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Africa’s poorest nations extend helping hand to tsunami victims

[Sudan] UN's Jan Egeland in Khartoum.
UN's Jan Egeland (IRIN)

Putting their own pressing problems on hold, some of the world’s poorest nations have come forward in West Africa to offer a helping hand to the victims of Asia’s tsunami.

Niger, ranked second from bottom on the United Nations poverty index of 177 nations, has offered $US 250,000 in aid to help those who survived the 26 December tidal wave in the Indian Ocean.

Mali, which is fourth from bottom on the same UN Development Programme Human Development Index, is handing over $200,000.

“It’s only normal,” Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for West Africa, told IRIN. “Just because you’re poor, it doesn't mean that you can’t help others.”

Although the United Nations and international relief organisations are already warning that the tsunami crisis could divert donor funds away from Africa, the world’s poorest continent, during the months and years to come, individuals, governments and the African Union itself have spontaneously come forward with aid.

“Our tradition in Africa values compassion,” said President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and biggest oil producer. “When others are affected we feel affected with them.”

Obasanjo not only pledged $1 million in government cash as a direct contribution to the tsunami victims, as well as extra finance for an African Union relief fund. He also set up a special committee chaired by Nigeria’s top Moslem and Christian leaders to raise resources for Asia.

In Benin’s capital Cotonou, hundreds of people turned up last Friday for special prayers at the central St Michel church and emptied their pockets of heaps of small coins and notes.

Local television has been running slots showing footage of the disaster and appealing for public donations. “You can be poor and still help!” it says.

In Mali, veteran film director Souleymane Cisse handed a 1,000-euro ($1,300) cheque to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on behalf of the country’s film-makers. “This aid is a symbol of our solidarity and support for the children, victim of this terrible catastrophe,” he said.

Local historian Cheickna Mody Cissoko meanwhile made a personal donation of 600,000 CFA francs ($1,200).

“What happened in Asia has upset the entire world,” he said. “Asians are Africans’ closest brothers.”

Liberia, still reeling from the impact of a devastating 14-year civil war, is planning a day of national mourning on Thursday for the tsunami victims. The government has ordered all businesses to close from mid-day to sunset and flags to be flown at half-mast.

The desert nation of Mauritania, which reckons it will need food aid for a third of its 2.8 population this year following locust damage, is sending a medical team to the disaster zone to assist.

The government of tiny oil-rich Equatorial Guinea had offered $200,000 to the Tsunami relief fund and Senegal donated an identical sum.

The 53-nation African Union (AU) meanwhile pledged $US100,000.

At a summit of the AU’s Peace and Security Council in Libreville on Monday, the host, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, urged all AU members to pour money into the tsunami fund to assist those whose lives had been blighted by the tidal wave in the Indian Ocean.

The Gambia, which atttracts tens of thousands of European tourists to its beaches every year, expressed sympathy with Asian nations dependent on tourism, such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Thailand, which were hit by the catastrophe.

“Tourism is a social affair which attracts people from all over the world, and over the years people from some of the worst affected countries have been counted among the hundreds of tourists who visit our country every year,” said Secretary of State for Tourism Susan Waffa-Ogoo. Several initiatives are under way in the small country to raise funds.

President John Kufuor of Ghana, making his first state of the nation address since his re-election on 7 December, announced the launch of a special Ghanaian fund to help Asia’s homeless and ill.

“I urge all citizens to contribute to the fund so we can send our widow’s mite to the international effort,” he told parliament.

Africa’s effort may seem tiny in comparison to the enormous sums being raised elsewhere in more prosperous climes, but it is all the more significant given that the continent stands to lose out from aid being diverted to tsunami victims in the long-run.

Irish rock star Bob Geldof, whose Live Aid initiative helped Ethiopia's famine victims in the 1980s, appealed to BBC listeners not to forget Africa by allotting its poor a smaller slice of the aid pie in the years to come.

And UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland has repeatedly urged donors not to let Africa down as their attention shifts to the tsunami disaster.

“We should agree on one basic principle,” he said in Geneva on Tuesday. “It is as terrible to be wounded in Congo as it is in Kosovo. It is as bad to be displaced in northern Uganda as it is in northern Iraq. It is as terrible to starve in Darfur, Sudan as it is on the beaches of tsunami-stricken nations.”

But it will be an uphill task. One senior UN official with responsibilities covering the whole of West Africa told his colleagues at a private gathering in Dakar this week: “We are going to have to work harder than ever to be relevant now.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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