(Corrects source of WAPCO vehicles being stuck in line to local authorities, not Reuters reporters, third paragraph from bottom.)
By Pulcherie Adjoha and Boureima Balima
MALANVILLE, Benin/NIAMEY (Reuters) -The Malanville border crossing in northern Benin is one of the busiest in West Africa. Trucks with food, humanitarian aid and industrial materials usually flow freely into neighbouring Niger, one of the world's poorest countries.
Today it is at a standstill.
A line of thousands of trucks stretches back 25 km (15 miles) from the muddy shores of the Niger River that marks the frontier. Drivers stranded for weeks hang their clothes between trucks. Away from border guards, small traders pile goods onto wooden boats to cross the rain-lashed river.
The backlog is one of the clearest signs yet of the impact of sanctions imposed by regional bloc ECOWAS on Niger after a military coup on July 26.
The blockade is meant to pressure the junta to restore President Mohamed Bazoum to office. In the process, it has driven up the price of food inside Niger during the lean season, hampered industry and threatened a shortage of medical supplies, aid agencies, officials and residents said.
"We don't know if we've been taken hostage or what," said Nigerien trucker Soulemane, who has been stuck at the border with his cargo of sugar and oil for over 20 days. "There's no food, there's no water, there's nowhere to sleep."
There is little sign yet that the sanctions have dented the popularity of the junta. Thousands of people took the streets in support of the coup last Sunday, some of whom held anti-ECOWAS signs.
Military leaders in Mali appeared to grow in popularity when ECOWAS imposed sanctions there after coups in 2020 and 2021.
MILLIONS UNABLE TO EAT ONCE A DAY
Some 6,000 tonnes of goods from the United Nations' World Food Programme are stuck outside Niger including cereals, cooking oil and food for malnourished children, its regional spokesperson Djaounsede Madjiangar said.
Residents said there was still food on the shelves in Niamey, but prices had shot up. Since sanctions were announced, the price of rice has increased by 21%, while sorghum is up 14%, the WFP said.
The WFP supplies were meant to ease a hunger crisis that was already gripping Niger, where an Islamist insurgency has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
About 3 million people are struggling to afford one meal per day. The crisis could push a further 7 million into the same category, the WFP said.
"We could end up with 10 million people who are not able to feed themselves," Madjiangar said. "Humanitarian needs are increasing."
WFP and the U.N. children's agency UNICEF say they have not yet had to cut back operations in Niger, but warn that time is running out. Interruptions could have devastating impacts in Niger, which has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world.
UNICEF containers are stranded at the border and in Benin's Cotonou port. Cold-chain equipment and vaccines risk losing their effectiveness. These include doses against the deadly rotavirus infection in children, the agency said in emailed comments.
Meanwhile, ECOWAS and the junta remain at loggerheads. The bloc has threatened to intervene militarily if talks and other efforts to pressure the junta fail.
"These sanctions are not designed to find a solution, but to bring us to our knees and humiliate us," coup leader General Abdourahmane Tiani said in a speech on Saturday.
The sanctions are not just threatening Niger's food and aid supplies. Nigeria has cut power supplies, jeopardising medical care in hospitals, Tiani said.
Niamey-based entrepreneur Maxime Kader told Reuters he had to stop selling poultry incubators due to a lack of plywood and low power.
Large-scale infrastructure projects have also been hit by the fallout. The freezing of regional financial flows has halted construction on a Chinese-led dam project that was meant to boost food security.
Forecast economic growth of 7% this year was based on the expected launch of an oil pipeline from Niger to Benin, but it has not been clear how the coup has impacted work to complete the PetroChina -backed project. PetroChina did not reply to a request for comment.
At the Malanville crossing, some vehicles marked WAPCO - a company working on the pipeline - were among those stuck in line, local authorities said. Reuters could not independently confirm this.
Many drivers at the border appeared to be preparing for a long wait. Some have erected makeshift tents and cook on little charcoal stoves, others are scrounging for food as their money runs out.
"They have to review this situation because there is no other way to go," said Nigerien trucker Mahamat Addi Saleh. "This is where everyone passes through."
(Additional reporting by Seraphin Zounyekpe and Edward McAllister Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by David Evans)