Early in the morning of Tuesday, 23 August, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, accompanied by his wife Nane, arrived in Zinder, Niger, for a two-day visit to the country. The province known as Niger’s breadbasket has been hit hard by drought and locust infestation, leading to a severe food crisis.
The Secretary-General travelled to the Niger to express his solidarity with the Government and the people of the Niger as they deal with the aftermath of accelerating desertification, prolonged drought, and repeated locust infestations. He wanted to help focus international attention on the special developmental challenges faced by the countries of the Sahel, such as the Niger, and the efforts that have been made to tackle these issues.
The Secretary-General was greeted at the airport by the President of the Niger, Mamadou Tadja, and a number of cabinet officials, local administrators, and hundreds of local well-wishers.
Accompanied by the President, the Secretary-General travelled into town to visit Zinder Hospital, the region’s largest health facility, which treats patients from surrounding provinces and northern areas of neighbouring Nigeria. After receiving a briefing on the hospital’s activities, the Secretary-General toured the hospital’s paediatric ward, which houses a number of malnourished children.
Following the hospital visit, the Secretary-General was taken to a newly established Médecins Sans Frontières-Switzerland (MSF) feeding centre. Created barely a month prior to the Secretary-General’s visit, the centre had already treated close to 2,400 children. Those who made it to the centre are quickly evaluated and put on a feeding programme. Once stabilized, the children were sent home where they continue to be followed by MSF staff at one of their 12 smaller local centres.
There, the Secretary-General met a 23-year-old mother named Sueba, who had walked more than seven hours in a desperate attempt to save her 2-year-old daughter, Zulayden. Having already lost two children to hunger, Sueba has sought treatment for her daughter who weighs 60 per cent of a normal 2-year-old. After just seven days of treatment, the doctors are confident that the child can be saved. Sueba’s story is just one of hundreds of examples of courageous women who sometimes walk hundreds of miles to find help for their children.
The Secretary-General then travelled to the village of Madara, a few miles outside of Zinder. Greeted by the provincial governor and local chiefs, the Secretary-General was briefed by village representatives on various ongoing mechanisms put in place to fight food insecurity, including cereal banks and fertilizer cooperatives.
The Secretary-General told reporters at the village that he had come to see the situation with his own eyes, to see the extent of the food crisis. He added that he wanted to discuss the situation with the Government and see how the United Nations and the Government together can improve the situation. The United Nations assistance, he said, cannot only be short-term; it also needs to have a long-term effect.
A short while later at Zinder airport, the Secretary-General spoke to reporters again and stressed that “for the immediate [term], we need to do all we can to help those in need, and particularly the children we saw. The indications are that the next crops will do well and that will also be of help.”
The Secretary-General then flew to the capital Niamey, where he arrived later that afternoon. He was met at the airport by the Prime Minister, Hama Amadou.
In the early evening, the Secretary-General met with the heads of the United Nations offices operating in the Niger. They briefed him on their work and how they are tackling the Niger’s short-term and long-term problems.
Early on Wednesday morning, the Secretary-General met with President Tandja for over an hour, including a tête-à-tête meeting.
Speaking to reporters afterwards on the steps of the Presidential palace which over looks the Niger River, the Secretary-General said he and the President had discussed the situation in the country and the region as a whole. The Secretary-General added they exchanged views on what measures ought to be taken to ensure what has happened this year does not happen in the future. “But quite a lot of it requires regional cooperation”, he stressed.
As President Tandja is also the current President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Secretary-General told journalists that he and the President had also discussed “Togo, the electoral situation and political process in Equatorial Guinea, and our efforts to bring peace to Côte d’Ivoire, an issue of great preoccupation for myself and, I know, for all the member States of the organization”.
He then met with Prime Minister Amadou, with whom he had an in-depth discussion on the current food crisis.
The Secretary-General then went to UN House to meet with the staff of the United Nations family. He thanked them for the work they had already done during this emergency. He also encouraged them to continue to work together with the Government and non-governmental organizations to address the long-term issues so as to make sure this crisis is not repeated.
Before leaving the Niger, the Secretary-General held a press conference. In his opening remarks, the Secretary-General said he had come to increase the mobilization the international community in relation to the situation in Niger and the region. Commenting on what he had seen in Zinder the previous day, the Secretary-General said he had been struck by the courage and the will of the people to survive and find local solutions to their problems. However, he added, that is not enough. He called on the international community to support the work done by United Nations humanitarian agencies and their partners on the ground.
Asked whether what was happening in the Niger was a famine, the Secretary-General said that he did not come to debate, but to act, and to help those who need help.
Asked what women in the Niger could expect from the United Nations, the Secretary-General said he believed women should be empowered and that men should consider them as partners. He added that women should be assured they have every means necessary to protect and feed their children.
In this regard, the Secretary-General said he met with United Nations agencies in the Niger to increase efforts in this area. He said, however, that the United Nations could not do it alone and that the people and the Government of the Niger have a responsibility as well.
In response to a question on Côte d’Ivoire, the Secretary-General enumerated the number of accords that the Government and the rebels had signed but never implemented. He then said that he sometimes wondered how “men who call themselves leaders” could allow their country to be torn apart. The Ivorian leaders, he indicated, had an obligation towards their people to work together to save their country.
The Secretary-General’s wife, Nane, meanwhile toured the fistula ward at the National Hospital in Niamey, accompanied by the First Lady of the Niger. The project is being supported by United Nations agencies, notably the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA).