Under fire, Niger president to tour hunger areas

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, July 25 (Reuters) - Niger President Tandja Mamadou, facing criticism at home for not drawing more attention to a hunger crisis affecting millions, plans to visit some of the worst affected areas this week, officials said.

Civic groups have accused Mamadou of failing to publicise the extent of the food shortages affecting 3.6 million people in Niger for fear of embarrassing his government, although supporters say he has done his best to address the problem.

Mamadou, a former army officer who was re-elected in December, will visit the northern regions of Tahoua on Tuesday and Agadez on Wednesday to assess the crisis in Niger, an arid country on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

Mamadou made his first visit to affected areas last week when he accompanied visiting Moroccan King Mohammed on a trip to the southern town of Maradi, where Morocco has set up a field hospital to help sick women and children.

"Until now I've never heard him say that there's a famine in Niger," said Oumarou Keita, editor of the privately owned Republican weekly. "For him it's a question of pride, for him showing images of hungry people or people eating wild fruits is like dragging the country's name through the mud."

Aid workers in Niger have accused donors of failing to respond early to calls for help that began in November, allowing the situation to slide to emergency proportions and dramatically raise the cost of the effort now needed to save lives.

But Mamadou's opponents have accused him of failing to take an early lead in publicising the extent of the crisis, saying that he either failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation or was concerned for his country's image.

"Everybody in Niger knows that the president wanted to hide the food crisis," said Weila Ilguilas, president of human rights group Timidria. "He didn't want to publicise the famine."

Commentators have also said the president should have used his visit to meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington in June to highlight the mounting hunger in Niger, a U.S. ally where U.S. forces are training troops in counterterrorism.

A spokesman denied Mamadou had been slow to respond, saying it was the president who had directed his government to start tackling the crisis when harvests failed last October.

"They are simply making political statements, it's not real information," said presidential spokesman Daouda Diallo.

"The problem is that Niger can't fix the date that the international community will intervene, and the government can't decide when the media will take an interest," he said.

Reporters in Niger say Mamadou ordered the sacking of journalist Maimouna Tchirgni from the state-owned Sahel Sunday newspaper in May for her reports on hunger in Zinder, 750 km (470 miles) east of Niamey. She was later reinstated.

Diallo denied the president was involved.

Activists have also criticised the government for raising taxes on flour, milk and other basics in March, which it said was part of an International Monetary Fund reform package. The government dropped the taxes after huge street protests.

They also say the government failed to start widespread free distribution of food early on in the crisis, instead preferring to sell subsidised millet or loan food for later repayment. Niger's relief officials say they lacked resources to do more. (Additional reporting by Matthew Green in Dakar)


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