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In Senegal, Varied Response to Hunger Crisis


Senegal, like much of the rest of the world, has been hit hard by what international food agencies have called the "Silent Tsunami," the soaring food costs causing hundreds of millions to struggle. Even generally peaceful Senegal has seen its share of demonstrators angry over the rising cost of living. Uma Ramiah has more from the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on the country's response to the crisis.

Thousands of Senegalese students clad in matching T-shirts stomped, danced, drummed and sang in the Marius Ndiaye stadium in Dakar on April 25. They were waiting for their president.

Sidi Sayou, a 22-year-old student, was standing with friends outside the stadium after listening to Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's address. He said Senegalese youth were no longer angry with Mr. Wade.

They used to blame him for rising food costs, but now he said Mr. Wade is offering them solutions. He said the Senegalese youth are ready to support him.

In neon-green lettering, his T-shirt read: "I support the Agricultural Offensive."

Soaring food costs have prompted unrest across West Africa. Senegal, known for its stability, experienced riots over the cost of food in March when police arrested demonstrators protesting the rising cost of staple goods, including rice, oil and milk.

Exploding population growth, new demand for bio-fuels, and poor harvests are believed to have all contributed to rocketing food prices worldwide. But in sub-Saharan Africa, where most people spend a majority of their income on food, even the smallest rise in price puts a serious strain on families.

International response to the food crisis has varied. Developed countries have pledged more money for food aid, and the United Nations has set up an international task force to deal with the issue. Some countries have stopped exporting food. Others have set up food stockpiles.

President Wade introduced his own ambitious plan on April 18.

Addressing government officials mostly clad in white military uniforms, Mr. Wade claimed he would make Senegal agriculturally independent by 2015 with what he called "The Great Agricultural Offensive For Food and Abundance."

The president promised that by converting unused land for farming, his country would be able to produce two million tons of corn, three million of manioc and 500,000 of rice per year. He did not divulge the details of the plan, such as its cost and the number of acres to be used.

Senegal produces about 100,000 tons of rice annually, relying on imported grains for the remaining 600,000 it consumes per year.

Reaction to Mr. Wade's plan has varied. Students gathered at the rally in Marius Ndiaye stadium were supportive of their president's efforts.

But during a protest the following day, thousands of Senegalese citizens marched through Dakar's dusty avenues, angry at the rising prices and demanding more from their leader.

We are sick of President Wade and his broken promises, screamed one protest leader.

Waving empty sacks of rice and canisters of cooking oil while shouting out their current prices, demonstrators followed trucks piled high with crackling speakers, booming out anti-government sentiments.

People are tired of Mr. Wade's politics, said Senegalese opposition party leader Amad Donsoku as his car lurched slowly forward, parting the enthusiastic crowd of protesters.

President Wade hosted a 57-nation Islamic summit in March, which followed major construction projects that included four-lane highways and still unfinished luxury hotels.

Following the summit, many Senegalese citizens expressed anger with the government.

Moustapha Sah, 22, said he came to the rally because he was disgusted with eight years of the government promising to make life better for Senegalese people with no results. He said that whenever the country suffers, President Wade arrives with his slogans.

But he does not believe any of them, Sah said.

"Our country is hungry and we want Wade to go", protester Marieme Ndiaye cried out in Wolof, a local dialect. The surrounding crowd shouted out in agreement.

Her children had not eaten in three days, she said.

President Wade has publicly announced that there is no hunger in Senegal. After introducing his plan for agricultural independence, he went on national television to say that India had agreed to supply 600,000 tons of rice annually for the next six years.

Mr. Wade said the six-year supply would give Senegal time to develop its agricultural program, and asked Senegalese people for "patience" while waiting for the rice to arrive.

India restricted its exports of rice on April 1. The president has not disclosed how he came to such an agreement.

Mr. Wade on Monday called for an end to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. He called the U.N. body a waste of money, and said its inefficiency was largely to blame for the global increase in food prices.

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