As the junta tightens its control, Niger is being strangled by sanctions | ET REALITY


Since the military coup in Niger this summer, Ahmed Alhousseïni’s work days have been consumed by calls from increasingly concerned clients and colleagues asking the same questions.

How and where could they get food?

Alhousseïni, an executive at a major food importer in Niger, said on a recent morning that he had spent the weekend searching for cooking oil in Niamey, the capital, with no luck. The tomatoes he had bought weeks earlier were rotting in Ghana, the pasta was stranded in Senegal, and rice supplies would run out at the end of the month. That morning, on the busy street in front of his office, the owners of grocery stores he normally supplied lined up, as they have frequently done in recent weeks.

After mutinous soldiers seized power in Niger, West African countries froze financial transactions, closed their borders with Niger and cut off most of their electricity supplies in an effort to pressure the generals to restore constitutional order. . The new leaders, led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, have not relented, but at an increasingly high cost. Sanctions and other penalties are now strangling Niger’s economy, with food prices and shortages rising and many medicines becoming increasingly scarce.

“Closing Niger’s borders is like depriving us of air,” said Alhousseïni, managing director of Oriba Rice. “We can’t breathe.”

The coup in Niger was the sixth in less than three years in West Africa, and sanctions recently imposed by a bloc of West African nations on the landlocked country of 25 million people have been the toughest yet.

Mohamed Bazoum, the ousted president, remains imprisoned with his family in his home, surrounded by military barracks and invisible from the outside. But in Niamey, few openly regret it and many have instead welcomed the new military leaders amid the perception that a decade of civilian rule, tainted by widespread accusations of corruption, had failed to improve their lives.

As shelves in grocery stores and pharmacies empty, anger is growing against West African countries and France, the former colonizer whose presence in the region has sparked a backlash that has grown in recent years. Until the coup, French troops were fighting Islamist insurgents alongside the Nigerien army, but have since been blamed for their inability to stop the attacks and have even been accused of collaborating with armed groups.

The coup has also dealt a blow to years-long efforts of military assistance and development aid provided by Western countries, including the United States, which saw Niger as their last hope for stabilization in a region plagued by growing security threats.

Much of this assistance has been suspended and hundreds of foreigners, including diplomatic staff, aid workers and military trainers, have left the country in recent weeks.

The Biden administration has so far refused to call the takeover a coup, because that would force it to withdraw the 1,100 US troops stationed in the country and cut off aid. Last week, the Defense Department said it was relocating most of its troops stationed at a Niamey military base that also houses French soldiers at another base in northern Niger.

The United States also resumed drone flights from Niger that it had suspended after the coup. “We have obtained approval from the appropriate authorities,” Gen. James B. Hecker, top U.S. Air Force Africa commander, told reporters at a news conference. conference in Maryland on Thursday. Counterterrorism training and cooperation with Niger’s armed forces remain suspended, he said.

“France can go to Ukraine if it wants to fight a war,” said Soumail Mounkhaila, a 49-year-old protester who said his grandfather fought for France during World War II.

Macron has refused to obey orders from Niger’s junta to withdraw French troops and its ambassador, arguing that the directive would have to come from the country’s legitimate authorities.

On Friday, Macron said French diplomatic staff were being held hostage at the embassy and accused junta leaders of blocking food deliveries. Macron’s claim could not immediately be verified. Last week, Nigerien security forces guarding the embassy refused to let in two European diplomats seeking to visit the French ambassador.

But France’s position appears increasingly unsustainable in a region where it is losing ground.

At a later protest at the Niamey base, Oumou Maïga, a 47-year-old schoolteacher, banged a pot along with dozens of other women also wielding brooms that they said were sweeping French troops out of the country.

Maïga said she feared parents would have difficulty feeding their children or paying for school supplies this year due to sanctions imposed by West African countries. But it hardly matters, she added: “We just don’t want Macron here. He considers Niger as a province of France.”

Some European counterparts have shared similar frustrations about the French president, who claimed last month that Niger and neighboring countries would have collapsed without France’s help against Islamist insurgents over the past decade.

A Western diplomat based in Niger, who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain diplomatic discussions, blamed France for escalating tensions with the junta through a provocative attitude that has kept Niger’s leaders in self-defense mode. Another said France’s government was dragging its partners into a vicious cycle of growing distrust of the country’s new authorities that could erode Europe’s broader involvement in the region.

Niger is a key transit country on the migration route to Europe, and in recent years the European Union has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to protect its northern areas with transit centers and repatriation flights.

The future of that partnership is now uncertain. Ruling generals have said they could remain in power for up to three years, and mediation efforts aimed at a shorter transition to civilian rule have so far been unsuccessful.

The stalemate could have disastrous consequences for Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. It also has one of the fastest growing populations. Under Bazoum, the ousted president, Niger had a projected economic growth rate of more than 12 percent for next year and was achieving encouraging, if fragile, results in the fight against Islamist insurgents roaming the broader Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert.

More than 7,000 tons of food are stranded at the gates of Niger, according to the World Food Programwhich has warned that 40 percent of Niger’s 25 million people could face severe food insecurity if borders are not reopened.

“We try to do what we have, but people are being killed in an insidious way,” Dr. Ali Ada, director of one of Niamey’s largest private clinics, said on a recent morning, as dozens of crying patients and children filled the room. building. “To be a good democrat, you must first be alive.”

In addition to growing food shortages, humanitarian programs are endangered and with dozens of shipping containers Filled with vaccines and medical supplies trapped outside the country, doctors are increasingly forced to smuggle supplies across closed borders or rely on European doctors who secretly deliver medicines.

Pharmacists in Niamey say they are running out of insulin, painkillers and blood thinners, among other products. “We’re getting used to saying, ‘We don’t have this, we don’t have that,’” said one pharmacist, Hassana Mounkaila.

Popular support for the new board remains difficult to measure. Political activities have been suspended and many civil society activists have fled or gone into hiding. But the new rulers are taking advantage of the anti-French sentiment sweeping the capital, as well as widespread nostalgia for previous military rulers.

“We are willing to suffer in the short term if they can solve Niger’s problems,” said El Hadj Bagué, a father of seven and owner of a shop in one of Niamey’s busiest markets. One recent afternoon, for more than an hour, three customers came to buy a small bag of sugar, a jar of mayonnaise and some candy.

“There is widespread disappointment with democracy, but there are no social demands either,” said Moussa Tchangari, a veteran civil society activist and one of the few voices openly critical of the junta. “The military leaders have not made any promises. “There is no plan.”

More than half a dozen Nigerien and Western diplomats said the generals appeared divided over governing strategy and that a new coup was likely next year.

But in interviews, many in Niamey vowed to defend their new leaders, even taking up arms against other West African countries that have threatened military action if Niger’s new leader, General Tchiani, does not relinquish power.

For weeks, young Nigeriens have stood at roundabouts at night, first searching for suspicious vehicles for signs of military intervention. That threat has diminished, but the young vigilantes have remained, some drinking tea or beer while listening to pro-military songs and sharing vague dreams of more sovereignty and job opportunities.

“We thirst for new beginnings,” said Issa Moumouni, a 31-year-old researcher specializing in mineral resources and oil at a civil society organization, at a roundabout on a recent afternoon.

Mr. Tchangari, the activist, shrugged his shoulders when told about the comments of some young protesters. “They don’t know what a military government is,” he said. “They don’t know what soldiers do when they confiscate power.”

Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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