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Africa

UN urges world not to forget Niger

media Niger government troops patrol the border between the south-east region of Diffa and Nigeria Nicolas Champeaux for RFI

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien has urged the international community to focus on the plight of people in Niger who have been displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. 

While the insurgents appear to be losing ground in Nigeria, they have gained a foothold in neighbouring countries such as Niger. So far most of the coverage surrounding the jihadist group has centred on the abduction of more than 200 school girls in Chibok in 2014.

However, experts maintain their impact is very much regional.

For his two-day visit of the Lake Chad Basin, top UN official Stephen O'Brien chose to visit Diffa on the border with Nigeria, and Maiduguri, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.

The protracted fighting has driven thousands from their homes in Nigeria, to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon and Niger. But even in Niamey, many refugees continue to face attacks by the jihadist group.

"Not only have they gone through terrifying consequences leading to severe humanitarian needs as a result of Boko Haram fighting, but in an area which is challenged already... the situation is dire," Stephen O'Brien, UN emergency relief coordinator told RFI by phone on Thursday.

The area we're talking about is a dry Sahel region in West Africa, prone to drought and heavily dependent on agriculture.

"Boko Haram hasn't just uprooted the Niger people, it's also disrupted regional trade in pepper, fish from lake Chad, livestock and economic activity," Paul Melly, an Associate Fellow in London told RFI.

The humanitarian and economic situation has been compounded by the current lean season and the scarce rainfall.

"Food stocks are becoming run down, and we're really at the exhausted stage of the sahelian season, and so having a large number of refugees in this context poses a severe strain on resources," Melly added.

For the UN, Niger concentrates all of the major challenges facing us in the 21st century: "Everything comes together here: conflict, climate change, desertification, population growth, scarcity of resources and difficulty of access... this is why it was so important for me to come to Diffa in Niger and Maiduguri in Nigeria."

O'Brien says he's now working with government officials in both countries to step up the humanitarian response.

However, some critics reckon that authorities in Niger are actually failing to tackle the root causes of the insurgency within their borders.

"Boko Haram has a support base here in Niamey," Fulan Nasrullah, a blogger and security expert told RFI. "It started from the moment the jihadist group launched in 2009. They were able to brandish hopes of economic empowerment to disgruntled youths in the way the government wasn't."

Public sympathy for the insurgents as a result of economic disenchantment may have allowed them to gain a foothold in Niamey, at a time where they are being pushed out from Nigeria.

Paul Melly of Chatham House however disagrees. "Niger's vulnerability to Boko Haram has nothing to do with the economy.

The jihadist group is hitting out at those countries that have allied with Nigeria to defeat them. And it's very difficult for the Niger armed forces to provide universal protection. The border with Nigeria measures hundreds of kilometers, it's virtually impossible to secure all of it."

In the likelihood of further cross-border raids taking place, the UN has called on the international community to pledge as much as 316 million dollars to meet the growing humanitarian needs.

"The situation in the Lake Chad basin is one of the greatest crises in the world at the moment," O'Brien insisted. So far however, only 25% of the requested amount has been received.

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