As the junta tightens its grip, Niger is strangled by sanctions

by MMC
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Since the military coup in Niger this summer, Ahmed Alhousseïni’s workdays have been filled with calls from increasingly worried clients and colleagues asking the same questions.

How and where could they get food?

An executive at a major food importer in Niger, Mr. Alhousseïni said one recent morning that he had spent his weekend looking for cooking oil in Niamey, the capital, without success. The tomatoes he had bought weeks earlier were rotting in Ghana, pasta was stuck in Senegal, and rice supplies would run out by the end of the month. That morning, on the busy street outside his office, the traders he usually supplied were lining up – as they often have 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 electricity supplies in a bid to put pressure on on the generals to restore constitutional order. The new leaders, led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, have not budged, but at an increasingly severe price. 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 Mr. Alhousseïni, the 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 countries against the landlocked country of 25 million people have were the most severe ever seen.

Mohamed Bazoum, the deposed president, remains imprisoned with his family in his house, 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 a sense that a decade of civilian rule, marred by widespread allegations of corruption, has failed to improve their living conditions.

While the shelves of food stores and pharmacies are emptying, anger is now rising against West African countries and France, the former colonizer. whose presence in the region sparked a violent reaction that escalated during the last years. Until the coup, French troops fought Islamist insurgents alongside Niger’s army, but they have since been blamed for their failure to stop the attacks and even accused of collaborating with armed groups.

The coup also dealt a blow to years of military assistance and development aid efforts 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 that aid has been suspended, and in recent weeks hundreds of foreigners, including diplomatic staff, aid workers and military trainers, have left the country.

The Biden administration has so far refused to call the power grab a coup, as that would force it to withdraw all 1,100 U.S. troops stationed in the country and withhold aid. Last week, the defense ministry announced it was transferring most of its troops stationed at a military base in Niamey that also hosts French soldiers to another base in northern Niger.

The United States also resumed drone flights from Niger, which it had suspended following the coup. “We have received approval from the appropriate authorities,” Gen. James B. Hecker, commander in chief of U.S. Air Force Africa, told reporters. conference in Maryland on Thursday. Counter-terrorism training and cooperation with Niger’s armed forces remains suspended, he said.

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

Mr Macron has refused to heed orders from Niger’s junta to recall French troops and its ambassador, arguing that the directive should come from the country’s legitimate authorities.

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

But France’s position appears more and more untenable 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 with dozens of other women who also brandished brooms that they said would sweep French troops out of the country.

Ms Maïga said she feared that parents would struggle to feed their children or pay for school materials this year due to sanctions imposed by West African countries. But no matter, she adds: “We simply don’t want Macron here. He considers Niger to be a province of France.

Some European counterparts have shared similar frustrations with 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, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain diplomatic discussions, accused France of stoking tensions with the junta through a provocative attitude that kept Niger’s leaders in self-defense mode . Another said the French government was leading its partners into a vicious cycle of growing distrust of the country’s new authorities, which 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 this partnership is now uncertain. The ruling generals have said they could stay in power for up to three years, and mediation efforts aimed at a shorter transition to civilian rule have so far been unsuccessful.

This impasse could have disastrous consequences for Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. It also faces one of the fastest growing populations. Below Mr. Bazoumthe ousted president, Niger predicted an economic growth rate of more than 12 percent for next year and achieved encouraging, if fragile, results in the fight against Islamist insurgents roaming the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert.

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

“We try to make do with what we have, but people are being killed insidiously,” Dr. Ali Ada, director of one of Niamey’s largest private clinics, said recently, as dozens of patients and children tears filled the 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 equipment stuck outside the country, doctors are increasingly forced to smuggle equipment across closed borders or rely on European doctors who distribute drugs in secret.

Pharmacists in Niamey say they are running out of insulin, painkillers and anticoagulants, among other products. “We get into the habit of saying, ‘We don’t have this, we don’t have that,'” said pharmacist Hassana Mounkaila.

Popular support for the new junta remains difficult to measure. Political activities were suspended and many civil society activists fled or went into hiding. But the new leaders are capitalizing on the anti-French sentiment that reigns in the capital, as well as on widespread nostalgia for former military leaders.

“We are prepared to suffer in the short term if they manage to resolve Niger’s problems,” said El Hadj Bagué, a father of seven and owner of a store in one of Niamey’s busiest markets. Recently, for more than an hour, three customers came to buy a small packet 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 openly critical voices towards the junta. “The military leaders made no promises. There is no plan.

More than half a dozen Nigerien and Western diplomats said the generals appeared divided on governing strategy and that another coup was likely in the coming year.

But in interviews, many in Niamey pledged to defend their new leaders, including taking up arms against other West African countries that have threatened military action if the new leader of Niger, General Tchiani, did not give up power.

For weeks, young Nigeriens have been standing at roundabouts at night, first searching suspicious cars for signs of military intervention. This threat receded, but the young vigilantes remained, some drinking tea or beers while listen to pro-military songs and share vague dreams of more sovereignty and employment opportunities.

“We are hungry for new beginnings,” said Issa Moumouni, a 31-year-old researcher specializing in mining and oil resources with a civil society organization, recently at a traffic circle.

Mr. Tchangari, the activist, shrugged his shoulders when informed of the comments made by some young demonstrators. “They don’t know what military rule is,” he said. “They don’t know what soldiers do when they seize power.”

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

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