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Vital humanitarian aid for Niger in jeopardy following coup

The United States and the European Union have suspended funding programs in the African country after the military uprising and borders have been closed

Niger coup
A vendor on a street in Niamey, the capital of Niger, on August 2.ISSIFOU DJIBO (EFE)
Raquel Seco

Even before the July 26 coup d’état, Nigeriens were suffering from hunger, violence and the effects of the climate crisis. In the face of a possible regional conflict, Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, is at the center of international attention. The European Union and the United States have announced the suspension of financing and the closure of airspace and borders is jeopardizing the delivery of aid to the most vulnerable.

“We already have enormous difficulties in getting humanitarian materials into the country,” says Gregor Robak-Werth, director of Action Against Hunger in Niger, who was evacuated to Germany on Saturday. Niger’s neighboring countries have closed their borders, he explains in a telephone conversation, blocking supplies at the NGO’s office in Dakar, Senegal. Meanwhile Nigeria, which supplies Niger with 70% of its electricity, has left most of the capital, Niamey, in darkness. And banks have collapsed, meaning humanitarian organizations cannot pay contractors. The U.N. humanitarian chief in Niger, Louise Aubin, told Reuters that there is already a real risk of shortages in food and vaccines.

Niger, says Robak-Werth, is “in chronic crisis.” It currently has the highest birth rate in the world, and predictions are that its population will triple by 2050. With 25 million inhabitants, it is at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, only ahead of Chad and South Sudan, and 42% of its population live in extreme poverty, according to World Bank data. Like its neighbors in the Sahel belt — a region made up of a dozen countries on the southern edges of the Sahara Desert — it is plagued by conflict and the effects of the climate emergency. Even before the coup, 4.3 million people were dependent on international aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and 3.3 million were in a situation of “acute food insecurity.” Among the most vulnerable are some two million children, according to the latest UNICEF report. These figures could double in a very short time under the current situation, warns Robak-Werth.

International financing accounts for 40% of the Nigerien state coffers. In 2021, Niger received almost $2 billion in development aid, according to the OECD. A landlocked country, 40% of Niger’s economy depends on agriculture, according to the World Bank. It is the world’s seventh-largest producer of uranium, according to the World Nuclear Association, and a major supplier to France — its former colonial power — 70% of whose electricity is nuclear, and also has gold, coal, oil and phosphate deposits.

The United Nations has confirmed that humanitarian and development assistance and peace programs will continue to assist Nigeriens “affected by a combination of climate, economic and security shocks.” But over the past two weeks, there has been a succession of public announcements from governments and institutions that have created uncertainty about the future of development aid. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced on July 29 in a communiqué the immediate suspension of “budgetary support” to Niger.

France has announced the suspension of development aid, and Germany has stated it will suspend “all direct payments to the central government of Niger until further notice.” The United States last week announced a “pause” in some of its assistance programs, although it did not specify which would be affected and stressed that humanitarian aid will continue. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $150 million in humanitarian aid for the Sahel to help refugees and people affected by conflict and famine.

For its part, the World Bank on August 2 noted its “alarm” about the overthrow of the government. “The World Bank believes that peace, stability and rule of law are fundamental for creating a world free of poverty,” the institution said in a statement, adding that it had “paused disbursements for all operations until further notice other than private sector partnerships which will continue with caution.” Between 2022 and 2023, the Nigerien government received some $600 million from the World Bank.

Some 20 NGOs warned in a joint statement that international sanctions, coupled with the conflict, could have “devastating effects” on the civilian population, and called for access to be allowed to those in need “regardless of the political situation” in the country. The platform includes, among others, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Save the Children and Action Against Hunger.

Last Sunday, an ultimatum issued by of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to the coup leaders to restore President Mohamed Bazoum — democratically elected in 2021 and currently detained by the military junta — expired. The international community is now awaiting the results of an emergency meeting called on Thursday by this bloc of countries, led by Nigeria, which has not ruled out the use of force.

Niger has a long history of coup attempts since its independence from France in 1960. The most recent occurred in March 2021, when the now-deposed Bazoum had just come to power. Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, which have expressed “solidarity” with Niger’s rebels, are currently ruled by military juntas. The country is key in migration policy issues for Europe and in the fight against extremist groups in the Sahel, as well as a key ally for the West in a volatile region where sympathy towards Moscow is growing. Brussels fears that Russia may take advantage of Niger’s political instability to increase its influence in the Sahel, where the Wagner mercenary group already operates, according to senior EU sources.

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