Hunger is spreading among women and children, and over 800,000 children are seriously undernourished.
Apart from a few centres distributing food aid — centres set up by organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and others — the majority of the population is in grave danger.
There are natural causes for this famine. A severe drought last year and a plague of locust last August wiped out the crops of over 4,000 vilages.
We live in a country that is over 80 percent arid or semi-arid. We have always been plagued by drought and locusts.
But we have to be clear, there is a direct link between neo-liberal policies and the present crisis we find ourselves in.
Since the 1980s the state has implemented a series of harsh measures dictated by the financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
These are polices designed for us to qualify for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. The World Bank demanded the privatisation and deregulation of institutions that set prices for food.
It insisted that agriculture had to be subject to the free market and subsidies to poor farmers be slashed.
The international institutions and the government decreed that farmers could only get credit if they grew crops for export.
They said that we need foreign currency to tackle debt repayments, even though we do not have enough food to eat.
These policies have left us badly exposed and at the mercy of natural phenomena like drought.
Despite all the difficulties we find ourselves in, our government still insists that farmers plant crops for export.
We used to have a body that supervised the price of agricultural goods and ensured that producers could get decent prices for their products.
This organisation was privatised, breaking the link between prices and what people could afford.
Now we have merchants who buy up grain at a low price and hoard them until the price rises so that they can make a profit—at present they make between 200-500 percent profit on maize alone.
However the government still intervenes in the market, but not to set prices.
It intervenes to ensure that the merchants continue to make profits out of hunger.
The government also ensures that the major food warehouses and distributors get a good price to distribute food around the country.
Of course Niger is a very big country so this guarantees the transport and storage companies a healthy profit.
We blame the policies of neo-liberalism for this famine. We blame the World Bank and we blame our government.
They are the authors of this misery. The capitalists in Niger are doing very well out of the famine.
There is a solution to this famine, in the short and long term. We are demanding the government provide food to ease the hunger, especially for the children. This is the immediate, urgent priority.
We want the government to stop paying the external debt and use the money for an emergency food programme.
Why should we carry on servicing this debt when so many people are facing death and hunger?
In the long term, we want our agricultural policies to focus on producing food to fill our bellies and not on producing crops to service our debts.
We want policies that develop agriculture, produce diversity of crops and support our peasant farmers.
We want the government to set the price of goods and guarantee a minimum wage so as not to put profits above the needs of the people.
This of course means we face a battle against our government and a battle against neo-liberalism. This is natural. This is a battle that will mobilise millions of people in Niger.
Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the high cost of living in March and April. We hope these protests, and this crisis, will change the direction of our country.
Despite all the misery we are optimistic for the future and confident that our movement, and the movement around the world, will create an alternative to neo-liberalism. We are confident that another Niger is possible.
Moussa Tchangari is a journalist and leading member of the Democratic Coalition of the Civil Society of Niger. He was arrested on 29 March for organising demonstrations against the high cost of living. He was recently released from the notorious Daikaina penal camp in Niger.