Sanctions, airspace closures hamper UN humanitarian efforts in Niger

United Nations agencies scramble to replace depleting aid stocks as regional sanctions start to kick in.

Rural women with their children rush into an emergency feeding center in the town of Guidan Roumdji, southern Niger
A group of women and their children rush towards an emergency feeding centre in the town of Guidan Roumdji, southern Niger [File: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters]

Niger’s military coup is disrupting humanitarian efforts by the United Nations as border and airspace closures threaten to cut off supplies of medicine and food, says a UN official.

UN aid agencies are scrambling to replenish depleting stocks just as regional sanctions potentially increase the number of people in need, its humanitarian chief in Niger, Louise Aubin, warned on Tuesday.

“The risk is that we start running out of assistance materials to be able to help out people – I’m talking about simple things that are so lifesaving,” Aubin told Reuters news agency, listing food, vaccines and cash as areas of concern.

“Some people will soon be feeling the pinch of this … More than the 4.3 million people we had planned on supporting through emergency humanitarian assistance, we might see that number growing and growing fast.”

On Monday, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said he was “very concerned” about the situation in Niger and urged the international community to “do everything” to help those in need.

Any humanitarian cutbacks could have devastating impacts in Niger, which has one of highest rates of child mortality in the world and where rural communities have been hit by a deadly rebellion.

Aubin said flights operated within Niger by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) had been disrupted but not suspended by the coup leaders’ decision to close its airspace in response to the West African regional bloc’s threat of possible military intervention.

But that and the closure of land borders under sanctions imposed by the bloc – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – means the outlook for replenishing stocks in Niger is uncertain, she said.

“There are no flights coming in at the moment. So that is becoming an issue,” Aubin said. “Being able to mobilise food means obviously being able to bring in food from the outside.”

It was not immediately possible to determine how long stocks of food products or vaccines would last, but “these are quickly depleted because these are regular operations to be able to reach people in need”, she cautioned.

UN agencies in Niger – including the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – are contingency planning to keep operations on track despite the looming shortages.

Military intervention looming

Niger’s military rulers have warned its citizens to be prepared for challenging weeks and months ahead as the government vows to defend itself against possible attack.

ECOWAS had given the coup leaders until Sunday, August 6 to release and reinstall deposed President Mohamed Bazoum or face a possible military intervention.

Members from ECOWAS, the UN and the African Union were expected to join talks in the capital, Niamey, on Tuesday, a foreign official told The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media.

The threat of military escalation poses a further risk to humanitarian operations.

“The people of Niger are likely to suffer more,” said Aubin, “so we need to be able to respond very, very strongly.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies