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.

With the bite of sanctions, border closures and other measures imposed to force the junta to restore democracy, food prices and shortages are growing and medicines are becoming scarce.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Police during the protest outside the French and Niger airbase in Niamey this month.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On a recent afternoon, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Niamey military base, where they slaughtered a rooster, France’s emblem, and carried a coffin they said was meant for President Emmanuel Macron. They brandished boards reading “Death to France” and trampled on French flags in scenes reminiscent of similar protests in Burkina Faso and Mali, where mutinous soldiers also toppled civilian leaders and eventually kicked French troops out of their countries.

“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.

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.”

Friday prayer in front of the French army base in Niamey this month. Niger was seen as a mainstay of Western efforts to quell Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara Desert.Credit…Mahamadou Hamidou/Reuters

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 buffeting 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

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