Ouagadougou/Dakar — Aid agencies have stepped up security measures in Burkina Faso and Niger as the threat of kidnappings by Islamist groups mounts.
Security specialists fear Islamist groups currently in control of northern Mali will increasingly abduct foreign nationals to raise money to prepare for conflict, given the likelihood of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention predicted to take place early next year. Some say hostages could also be used as human shields.
As a result, UN agencies are using armed escorts for travel into rural areas of Niger and much of Burkina Faso, international staff have been withdrawn from many areas, and NGOs travel to at-risk zones only in convoy.
Five Nigerien aid workers were freed on 4 November, while a sixth aid worker - a Chadian national - died after having been shot by hostage-takers in southeastern Niger on 14 October. The freed hostages said they were mistakenly kidnapped by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which had been "looking for a white person".
Western workers are the principal target, though regional African staff may also be pursued once ECOWAS member states firmly commit to contributing troops or support to the military intervention mission, say security specialists in Niger and Burkina Faso.
Areas deemed most at-risk include northern Burkina Faso near the Mali border - where most of the 35,000 Malian refugees are currently sheltering - and rural areas outside major towns throughout Niger.
Simmering popular discontent over the lack of development in Burkina Faso, high youth unemployment and the regime's failure to raise living standards also provides fertile ground for Islamist groups to boost their influence, say analysts.
Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré is playing a prominent mediation role in the Mali crisis while also supporting the call for international intervention; while Niger has been at the forefront of states neighbouring Mali to call for military intervention in the north.
Porous borders mean "there is a lot of movement of Islamist groups" across Burkina Faso and Niger, including suspected Boko Haram members in southern Niger on the border with Nigeria, according to Germain Mwehu, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Niger and Mali.
While urging vigilance, the security threat should not be exaggerated, said one aid worker. "We tend to scare ourselves." Thus far the situation in northern Mali has had just an "indirect" impact on security in Niger and Burkina Faso, according to security specialists, including head of the UN Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) in Niger, Jean-Gabrielle Baba. But this could change as military intervention approaches.
Nationalization and armed escorts
Following the mid-October abduction, all non-essential expatriate staff in Niger were shifted to urban hubs such as Zinder, Maradi and Niamey; while national and regional staff continue to run operations. International staff have been similarly restricted in northern Burkina Faso.
But aid agencies' policy to "Africanize" positions in at-risk areas should perhaps be reconsidered with the aim of using nationals-only, said a security specialist with an international NGO who asked to remain unnamed, given the possibility that ECOWAS nationals could be targeted.
"It would not be good to be Ivoirian or Senegalese or Burkinabe in Niger close to areas with northern Mali at the moment," he commented.
In Burkina Faso, UN staff are using armed escorts for travel beyond Djibo (in Soum) and Dori (in Seno) in the Sahel region, and in Niger for most travel outside of major towns, according to Franck Kwonu, spokesperson with the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Niger.
While UN agencies are using armed escorts, most NGOs choose not to, fearing it militarizes aid. One aid worker, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN: "In places like northern Mali, working with armed escorts would prevent us working on other things... If we don't stand on our core values [of impartiality and neutrality], then we're lying, and that is the message we bring."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is reportedly setting up a secure zone for UN agencies, protected by gendarmes or military, in Douri, in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. It also plans to relocate refugee camps such as Ferrerio which are under 50km from the Mali border, in line with international standards.
Some 1,500 refugees already left Ferrerio of their own accord to shelter in Goutebo camp further inland, as they felt it to be more secure, according to NGO Terre Des Hommes (TDH), which helps set up schools in refugee camps.
While security restrictions have not significantly slowed down operations in Niger, said OCHA's Kwonu, and ICRC spokesperson for Niger and Burkina Faso, Germain Mwehu, there has been an impact, at least in Burkina Faso.
Travel reductions mean Oxfam staff can spend less time consulting with refugees, said humanitarian manager Sosthene Konaté. Arianna Brindelli, programme officer with TDH says the organization has scaled back its education operations in camps.
Transferring full responsibility for running programmes to national staff, takes time and can slow down operations aid workers told IRIN.
A 2011 OCHA report To Stay and Deliver outlined some of the creative ways aid agencies were finding to continue programming in highly insecure environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than defining strict aid cut-off thresholds.
Representatives from ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, the UN and Algeria are today closing up a five-day meeting in Bamako where they have been discussing next steps for intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, President Compaoré, representing ECOWAS, is meeting with Islamist group Ansar Dine to try to persuade them to break away from MUJAO; while the Algerian government is meeting other representatives from Ansar Dine in Algiers.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]