March 4. 2024. 11:04

The Daily

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As Blinken visits Niger, daily struggles are laid bare in city market

On Thursday afternoon, top US diplomat Antony Blinken arrived in Niger, where he was expected to announce more aid for the West African country – one of the poorest in the world. His visit was the first to Niger by a US secretary of state, and comes amid growing Russian influence in the region.

Blinken flew there after a short trip to Ethiopia, where he met prime minister Abiy Ahmed, government figures, aid agency officials and human rights leaders.

The US visit follows the withdrawal of French military forces from neighbouring Burkina Faso in February. French troops remain in Niger, despite civilian protests calling for them to leave. For more than a decade, the Sahel region, in which Niger is located, has seen growing insecurity as Islamist militant groups wage insurgencies.

In capital city Niamey, Blinken met Niger’s foreign minister, Hassoumi Massoudou. He then went to meet Nigerien community leaders, with whom he spoke about security and programmes to integrate former fighters back into society.

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His visit comes at a time when Niger is facing a humanitarian crisis, with nearly two million children under the age of five expected to be acutely malnourished this year. It also comes amid growing concern about the role that economic inequality and unemployment is playing in pushing locals into joining extremist groups.

More than 40 per cent of Niger’s population of roughly 25 million were living in extreme poverty in 2021, according to the World Bank. Citizens say the situation is getting worse.

This seemed clear at the back of the main market in Maradi, one of Niger’s biggest cities, where dozens of shops were recently shuttered because of unpaid rent.

Shoppers and businesspeople placed the blame on a range of issues, including the Ukraine war, climate change, and the long impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and related shutdowns.

Ibrahim Saadou, who runs a shop selling general supplies, said the cost of cooking oil has risen from 3,500 CFA (€5.33) before the Covid-19 pandemic to about 6,000 CFA (€9.14) now for five litres. Procuring it had also become more difficult, he said. “It takes more time to get here than it did before.”

Yacouba Alassane, who works with him, said: “The Ukrainian conflict has made the price rise up. I cannot tell you why because there are big dealers we go through.”

He said the level of poverty he sees has also notably risen. “People don’t have enough money to come and buy. They want things but don’t have money to buy. Many, many are begging. There is really a relationship between poverty and conflict in the world.”

Climate change was also making their lives more difficult, he said. “I understand climate change. Now our rainy season has changed. Before it went up to October or November but now it doesn’t, and the rain isn’t enough. It stops before the plants get enough water, the period [of rain] has [been] squeezed.”

[ Sally Hayden: Modernity is slow to come to Niger ]

[ Sally Hayden: Unemployment drives young Africans into extremist groups, says UN ]

The price of food in Niger is often tied to the seasons and the quality of the rains, rising as a product becomes more scarce.

“Sometimes the price goes up and down. When the supply is less, the price goes up,” said Salamatou Issoufou, a 70-year-old grandmother of eight, who comes to the market twice a week to shop for goods she can sell on to others in her village.

“The [Ukraine] conflict has affected mainly oil and sugar.” She said sugar used to be 400 CFA for 1kg, but it has risen to 500 CFA in Maradi and 600 CFA in her village.

There are many beggars and people don’t help them much because everybody is trying to survive

Souleymane Bokoye

On the side of the road near the market was Souleymane Bokoye. The 56 year old, who has 13 children, sells fuel out of alcohol bottles, as well as a range of other goods including eggs, noodles, mayonnaise, coffee sachets and bread. Bokoye has been working in the same location for the past 12 years.

“The price gets high and low, but now the price has increased,” he said. One litre of fuel costs 375 CFA, up from 250 CFA a year or two ago. His fuel is smuggled across the border from Nigeria, thus retailing at less than the official price at a filling station, which is much higher.

“Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, both have made the price increase,” he said. “The war should stop because it makes life difficult.”

The closer conflicts were on his mind too. “Niger is safe [for now], thank God,” said Bokoye. “Life is difficult, it’s expensive. This is the main problem. There are many beggars and people don’t help them much because everybody is trying to survive.”