President Bush sure cared about Niger in 2003 when he said, ''The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Vice President Dick Cheney sure cared about the yellowcake, so much that one of the reported reasons diplomat Joseph Wilson went to the African nation in 2002 was because of Cheney's interest in checking out any possible links between Saddam and nuclear weapons. Wilson found no evidence of uranium sales.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cared enough about Niger that, like Bush, he said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ''has the design for a nuclear weapon" and was ''working on several different methods of enriching uranium and recently was discovered seeking significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Rumsfeld used that assumption to conflate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 with Saddam, a tie disproved by Bush's own 9/11 Commission.
''Americans saw the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade towers as a painful and vivid foreshadowing of far more deadly attacks to come," Rumsfeld said. ''We looked at the destruction caused by the terrorists who took jetliners, turned them into missiles, and used them to kill 3,000 innocent men, women, and children, and we considered the destruction that could be caused by an adversary armed with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Instead of 3,000 to be killed, it could be 30,000, 300,000."
Let us hope an administration that used Niger to fake out the world for its invasion of Iraq can take the time to go back to that country to prevent death to many times more people. To almost the complete silence of the United States, Niger, one of the world's poorest nations, was hit last year by natural weapons of mass destruction -- locusts and drought.
That double whammy decimated cereal production. This week, the United Nations and Oxfam pleaded for the world to pay attention. While Rumsfeld got us into war over fears of 300,000 Americans being killed, 3.6 million people in Niger -- one-third of its population -- are already malnourished, and 2.5 million of them face outright famine.
Jan Egeland, the UN relief coordinator, said this week that 150,000 children will die soon without immediate aid. This is on top of famines in other parts of Africa. Relief agencies have been warning about the possibility of this since last fall, but for all of the self-praise of wealthy nations at the recent Group of Eight summit, the response to this crisis has been appalling.
An initial call for aid by the UN in November resulted in almost nothing. This spring the UN called for $16 million and received only $3.8 million. The crisis has escalated so rapidly that Egeland revised the figure needed to $30 million, but so far, only $10 million has come in.
Egeland said the sloth of the world is a tragedy in itself. He said that if the wealthy nations had been on top of the crisis early, it would have cost only $1 a day to halt malnutrition in Niger. Now, he says, it will take $80 a day. The sloth so got under Egeland's skin that he said the $3.5 billion a year that the UN asks wealthy countries for humanitarian aid ''is one-third what Europeans eat in ice cream a year and is one-10th of what Americans spend on their pets a year."
The United States, unfortunately, stands out for standing on the sidelines. Bush has boasted of increases of aid to Africa, and, yes, the United States is by far the world's biggest giver of aid in absolute dollars. But it has taken three years for Bush's Millennium Challenge Account to start giving out aid, and as a portion of our gross domestic product, we are at the bottom of wealthy nations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted the nations to commit to a target of 0.7 percent of GNP for aid at the G-8 summit. Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, and Denmark all already give at least 0.7 percent. The United States gives 0.16 percent. It is the only wealthy nation under 0.2 percent.
The president of Niger was one of five African leaders who came to the White House last month when Bush touted increased trade to the continent. ''The United States will do our part to help the people of Africa realize the brighter future they deserve." The nation that was so concerned about yellowcake in Niger now needs to give its people the grain they deserve.
© 2005 Boston Globe