The devastating Sahelian drought and pervasive civilian corruption provided the pretext for the bloody Army coup that brought a military government to power here seven years ago.Yet, perhaps uniquely for Africa, Niger's severe military government has achieved what it announced it had taken power to accomplish -- self-sufficiency in food and an end to mass starvation.
Situated in Central Africa's semi-arid Sahelian belt, Niger will always be at the mercy of the weather's vagaries, but since 1974 it has plowed its meager resources and what foreign aid it has received into increasing production of staple grains with such intensity that the country may achieve a level of production that exceeds its 2.7 percent annual population growth rate. lThat would be a first for contemporary Africa.
Officials in African countries, many of which were self-sufficient in food before independence, have become alarmed in recent years by the ever-increasing amounts of scarce foreign exchange their countries spend on imported foodstuffs.
Africa's estimated population of 400 million is increasing on a yearly average of 3 percent while food production, where it is not declining, is increasing at a rate far below the birth rate. Despite huge outlays in foreign assistance and grandoise agricultural schemes, most African countries have not been able to reverse this trend.The one exception is Niger.
"For the past three years," said the director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Niger, Jay Johnson, "Niger is the only Sahelian country out of the total of eight that has not needed and emergency food" donations.
"And it appears now that food production in Niger is exceeding population growth," Johnson added.
Niger's austere military ruler, Col. Seyni Kountche, took power from what many neutral observers have characterized as a corrupt and mismanaged elected civilian government that had exacerbated the painful problems the country of 5.5 billion suffered during the 1968-1974 Sahelian drought.
Hamani Diori, the ousted president who had headed the country since independence from France in 1960, was imprisoned in the French-built Zinder fortress east of here until last April. He lives today in a villa here in the capital, where he receives visitors and family but remains under guard. His wife along with about 100 other people, was killed reportedly with a gun in her hand defending Diori against the coup makers.
Kountche's stern government keeps a tight rein on the spending of the country's $336 million annual budget in contrast to Diori's government. Last August, for example, Boubakar Abdou Adamu, former civilian secretary general to Kountche's government, was charged with siphoning funds into his own pocket by double invoicing government purchases with the aid of a local French businessman.
Both Adamu and the Frenchman are now in jail awaiting an as yet unscheduled trial. Following their arrests, the ascetic Kountche ordered a massive two-month audit of all government offices.
"Not much else was done around here until that audit was completed," said a Western observer, "and you could almost feel a collective sign of relief when everyone else came up clean. Kountche runs a very tight ship."
"Kountche's government is an authoritarian regime that acts arbitrarily and doesn't follow Western concepts of judicial procedure, for example, but his government does not treat people unfairly," added another Western observer.
Niger is fortunate in having large amounts of uranium in its northern desert regions around the town of Arlit. Earnings from uranium exports, which doubled to 400,000 tons a year in the past two years, have, in part, fueled the country's successful program of stepping up food production. The country may face some tighter economic measures in the near future, however, since the world market price of uranium dropped from $46 a pound last year to the current price of $32 a pound.
The plunge in uranium earnings, 75 percent of Niger's revenue, may lead to a severe cutback in a number of expensive development projects and a money crunch in the mid-1980s when a number of the large loans come due. Presently the world's fourth producer of uranium after the United States, Canada and the combined exports of South Africa and Namibia (South West Africa), Niger may soon face stiff marketing competition from Australia as that country increases its production.
Although the government refers to itself officially as provisional, there have been no signs that Kountche plans to allow a return to civilian government in the near future. His government has recently appointed a commission to study the creation of a grass-roots organization, called Development Society, that theoretically will allow some broad-based participation in the formation of government policies.
Observers and Nigerriens are anxiously awaiting the commission's recommendations, due by January of next year, as the Development Society is supposed to serve as a vehicle for modernization, maintain the political status quo and not disrupt the traditional lifestyles and values of the peasants, who make up 90 percent of the population.
"That is a very tall order," said one observer. "What I think it amounts to is this government is suffering from a complex because it does not have a mandate to rule," he added. "Kountche is very respected by the Nigeriens but he it not popular."
Asked in an interview why there has not been a move back toward civilian government if his government is indeed provisional, Kountche referred to his country's poverty and lack of a sense of national identity.
"We cannot make the hungry man a democrat," said Kountche. "In Niger, our primary needs are food, housing, education, health and being clothed. Second, we have become a nation very recently, 20 years ago," with still divided and possibly disruptive ethnic groups.
The Development Society's "whole consequence would be to prepare for final and real democracy in Niger," Kountche said.
On Niger's growing economic difficulties, Kountche said his government will keep expenditures and overseas borrowing as tight as possible keeping in mind the government's food production priorities. "This is an effort without a price tag for us," he said.
"We'll take the necessary measures to avoid becoming the slaves of the International Monetary Fund," said Kountche.
Last year, Niger's peasants produced 1.7 million tons of grain, mostly sorghum and millet, or 200,000 tons more than the country's annual needs. "Each year [since the end of the drought] we're getting increases and the farmers are building up their stocks," said AID official Johnson.
"We are a proud people," said Kountche. "There were many heads of families who were really humiliated [during the drought] by this [food donation] process because they had to ask for their day-to-day food."
For now, he concluded, "as long as their is good rainfall in Niger, we are not going to ask for food."