On July 26, 2023, when an army spokesperson appeared on Nigerien television surrounded by a group of men in fatigues to announce that the military had seized power, many were caught by surprise. This was the fourth coup in West Africa since 2020 and the fifth in Niger since its independence in 1960. But still, “Nobody expected it this time,” said Bruno Métral, Helvetas country director, who was out of the country at the time of the coup but returned in late September.
In line with what happened right after the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, young people took the streets to show their support to the junta. They waved Russian flags and voiced their resentment towards France, the ancient colonial power, demanding French troops stationed in the country leave. Around 1,500 French soldiers are deployed in Niger to back the fight against terrorist attacks that have gripped the region for the past decade.
High food prices
Two and a half months into rule by the newly formed National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, France recalled their already expelled ambassador and started withdrawing its soldiers. Rallies in the capital, Niamey, are decreasing, but life for Nigeriens is still hard.
“The borders with Benin and Nigeria, which are the main entry points for food imports, are still closed,” said Métral. “Even if informal trade is continuing, shortages have triggered a spike in food prices. A 5-liter bottle of locally produced peanut oil now costs 8500 XOF (around 12,5 CHF) while it used to be sold at 5.500 XOF (8 CHF). People are standing in line for half a day to get one – and only one – sack of rice.”
At the end of September, the World Food Program estimated that rice prices had risen by 21 percent, sorghum by 18 percent, maize by 13 percent and millet by 6 percent, as compared to the week before the political crisis. “The harvest of millet and sorghum, although not abundant, is contributing to the stabilization of prices a bit,” says Métral. “But for many low-income families, the situation looks dire. I fear many more families will start reducing the amount and frequency of their meals.”
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Monetary and Economic Union have imposed stringent sanctions on Niger since the coup. Trade is mostly blocked and financial transactions are very slow. Many basic services are also affected: There are power cuts, hospitals are short of supplies, and withdrawing cash from banks is arduous. Donors have also slowed or stopped aid, forcing development organizations to adapt.
Learning to adapt
Helvetas has been working in Niger since 2012, and is currently implementing three projects for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC): one aims to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation and enhance water resources management; one focuses on improving systemic access to small-scale irrigation and agriculture infrastructure for farmers; and one works for the protection and support of young people and children on migration routes.
So far, the financial fallout from the coup has had the biggest impact on Helvetas’ operations in the country. “We are no longer able to pay our salaries, project interventions and supplies by checks. We have to rely on cash, and it is very difficult to get it,” said Métral. “Our finance colleagues spend hours at the bank, not knowing if they will be able to leave with enough money to even pay for fuel. So planning visits to project sites has become even more complicated, with many delays. The staff is under a lot of pressure.”
For a long time, the SDC has been supporting the decentralization process in Niger and strengthening the capacities of government institutions, such as the National Agency of Local Authorities Financing (ANFICT). After the coup, SDC suspended direct payments to state agencies, but everybody is committed to finding alternative solutions to continue working with local authorities and ensuring the basic needs of communities are met.
“We used to assist municipalities in the construction and maintenance of water infrastructures with capacity building and funds disbursed through ANFICT,” said Métral. “We are currently negotiating with SDC for a way to take over the role of ANFICT and directly provide those funds, as we have done in the past.” In some cases, this adapted payment process may not be an option. For example, “At the moment, we are not able to support the construction of new agriculture infrastructure,” explained Métral.
Increasing humanitarian needs
In recent years Niger has faced an array of security challenges, ranging from the Boko Haram insurgency to attacks from groups affiliated with Islamic State and Al Qaeda to banditry. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), since the coup in July there has been a 42 percent increase in political violence throughout the country. Humanitarian organizations, which were already experiencing many obstacles in accessing the most affected areas, are now confronted with additional difficulties and growing needs.
“Staff from humanitarian NGOs have been prevented from leaving the capital to reach some communities on security grounds,” said Métral. Many humanitarian cargos are still blocked at the borders with Benin and Nigeria, carrying supplies that are urgently needed by the 3.3 million people (13 percent of the population) that are severely food insecure, and the additional 7 million at risk of crossing that line.
In addition to this security context, Niger is also facing climate change impacts, such as the heavy rains and floods that have recently displaced more than 140,000 people, mostly in the Maradi region that borders Nigeria. “We are present in the area and working with local authorities and partners to plan a distribution of hygiene kits to the affected population,” said Métral.
“We need to strengthen our humanitarian intervention in the country,” added Nicolas Morand, Helvetas’ regional coordinator for West Africa. “And we are also convinced that the international community must act fast to ensure that emergency supplies are excluded from sanctions and can get to those in need.”
It’s difficult to predict how this umpteenth political crisis in West Africa will force development organizations to change their modus operandi. Just after the coup, for the first time, ECOWAS threatened an armed intervention if the junta refused to restore democracy. And although nothing seems to suggest that a military operation will actually take place, countries are split on whether there should be an intervention.
Burkina Faso and Mali, which are ruled by their respective armies, pledge to support the generals in Niger. But the fallout from the stoppage of trade with Niger is being felt throughout the region and could force the coastal countries to rethink economic routes and alliances. Could this new political crisis fatally undermine the cooperation among Western African states? With what consequences?
“These are questions we need to put on the table,” said Morand. “Helvetas is committed to supporting systemic change and reinforcing local governance. On topics such as migration, we have been working at a regional level and we envisaged extending our engagement with regional institutions. Now, we must determine what adjustments are needed to continue our work, and to what extent we need to rethink our strategy for pursuing development goals in such a fragile environment.”
About the Author
Franca Roiatti is a communications advisor for Helvetas. From 2018-2021, she was based in Burkina Faso and travelled to Niger, Mali and Benin. Before joining Helvetas, she worked as a journalist and covered foreign affairs, development and sustainability issues. She currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.