NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Hamsa Diakite can’t remember the last time her family of eight had a good meal.
He once supported them by selling fried bread until a coup in Niger three months ago led to sanctions against the West African nation, squeezing incomes in one of the world’s poorest countries and leaving millions like Hamsa struggling without help.
THOUSANDS OF IMMIGRANTS STANDING IN NIGERA AFTER COUP LEADS TO CLOSING OF BORDERS
“Not only is food very expensive, but school supplies have also doubled. I also have to clothe my children and mostly deal with their illnesses,” said the 65-year-old.
After elite soldiers overthrew Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, on July 26, the country faced economic sanctions from the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, as well as Western and European countries, including the United States, which had provided aid to health, safety and infrastructure needs.
Neighbors closed their borders with Niger and more than 70% of its electricity, supplied by Nigeria, was cut after economic trade with West African countries was suspended. Niger’s assets in foreign banks were frozen and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were withheld.
The sanctions are the toughest ever imposed by the regional bloc in a bid to stem a wave of coups in Africa’s volatile Sahel region, but have had little or no effect on the junta’s ambitions.
Instead, they have hit Niger’s more than 25 million people hard.
“We are quickly running out of funding, medicine. People are running out of food,” Louise Aubin, the United Nations resident coordinator in Niger, told The Associated Press. The junta has since told her to leave Niger amid claims the world body is blocking the country’s participation in its activities. The UN has not commented on the allegations.
Aubin said there had been “positive responses” from Niger’s neighbors to the idea of reopening the border for a humanitarian corridor, but gave no details.
The third least developed nation in the world, according to UN estimates, Niger in 2021 received $1.77 billion in aid, more than half of it for humanitarian aid as well as social infrastructure and services. Everything is now at risk.
Even the country’s 2023 budget, which was to be financed largely through external donor support and loans that have now been frozen, has been cut by 40%.
Instead of deterring the soldiers who ousted Bazum and keeping him under house arrest, the sanctions strengthened the junta. It has set up a transitional government that could stay in power for up to three years.
This appears to have the support of many Nigerians who felt the democratic government had performed below their expectations, according to Seidik Abba, a Nigerian researcher and president of the International Center for Reflection for Studies on the Sahel think tank.
Even as they feel the sting of sanctions, many people on the streets of Niamey, the capital, say they support the coup. They dismiss the concerns of the West, which saw Niger as its last remaining strategic partner in its fight against terrorism in the Sahel.
“The military sees that the people support them, so they use that support as a tool of legitimacy to maintain power,” Abba said. For some supporters of the junta, the hardships the sanctions have brought are a sacrifice worth making, he added.
“Love for the country made us forget the difficult times the whole country is going through,” said Abdou Ali, a supporter in the capital. “No one cares about this rise in the price of goods.”
Aid workers and other observers working with the local population may disagree.
“We are trying to respond to a catastrophic situation for the country,” said Dr Sumana Sunna Sofiane, general secretary of the pharmacists’ union in Niger.
Many pharmacies across Niger are running out of essential supplies at a time when the country is facing public health emergencies, including cholera. Desperate for a solution, pharmacies have started giving patients alternative drugs to what they need.
The food is also little. Rising inflation and high food prices are “significantly affecting the ability of communities to cope,” the UN World Food Program office said. The agency said 3.3 million people in Niger were facing acute food insecurity even before the coup.
Niger is West Africa’s second-largest country by land, but is landlocked, leaving it largely dependent on trade with neighbors that has now ceased. Food and drug supplies were among the top imported products last year.
Now, at the Benin border, trucks loaded with goods and aid are lined up for several kilometers (miles) waiting to enter Niger, although some are in transit to other countries.
More than 9,000 metric tons (9,920 tonnes) of WFP cargo, including specialized food to treat and prevent malnutrition, destined for Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso remain stranded between Benin and Togo, the UN food agency said.
The United Nations’ resident coordinator fears the goal of reaching at least 80 percent of the 4.4 million people targeted with humanitarian aid in Niger this year could be jeopardized.
For many families, the sanctions hit them to the core.
Almost one in five Nigerians are believed to be pastoralists, according to the World Bank. They managed to export $10 million worth of live animals to Nigeria in 2021, but are now desperately looking for an alternative market.
Across Niger, prices of staples are rising. A 25-kilogram (55-pound) bag of rice, the main staple food, has jumped more than 50% in price since the sanctions were imposed.
“Our stocks run out overnight as nothing crosses the border to supply us. When stocks run out, we will simply close our shops,” said Ambouta Idrissa, manager of a large grain sales warehouse in Niamey.
Other businesses closed after incurring additional costs to run generators after Nigeria’s power cut.
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For Nigerians like Diakite, who is struggling to feed her family, the main concern is that her children do not go to bed with empty stomachs. She said her hopes are fading with each passing day.
“How long can we hold out?” asked.