By Boureima Balima
NIAMEY (Reuters) – Nigerien driver Amadou Mounkaila was en route to deliver a truckload of onions to Ghana when last week’s military coup forced him to do a U-turn and return to the capital Niamey as borders slammed closed.
Now he is among scores of drivers stranded in limbo with perishable products – a result of the stiff sanctions imposed by Niger’s regional and international partners after the military takeover.
“The consequences are disastrous … If left on the truck, the onions have at most a week before they rot,” said Mounkaila on Wednesday at a depot on the outskirts of Niamey, where drivers were huddled discussing what to do with their cargoes.
The closure of borders by the Economic Community of West African States poses a special threat to landlocked and impoverished Niger. Amid a worsening food crisis, the majority of key imports – including rice – would normally be trucked from neighbouring countries.
“The fact they’ve taken such a decision shows they have no respect for the Nigerien people,” said the head of the Nigerien truckers’ union, Yacouba Almou.
Up to 1,000 vehicles a day – many carrying goods to markets – would normally travel the trade corridor between the port of Cotonou in Benin and Niamey, making it one of the busiest crossings in West Africa, according to U.S. government data.
The junta in Niger announced overnight on Wednesday that borders with Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and Chad had reopened, but those with Benin and Nigeria, and the vital links to their Atlantic ports, remain closed due to the ECOWAS sanctions.
The union chief said the bottlenecks were especially painful because the ongoing rainy season means food’s shelf life is at its shortest due to the humidity.
In recent days, one of the union’s members saw his load of rice worth $1,200 spoil because he was not able to deliver it, he said.
Niger can ill-afford such waste. Amid a hunger crisis gripping parts of West Africa, 3.3 million of Nigeriens are facing acute food insecurity – the second-highest level in over a decade, the United Nations’ World Food Programme said in July before the coup plunged the country into further turmoil.
Now the truckers and their cargoes are among the first victims of the sweeping sanctions aimed at bringing coup leaders into line through economic and political pressure.
Driver Tchabana Sako said he had been waiting to drive to Togo via Benin, but had been stuck at the Niamey depot since the coup not wanting to get held up at the border like other drivers.
“But currently, I am without any resources – I have spent the little that I have on me. And who knows when the sanctions will end.”
($1 = 623.8600 CFA francs)
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Giles Elgood)