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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Niger's leader - haunted by hunger
By Idy Barou
BBC News, Niamey

Niger's President Mamadou Tandja, a 65-year-old retired army colonel, came to power in December 1999 following what the international community called "a fair and transparent democratic electoral process".

Niger President Mamadou Tandja
President Tandja has accused the opposition of exploiting the crisis
He became the first Niger leader to complete a five-year term in office and was granted another five years after winning elections in December 2004.

However, he first tasted the fruits of power in 1974 after taking part in Niger's first military coup, ousting President Hamani Diori.

Mr Tandja was named interior minister and was also an ambassador for many years.

He was said to be a pragmatic person whose motto was: "To reconcile Niger's people with work".

Too little, too late

However, since his re-election, his government has been hit by a wave of protests organised by civil society and the opposition parties.

Civil society groups have denouncing hikes in the prices of basic commodities like sugar, milk and wheat flower.

We have no people starving to death
President Mamadou Tandja
Opposition parties have condemned "unprecedented and rampant corruption".

On top of these problems have come the food shortages, which began late last year after poor rains and locusts ravaged harvests in Niger and across the Sahel region.

Mr Tandja has been heavily criticised for taking too little action, too late to prevent the failed harvests turning into acute food shortages, affecting some 3.5m people.

The government rejected calls for the free distribution of food.

Instead the cost of staple food was partially subsidised - but the very poorest said they still could not afford to buy enough to stave off hunger.

Local journalists who reported on the scale of the problems were harassed.

Bad memories

Last week, the president launched a scathing attack on United Nations aid agencies, accusing them of exaggerating the scale of the problems in order to get donor funds.

He also accused opposition parties of trying to gain political mileage out of the problems.

Mother and child waiting for food aid
The UN has started a general distribution of food aid
He told the BBC: "We have no people starving to death, no villages deserted by their inhabitants, no trucks carrying displaced people, no refugee camps..."

This statement did not go down well with the aid agencies trying to feed Niger's 150,000 malnourished children in areas such as Maradi ,Tahoua and Zinder.

The president has since tried to clarify his comments, saying he was merely pointing out that there was no famine, which would mean thousands of people starving to death.

Analysts in Niger say the reason for Mr Tandja's erratic behaviour may stem from his memories of 1974, the year in which he first came to prominence.

One of the main reasons for the coup, in which he played such a large part, was the government's failure to deal with the severe food shortages of 1973-4.

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