Indiscriminately laid landmines, a sceptical government and a rebel group that has attacked aid workers are obstacles that will have to be overcome before relief efforts can start for an estimated 20,000 people affected by flooding and fighting in the country’s remote north.
Read a report about the humanitarian needs in northern Niger
The most substantive aid that has been sent for displaced people so far was meant to be delivered by a coalition of local NGOs called SOS Iferouane and the French medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
However MSF was banned from operating in the north in October "for its own protection" by the government after several of its vehicles were hijacked by the rebel Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ).
All six of the convoys SOS Iferouane has sent since September have also been stopped by the MNJ, which apparently does not want the supplies to fall into the army’s hands, according to sources.
Niger’s army has deployed in the region but its presence has raised not allayed fears among aid workers, who say the soldiers only present another level of insecurity on top of the rebels as well as armed bandits and drug smugglers who are also believed to operate there.
“There are uncontrolled troops and a high level of banditry and drug trafficking still happening,” a humanitarian official said. “Everyone does whatever they want there, the army is harassing people. It’s a highly insecure situation.”
Landmines that the MNJ has laid throughout the region are another problem. Explosions have become an almost daily occurrence on roads and tracks.
In early December two explosions occurred south of the regional capital Agadez on the main roads to the capital Niamey and the eastern town of Zinder – the first time the conflict has spilled over to areas south of Agadez.
Human rights groups with contacts in the region say the MNJ is paying civilians up to US$600 to lay mines on roads and so has little oversight as to where the mines end up being laid.
Civilian cars and buses, and in one case in early December a military convoy escorting a vehicle owned by the United Nations Development Programme, have so far been hit. All UN and NGO missions to Agadez are supposed to be escorted by the military.
Further complicating possible relief work, Niger’s government has denied that there are humanitarian problems in the remote desert and mountain region.
“Officially, there are no displaced people and no one has left their home – everything is as usual,” a Nigerien NGO official said. “It’s a very complicated situation because it’s definitely not like that.”
When floods hit in August the government pledged to transport its own aid to people affected by what government officials admitted at the time was a “very serious” situation.
“The government is not giving any aid itself so why don’t they just give authorisation to international aid agencies to do it? The only conclusion appears to be that they don’t want these people to be assisted,” a well-placed humanitarian official in Niger told IRIN.
Nigerien government spokesperson Mohamed Ben Omar declined a request by IRIN to discuss whether or not humanitarian programmes will be started in the north.
Tensions and solutions
Humanitarian access in Niger has been severely strained since publicity in 2005 about humanitarian relief programmes for severely malnourished children generated animosity between Niger’s government and international NGOs and some UN agencies in the country.
Agencies are currently considering the possibility of setting up a humanitarian air service to link Niamey to Agadez and possibly Zinder and Maradi in the remote south-east.
Even with an air service, though, problems of operating on the ground would persist, unless a deal could be reached for either a humanitarian corridor to reach displaced people or for camps to be set up inside or close to Agadez.