Lines of hundreds of trucks stretch back many kilometres close to Benin’s northern border with Niger, their cargo wasting and their drivers going broke after weeks stranded at the closed frontier.
Almost two months since a coup ousted Niger’s president, the trucks blocked in Malanville at Benin’s border are the most striking symbol of the fallout Niger’s neighbours are suffering from sanctions imposed on Niamey.
After the 15-member West African bloc ECOWAS banned trade with Niger and threatened military action to restore democracy, the new junta also blockaded a bridge border crossing with Benin.
Nigerien driver Mahamat Kabirou Amadou left Benin’s economic capital Cotonou for Niamey 50 days ago and now sits stuck in Malanville, AFP reported on Thursday.
Not only has the coup and border closure cut him off from his country and family, but weeks of rain and sun have rotted his cargo of rice.
“We are tired and sick. We’ve let our assistants go because we were starting to run out of enough cash,” the 35-year-old driver said. “We gradually sold all the diesel in our tanks just to eat.”
ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States — imposed hefty sanctions against Niger after rebel elite soldiers on July 26 overthrew Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president.
Negotiations to restore civilian rule have yet to bear fruit, with the junta demanding a three-year transition and ECOWAS calling for Bazoum’s immediate return.
Wary of long transitions after coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, ECOWAS says a possible intervention in Niger is still a last option.
Already one of the world’s poorest nations, the sanctions are squeezing Niger hard. Food prices have spiked about 21 percent, with the UN warning more people are at risk of severe food insecurity.
Earlier this month, the UN said 7,300 tons of food aid destined for Niger was stuck in transit because of border closures.
Malanville now resembles a parking lot packed with container trucks and buses that once transported passengers cross the border.
Drivers sleep under trucks, play cards and try to endure the seemingly endless wait for a resolution.
Nearby, on the bridge connecting Malanville with Gaya in Niger, four container trucks blockade the bridge and sandbags reinforce the military positions there.
“Our boss’s money is finished. Hunger is getting to us,” said Koudjegah Justin, 18, a Togolese driver’s assistant. “We ask the Beninese government to help us by opening the border. We want to cross.”
– Regional fallout –
Niger shares southern frontiers with ECOWAS members Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, but it is also a major trading route with other nearby members of the bloc such as Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
ECOWAS sanctions suspend all commercial transactions with Niger under the control of a military junta.
For Ghana, the sanctions have caused a shortage of onions as Niger was a key exporter in West Africa. It also hit supplies of beans and millet.
Before the coup, a 100-kilo (220-pound) sack of onions was selling at US$61 in Ghana, but now it is $105. About 20 trucks would arrive daily from Niger at Adjen Kotoku Onion market near Accra before. Now only a few can make the trip.
“Most of them are stuck at the borders,” said Yakuba Akteniba, president of an onion sellers association. “By the time most of them get here the onions are already rotten. It’s killing our business.”
Traders in Nigeria’s northern border communities with Niger also said they were feeling the economic fallout.
“The last two months have been particularly hard for our town due to the near collapse of trade,” said Mohammed Aliyu, a trader in the border town of Illela, Sokoto state.
“We rely on cross-border interactions for our mutual survival but that has been cut.”
A trickle of drivers would take illegal routes to make it over the border, he said.
A bag of rice which cost 28,000 naira ($36) before the border closure now sells for 42,000 naira. Local markets also sourced much of their livestock from Niger.
– ‘Too much suffering’ –
With the land route from Niger to Benin closed, many have turned to informal motorised canoes and boats ferrying passengers across the River Niger that divides them.
Prices for the 30-minute journey have jumped tenfold on high demand, operators said.
Boats used to transport fuel across the river, but that trade has dried up due to increased security presence, so operators say they are making the most of the border closure.
Boats transport everything they can fit in — motorbikes, food, livestock, people. Moto-taxis and cars wait on riverbanks to transport passengers.
“It’s the only way to get to the other side now,” said Chabi Nourou, a baggage handler. “There is really too much suffering.”