News filtering out of north suggests grave conditions

Human rights organisations and aid workers in the Nigerien capital Niamey say news filtering out of the north of the country suggests a humanitarian emergency is unfolding. 

The north has been affected by fighting since February 2007 when MNJ announced it was launching an armed campaign against the government to win more economic and political autonomy for people in the uranium- and petrol-rich region from the central government in the capital Niamey, 1,200 km south.

In August and September, heavy flooding that created havoc across West Africa also affected northern Niger.

“There’s not much solid information coming out [of the north] but from what we do know it’s a very worrying situation,” said Ilguilas Weïla, president of the prominent Nigerien human rights organisation Timidria.

Several humanitarian sources in Niamey estimated the number of displaced people at around 20,000, including 9,000 people who lost their homes in heavy flooding earlier this year and a further 11,000 displaced by an ongoing conflict between anti-government rebels and the Nigerien army.

Between 2,500 and 4,000 displaced people are estimated to have come from the town of Iferouane. The entire civilian population apparently fled after the army and Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ) rebels started fighting for the strategic stronghold.

“People are afraid of being caught up in the fighting,” Weïla said. “Also the army was preying on them and it was not viable for them to stay without access to their fields or animals.”

One NGO set up to generate funds for Nigeriens in the north, Nord Niger Santé, says 500,000 people in the region could be “threatened by war and famine”, although other groups say that is an exaggeration as the region’s population is estimated at only 320,000.

Local NGOs with contacts in the north believe that hundreds of people have reached the northern mining town Arlit, where they have been staying with family and the local population and may have received some hand-outs from foreign mining companies operating there.

“They lost all of their animals, food prices in Arlit have shot up and the people they are staying with do not have much to offer them,” Weïla said. “If they have family there they have been received by them, but there is no reception centre for refugees, no help at all.”

“Arlit hospital is almost full of wounded soldiers although they have not commandeered the hospital,” he added. Several hundred other people are hiding in the Aïr mountains, local NGO officials said.

Displaced people have been forced by the Nigerien army to keep moving and not to congregate in camps or informal settlements, according to several Nigerien and international sources.

Aid workers say displaced people have also been arriving daily in the northern regional capital Agadez, which is currently outside the conflict zone, but they also are receiving no aid even though the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), the NGO Action Against Hunger and the Red Cross all have offices in the town.

“The Governor of Agadez has made it clear that aid agencies are not authorised to assist the displaced there,” a humanitarian official said. Agadez Governor Malam Boukar Abba could not be reached for comment.

Moussa Changari, Secretary General of the NGO ‘Alternative Espace Citoyen’ warned the whole population across the region is being held “hostage” by the fighting.

“It’s true that it’s not a densely populated area but with access cut it means products from the south cannot get up there, and likewise people can’t sell their own products on the national market.”

“It’s very serious,” he said, pointing out that much of the region’s fruit and vegetable trade would also typically go north to Libya and Algeria, but that those routes are likely becoming impassable because of the fighting and the increased impunity with which criminals are operating.

“The distances are huge, the roads are bad and now there are mines and a large army presence,” he said.

Northern Niger is a vast and remote area, geographically defined by vast desert areas and the high, rugged Aïr mountains.

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