President Tandja: 'The people of Niger look well fed, as you can see'

Mamadou Tandja, President of Niger, denies claims of famine in his country
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The Independent Online

He is one of 32,000 children the United Nations says is in danger of dying in Niger - "the number one neglected emergency in the world".

The Médecins Sans Frontières camp in Maradi is one of the busiest trying to cope with the unfolding catastrophe. There are many other victims there. Abdu Issafou, 15 months old, is suffering from acute diarrhoea and vomiting, diseases ravaging his young body left weak by malnutrition. His mother, Hadiza, weeps knowing the life of her son may be slipping away.

But for Mamadou Tandja, sitting in the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey, it is a matter of "crisis, what crisis?" "The people of Niger look well fed, as you can see," President Tandja says. All the talk of mass starvation is just "foreign propaganda", deception by relief agencies to obtain increased funding. "It is only by deception that such agencies receive funding," he tells the BBC.

What problems there are, he says, "are not serious" .

President Tandja, a former army officer, maintains his government has reacted with alacrity to the "not unusual" food shortage with subsidies. Increasing accusations that his regime has been guilty of neglect, of trying to tackle famine with disastrous "free-market" tactics were, he said, wide of the mark.

Hadiza Issafou, who has already lost four children in the disaster and is about to lose a fifth, begs to differ. There was no help from the government when the drought scorched the crops on the piece of land where she and her husband scratched out a living. And there was also no help when plagues of locusts descended afterwards and stripped off even the grass that the family's few cattle depended on.

"We have nothing left, nothing. I have lost sons and daughters and so have others in my family and my neighbours. Once we had a farm and grew our own food, now we are beggars," she said standing in a queue at Baoudeta, a relief centre run by the British charity Save The Children.

"We did not get anything from the officials. We went to all the towns in our area asking for food, but they did not give us any. My son is sick all the time, he cannot keep anything down. I do not know what is going to happen, we have never faced anything so bad before."

There are now places in Niger where one no longer asks if people have died, but how many. Al-Hanza Rakia Mohammed says: "I have lost a daughter and brother, my cousin has lost a son. And there are three others among our neighbours. Most of all we need medicine, and there is no one giving it."

One of the main results of the attempted use of private enterprise to tackle malnutrition was to push up drastically the price of staple foods. In January 2005, a temporary VAT rate of 19% on basic foodstuffs such as sugar, milk and wheat flour was introduced, with International Monetary Fund approval. As a result, the price of basic food rose by between 75 and 89%.

But for President Tandja none of this was relevant. "The people of Niger look well fed. Food shortage is caused by lack of grain and locusts and is not unusual for this country," he said. "The situation has been exaggerated for political and economic gain by opposition parties and the UN aid agencies.

"If these problems were serious there would be shanty towns forming around the big towns and people will flee. Street beggars will be prevalent. This has not happened. We are experiencing, like all the countries in the Sahel, a food crisis due to a poor harvest and locust attacks of 2004." Reports of famine, he continued, were "false propaganda" by the opposition and UN agencies. "It is only by deception that such organisations will receive increased funding."

The UN and aid agencies have been highly critical of the West's " grossly inadequate" response to repeated warnings of a catastrophe in the former French colony. President Tandja, who was keen to stress that things were nothing like as bad as they had been painted by "foreigners", demanded to know why only $2.5m (£1.4m) had been received by his government of the $43m pledged by the outside world.

Even officials are wary of overtly criticising the President as they embarked on food distribution. Greg Barrow, the spokesman for the UN World Food Programme, would only say: "We have not spoken about famine but pockets of severe malnutrition."

However, senior aid workers in Maradi, in the centre of some of the most stricken areas, accused Mr Tandja of attempting to deflect criticism. One said: "The international community was very slow in reacting to the crisis, but the Niger government has contributed to the situation by its own actions. What he is saying now is just for face-saving purposes. But we must be careful of what we say."

Niger's own relief workers are much less reticent in their criticism. Dr Alka Oumarou, who runs a medical centre at Baoudeta, said: "Our government has been negligent. We were saying for over four months how bad things were before they did anything. Even then they did not give out free food but made people buy it, with some complicated loan scheme. It did not work, and people die.

"Our medical centre is government controlled, and even now the government direction is that we should charge people. The number of patients I see has gone up from 25 per day to 75. We have to turn away those who could not pay, and some of them die. They are now getting treatment only thanks to the foreigners."

President brought his nation stability, but not prosperity

In a part of the world where the military coup has been more frequent than a democratic election, Niger's President, Mamadou Tandja, has taken part in his share of takeovers.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Tandja owes his most recent term of office to a presidential election last year in the impoverished west African country on the fringe of the Sahara. Mr Tandja, the leader of the ruling National Movement for Society and Development, had been first elected as President of the uranium-rich country in 1999.

In 1990 at the La Baule summit, France's President François Mitterrand warned former colonies of his country that they would no longer be able to count on aid unless they democratised. Yet Niger's democracy arrived in fits and starts, amid a Tuareg rebellion that was only brought under control in the mid-1990s.

Mr Tandja - who took part in a coup which overthrew the country's first elected president in 1974, becoming interior minister - was elected President after voters approved a new constitution which opened the way to multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections.

He has been given credit for returning the country to stability, albeit not prosperity despite its natural resources.

In May 2004, in response to the first national survey of slavery and an outcry over the country's 43,000 slaves, the government brought in a law banning the practice, providing for prison terms of up to 30 years. But a mass release of 7,000 slaves failed to take place last March.

President Tandja has co-operated with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union's strictures, carrying out structural changes including the imposition of 19 per cent VAT on basic foodstuffs.

As a result, the price of basic food has risen by between 75 and 89 per cent. Aid agencies have attributed the scale of the hunger affecting Niger after the drought and locust infestation to the sudden rise in the price of millet that badly affected the poorest of the poor.

In June, as the Group of 8 was finalising arrangements to cancel Niger's debt at the Gleneagles summit, President Tandja's government was facing down a march by 2,000 people in the capital, Niamey, demanding free food. The government refused their demands, saying this would be "foolish" as it would empty the carefully built-up emergency stocks, even though some 150,000 children were already severely malnourished.

Forced on to the defensive when he visited the stricken southern region in July, President Tandja said his government's appeals for international assistance in November went unheeded. His task now is to prevent the humanitarian crisis becoming a full-scale political crisis as opposition parties move to exploit his difficulties.

Anne Penketh, Diplomatic editor

Helping the starving in Niger

The Disasters Emergency Committee raised more than £8m in the first three days of the appeal launched on 2 August to help relief agencies feed the starving people of Niger, stricken by drought and locust infestations. The DEC includes Britain's best-known charities, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and the British Red Cross.

Donations to the DEC Niger Crisis Appeal can be made at:, or by phoning the Disasters Emergency Committee on 0870 60 60 900. Donations can also be made through any high street post office or bank.