NIAMEY, Niger – They are simple words humanitarian workers in Africa use often but dared not speak in this impoverished nation: hunger, starvation.
And definitely not famine.
For years, President Mamadou Tandja denied there was any food crisis in Niger, even when images were broadcast of skeletal children too weak to brush away flies. Now that the military has ousted Tandja, aid agencies are speaking out, with good reason: The country is facing its worst food shortage in years.
"A window has finally opened and we need to take advantage of it," said Anne Boher, Niger spokeswoman for the U.N. Children's Fund.
With food supplies rapidly dwindling, humanitarian agencies must prepare and mobilize funds, she said. "And to do that, we need to talk about what's really happening. It's urgent that we act now."
Nearly half of Niger's 15 million people are facing food shortages this year because poor rainfall has thinned harvests, according to a leaked government report that said nearly 3 million of those people are expected to face "extreme" shortfalls.
The U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which monitors food security, also predicts there will be "a serious food security emergency" in Niger this year. The number of malnourished children being admitted to feeding centers was 60 percent greater in January than the previous year, the group said. UNICEF is mobilizing help to at least 200,000 severely malnourished children alone.
Five years ago, Niger faced a similar crisis after crops were devastated first by locusts, then by drought, leaving a third of the country facing starvation. Foreign governments and aid groups rushed in food, although the U.N. said the crisis did not reach famine proportions.
Media coverage of the episode enraged Tandja, who lashed out at humanitarian agencies and opposition parties for allegedly fabricating "false propaganda" for political and economic gain. Several aid groups were expelled.
Since then, humanitarian workers here have tiptoed around discussions with government officials on the sensitive topics of food and nutrition, even when they concerned children.
"We weren't able to say there wasn't enough food," Boher told The Associated Press. "You couldn't talk about a 'food crisis' because there wasn't supposed to be one. The word 'malnutrition'" was difficult to speak, but possible. Some ministers said it, but they took risks to do so."
Just days before the Feb. 18 coup, another U.N. employee recounted a regional governor recoiling in anger when asked about malnutrition. "He said, 'We have a good relationship' — between the government and the humanitarian community — 'why are you trying to spoil it?'" the employee said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Food has always been a deeply political topic in Niger, one of Africa's poorest nations. Perched on the southern edge of the Sahara, it has suffered cyclical drought for centuries, a phenomenon exacerbated by exploding population growth. Millions of people are chronically malnourished.
Niger's first post-independence coup came amid another food crisis in 1974, and "the soldiers who took power justified it by saying the president at the time could not feed the population," said journalist Abdoulaye Tiemogo, who runs the weekly independent, Le Canard Dechaine, French for "Wild Duck."
"That's why they're still afraid of words like 'famine,'" said Tiemogo, who spent three months in prison and seven in exile for publishing articles critical of Tandja.
During the 2005 crisis, Tandja's government felt humiliated, Boher said. "They thought people were trying to make it look like it was their fault that children were dying."
And "if you are unable to feed the population, as president, you are going to be at risk," Boher said. "Malnutrition has political implications. This is why Tandja wanted to deny there was a problem."
A government report in December on the country's latest food crisis may have only come to light because Tiemogo obtained a leaked copy. When his paper ran the story, the government suspended his press card and told him they had begun legal proceedings to shut his weekly down.
The failure to publish accurate statistics can have "dramatic consequences," Tiemogo said. "If you don't know what's really going on, you can't react to it, and it's the population that suffers. People die."
The International Federation of the Red Cross says many households have already exhausted food stocks, and within a few weeks will be unable to provide for themselves.
"We must act without delay to prevent a deterioration of the food situation, and pre-empt what will otherwise be disastrous consequences," said Angelika Kessler, a food expert for the IFRC in Dakar, Senegal.
One unanswered question is whether Niger's new junta will be as sensitive to the issue as Tandja's regime has been.
So far, the soldiers in charge are overwhelmed with the burden of governing and convincing diplomats — none of which are calling for Tandja's return — that the coup was a good thing.
The impending food emergency has yet to be addressed.
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