On Feb. 18, 2010, what has been referred to as a “textbook coup” took place in Niger. President Mamadou Tandja – who had been in power for more than a decade, was widely criticized for his poor management of a chronic food crisis in his country and for his lack of transparency – was ousted by Major Salou Djibo.

The military junta that took control of the country – calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy – has been welcomed by many Nigeriens, who had been yearning for Tandja’s departure.

While the coup was condemned by ECOWAS and the African Union, which suspended Niger’s membership in the regional bodies, analysts took note of the local and international goodwill toward the junta. The readiness to trust the junta seems to hinge on the group’s willingness to pursue a rapid transition and prepare for democratic elections, as well as their apparent desire to distance themselves from the previous administration’s policy of denial and secrecy on social and economic issues.

Niger ranks dead last in the UN’s Human Development Index, a standard measure of well-being which encompasses life expectancy, education and GDP criteria. The country has been in the grips of a food crisis, which a recent government report estimates is having an impact on half of the population of 15 million.

The Red Cross has launched an international appeal for $1 million to be able to respond to this large scale crisis, and the junta itself has made an appeal for $35 million to fund the prevention and treatment of malnutrition. The country’s 812 health centers are currently staffed by just over 7,000 health workers; of these, 90% are in the capital, Niamey, leaving most of the other centers grossly under-resourced and unable to cope with the scale of the problem. 

Niger’s new leadership is acknowledging the seriousness of the food insecurity situation, in sharp contrast with the Tandja government’s habit of denying and attempting to cover it up. In spite of the positive steps taken by the junta, however, it is difficult to see how the food crisis in Niger can be alleviated in the short term. IRIN reports that, “the UN has estimated the cost of responding to the unfolding food crisis in Niger at $158.6 million.”

The international community is right to make the speedy restoration of constitutional rule a priority. Considering the alarming malnutrition situation, though, it is also imperative that the Nigerien leadership seeks ways to finance food-security initiatives.

In spite of Niger’s wealth of natural resources (it has the world’s third largest uranium deposit) and multi-billion dollar mining deals, Nigeriens have seen little improvement to their quality of life. Whoever is chosen to lead the country in the upcoming elections needs to be pressed – by the people of Niger and the international community – to utilize the country’s own vast resources to steer clear of what could be yet another major humanitarian disaster.