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As Junta Tightens Grip, Niger Is Being Strangled by Sanctions

As Junta Tightens Grip, Niger Is Being Strangled by Sanctions

Since a military coup in Niger this summer, work days for Ahmed Alhousseïni have been consumed with calls from increasingly worried clients and colleagues asking the same questions.

How, and where, could they get food?

An executive for a leading food importer in Niger, Mr. Alhousseïni said one recent morning that he had spent his weekend hunting for cooking oil in Niamey, the capital city, with no luck. Tomatoes he had bought weeks earlier were rotting in Ghana, pasta was stranded in Senegal and rice supplies would run out by the end of the month. On the busy street outside his office that morning, grocery shop owners he usually supplied were lining up — as they have frequently 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 its electricity supply in an effort to pressure the generals into restoring constitutional order. The new leaders, led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, haven’t budged, but at an increasingly biting cost. Sanctions and other penalties are now strangling Niger’s economy, with food prices and shortages growing 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 the sanctions newly imposed by a bloc of West African nations on the landlocked country of 25 million 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 him and many have instead welcomed the new military leaders amid perceptions that a decade of civilian rule, tainted by widespread allegations of corruption, had failed to improve their lives.

As shelves of food stores and pharmacies are emptying, anger is now building against the West African countries and France, the former colonizer whose presence in the region has set off a backlash that has grown in recent years. Until the coup, French troops were fighting Islamist insurgents alongside Niger’s army, but they have since been blamed for their inability to stop attacks and even been accused of collaborating with armed groups.

The coup has also dealt a blow to yearslong 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 in recent weeks hundreds of foreigners, including diplomatic personnel, humanitarian workers and military trainers, have left the country.

The Biden administration has so far refused to call the power grab a coup, because that would force it to remove the 1,100 U.S. troops stationed in the country and cut off aid. Last week, the Department of Defense said it was relocating most of its troops stationed at a Niamey military base that also hosts French soldiers to another base in Niger’s north.

The United States has also resumed drone flights out of Niger that it had suspended in the wake of the coup. “We have secured approvals from appropriate authorities,” Gen. James B. Hecker, the top U.S. Air Force commander for Africa, told reporters at a conference in Maryland on Thursday. Training and counterterrorism cooperation with Niger’s armed forces remain suspended, he said.

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

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

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

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

At a subsequent protest at the Niamey base, Oumou Maïga, a 47-year-old schoolteacher, banged on a pot along with dozens of other women who also brandished brooms that they said would sweep the French troops out of the country.

Ms. Maïga said she feared parents would struggle to feed their children or pay for their school materials this year because of the sanctions imposed by the West African countries. But it mattered little, she added: “We just don’t want Macron here. He thinks of 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, speaking 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 circle of growing distrust with the country’s new authorities that could erode Europe’s broader involvement in the region.

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

The future of that 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 fruitless.

The stalemate could have disastrous consequences for Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. It is also burdened with one of the fastest-growing populations. Under Mr. Bazoum, the ousted president, Niger had a projected economic growth rate of more than 12 percent for next year and was gaining encouraging, albeit 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 Niger’s doorstep, according to the World Food Program, which has warned that 40 percent of Niger’s 25 million people could face severe food insecurity if borders don’t reopen.

“We try to do with what we have, but people are being killed insidiously,” Dr. Ali Ada, the director of one of Niamey’s largest private clinics, said on a recent morning as dozens of patients and wailing children packed the building. “To be a good democrat, one first needs to be alive.”

In addition to growing food shortages, humanitarian programs are endangered and, with dozens of shipping containers full of vaccines and medical supplies stuck outside the country, doctors are increasingly being forced to smuggle supplies through closed borders or rely on European doctors who hand out medicines in secrecy.

Pharmacists in Niamey say they are running short on insulin, painkillers and anticoagulants, 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 junta remains difficult to measure. Political activities have been suspended and many civil society activists have either fled or gone into hiding. But the new rulers are capitalizing on the anti-French sentiment running though the capital, as well as widespread nostalgia for previous military rulers.

“We’re ready to suffer in the short term if they can fix Niger’s problems,” said El Hadj Bagué, a father of seven children and a shop owner at one of Niamey’s busiest markets. Over an hour on a recent afternoon, three customers came to buy a small bag of sugar, a pot of mayonnaise and some candies.

“There’s widespread disappointment toward 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 made no promises. There’s no plan.”

More than half a dozen Nigerien and Western diplomats said the generals appeared divided on governing strategy, and that a new coup was likely to happen in the upcoming year.

But in interviews, many in Niamey vowed to defend their new leaders, including by 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 suspicious cars for signs of a military intervention. That threat has receded, but the young vigilantes have stayed, some drinking tea or beers while listening to pro-military songs and sharing vague dreams of more sovereignty and job opportunities.

“We’re thirsty for new beginnings,” Issa Moumouni, a 31-year-old researcher specializing in mining resources and oil at a civil society organization, said at one roundabout on a recent evening.

Mr. Tchangari, the activist, shrugged when told about comments from some young protesters. “They don’t know what military rule 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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