The Horn of Africa is not the only region suffering from the threat of drought. Niger, where like Somalia rains fail in many years, is under close watch:
The desert nation was the epicenter of a severe food crisis last year that put more than 10 million people across the eastern Sahel at risk, including half of Niger’s population.
Irregular rainfall in 2009 led to poor harvests and shortages of water and grazing land for animals. But Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world and consistently reports alarming levels of child malnutrition.
This year, although the rains have come – albeit a few weeks late in certain regions – aid workers say approximately 2 million people in Niger are at risk of not having enough food, whether the harvests are good or not.
One of the solutions Niger’s leaders are pursuing might appear silly to outsiders at first glance (though Americans should pause before judging): praying for rain:
Niger’s president Mahamadou Issoufou took part in a national collective prayer Saturday asking for rain.
Several hundred Muslims joined with the president to recite the Koran and ask for rainfall in a televised ceremony at Niamey’s grand mosque led by Sheikh Djabir Ismael, president of the AIN, Niger’s largest Islamic association.
“Let Allah show clemency to our country”, said Sheikh Ismael.
Prayer sessions were held across the country, reported local media, after the government invited Nigeriens to participate.
“Our real worry is for our agriculture, I want you to intensify your prayers”, said Issoufou on Friday, as he was joined by religious leaders in the capital.
I think the prayer rally was far from silly as a political move (and, though I’m focusing on the political here, I do not discount the fact that participants likely hold strong and genuine religious convictions – in other words Issoufou is probably not a cynic). I can think of at least three political messages Issoufou’s participation sent:
- Praying for rain acknowledges the problem, a move that in and of itself draws a positive contrast between Issoufou, who only took office in April, and Mamadou Tandja, the country’s last civilian president who was ousted in a military coup in February 2010. At the height of a famine in 2005, Tandja denied that there was anything unusual going on. His stubbornness hurt aid delivery and undoubtedly resulted in preventable deaths. When Issoufou prayed in public on Saturday, he showed Niger and the world that he was ready to engage with the problem.
- Praying together with his countrymen could reinforce feelings of national solidarity. Niger faces tremendous problems – an influx of refugees from Libya, enduring poverty, lack of rain, and more – but Issoufou is demonstrating that he, the country’s religious leadership (a key segment of civil society), and ordinary people are “in it together.” He is also modeling the behavior that would be expected of a humble, pious leader.
- Praying for rain acknowledges the limits of what the Nigerien state can do alone. Undoubtedly Issoufou’s administration is working to devise and implement solutions to the drought, but the president and the people of Niger know that the state’s reach only extends so far. A tacit admission of these limitations could help manage domestic expectations about what the government can do, and might remind outsiders of the desperate straits Niger is in.
I do not know what Issoufou’s intentions were, of course. Nor am I praising or condemning his participation in the rally. I am simply saying that the event should not be dismissed as frivolous – it has its own religious and political logic, and even some (possibly unintended) political ramifications for Issoufou’s relationship with his people.