By Eric Reidy*
In Niger’s smuggling hub of Agadez, the economy used to be propped up by money made from ferrying people to the Libyan border. Under EU pressure and promises of millions of euros in compensation, the government cracked down on the migration business in 2016. But 18 months on, only a few hundred of the 7,000 people who have stopped the illegal activity are receiving support, the local economy is in meltdown, and fears of renewed rebellion and militancy are growing.
The checkpoint outside the central Nigerien city of Agadez is little more than a thin chain strung between two metal poles in the sand. A small, cement police outpost and a reed hut stand just beyond it. After that is 900 kilometres of desert, dotted with a few small towns, leading to the Libyan border. A crackdown on the migration business in Agadez – the gateway from West Africa to Libya and, ultimately, Europe – should have left the checkpoint nearly deserted. But one Monday afternoon not long ago, it was buzzing with activity.
Three pickup trucks sat idling in the sand. Their backs were overflowing with passengers – 20 to 25 people in each – heading for Libya. The passengers wore scarves wrapped around their faces and clutched wooden poles to anchor themselves in the vehicles during the long journey over uneven terrain. Dozens of people milled about, some selling water and biscuits. More pickup trucks arrived. One by one, they rolled up to the police checkpoint. The passengers got out and the police searched their bags before the trucks reloaded. After a few more minutes of idling, the three pickups started off across the sand, leaving a cloud of dust hanging in the air.
On the way back into the city, more pickups – almost all white Toyota Hiluxes – passed in the opposite direction, headed toward the checkpoint and full of passengers. Others, empty, sped into Agadez’s sprawling western outskirts – neighbourhoods known to be hubs for smugglers and home to ghettos where migrants wait, concealed behind the walls of earthen compounds, before they set off towards Libya. The pickups stopped at gas stations and small shops to stock up on provisions, and they waited outside compounds as people filtered out and climbed aboard.
Had this been 2015 – or any time before – these scenes would have been entirely unremarkable. Agadez has been a hub for people migrating between West Africa and North Africa for centuries. Since the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have passed through the town, many en route to Europe. But all of that is now supposed to be over.
In September 2016, the Nigerien government – with encouragement from the EU – began cracking down on the migration business in Agadez, essentially extending Europe’s southern border to the Sahara. Since then, the local economy has gone into freefall. The EU promised economic and development support to fill the gap. But people have yet to see results and are growing increasingly impatient.
People keep hearing news reports that the EU is sending money to Agadez, and the situation appears to be falling into an all-too-familiar pattern: the EU is paying money to stop migration; the central government is benefiting financially; the people of Agadez are being left out in the cold. It’s the same dynamic that led to conflict in the past, and it’s leading to intense anger now.
“All the benefit is for our government, not for the people,” Mohamadou, a 37-year-old former middleman in the migration business, said, his voice rising. “Our government doesn’t care about us.” It was a sentiment repeated time and again during a week-long visit here.
Europe’s border moves to Niger
Outside of Agadez, migration is not an important issue for people in Niger. The country, with around 20 million inhabitants, is one of the least developed in the world, ranking 187 out of 188 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Islamist insurgencies in neighbouring Nigeria and Mali are increasingly spilling over the borders, and many people simply struggle to subsist, a problem made worse by the effects of climate change. Consequently, people from other West African countries passing through en route to Europe hardly registered as a concern, especially because their movement was legal.
Niger is part of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. Travel between the 15 member countries does not require a visa and, prior to 2015, there was no law on the books in Niger that prohibited people from making the journey to the Libyan border. As an influx of refugees and migrants destabilised European politics, the absence of a legal framework to control migration at this critical transit point posed a problem for EU policymakers.
Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the central Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Around three quarters of them transited through Niger. As more and more people arrived on European shores, migration became conflated with the threat of terrorism and led to a nativist political backlash. The EU and centrist European governments began adopting more hardline policies, scrambling to stem the flow of people.
Libya, despite being the most logical point of intervention, proved a difficult place to affect policy. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, political authority in the country was divided between competing and often warring factions. In an effort to circumvent the Libyan quagmire, European attention shifted further south – to Niger.
The cost of criminalisation
In 2015, the Nigerien parliament passed Law 36, effectively criminalising the migration business in Agadez. The EU ambassador, Raul Mateus Paula, denies that the law was adopted to satisfy European interests. “We never had a single contact with the authorities,” Paula said during an interview in March. “We learned reading the papers that they decided to adopt this law.”
But Niger’s influential minister of interior, Mohamed Bazoum, was explicit: “The Europeans requested us to reduce the number of migrants that were entering Libya. Without the law, we didn’t have any way to do that,” Bazoum said. “So, we wrote the law as… a response to the requests of the European Union.”
Bazoum also said the government was concerned about connections between drug and weapons trafficking and the migration business that could contribute to instability in the north of the country. But before the law, the migration business operated mostly in the open, unlike drug and weapons smuggling. Some of the same people may have been involved in both, but the drivers who took migrants to the Libyan border paid taxes to the Nigerien state – as well as bribes to the Nigerien police and military – and drove in convoys escorted by the military.
That’s not to say that the migration industry in Agadez did not have its criminal aspects. Thousands of women from Nigeria destined for forced sex work in Europe have been trafficked through the city; from time to time, the dead bodies of migrants abandoned by drivers would be found in the desert; and one official in Agadez, who asked not to be named, explained that female migrants were sometimes used as drug mules to carry cocaine across the border.
Nonetheless, the migration business was a major economic lifeline for Agadez, with more than half of all households in the city reportedly earning income from the industry. So in September 2016, when Nigerien authorities arrested hundreds of drivers and ghetto owners and impounded their pickup trucks, seemingly without warning, it cut the legs out from under the region’s economy and created a rift with the national government that is only growing wider.
“Everyone was getting their cut”
Agadez is not a poor region. The desert sands conceal sizable deposits of uranium, gold, oil, and natural gas. But the economic gains from the exploitation of these resources have not trickled down to the local population.
From 1990 to 1995, the Tuareg, the main ethnic group in Agadez, fought a rebellion against the national government demanding a more equitable distribution of the profits from the uranium mines and greater regional autonomy. A second rebellion, in 2007, brought an end to a burgeoning tourism economy; the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused the market value of uranium to plummet; the oil and gas industry is also run by multinational corporations with minimal benefit to the local community; and the government closure of one of the main gold mines in 2017 due to security concerns brought an end to a recent gold rush.
Against this backdrop, migration was an economic windfall for the roughly 120,000 residents of Agadez, bringing in tens of millions of euros per year. Since 2016, the regional government has registered close to 7,000 people who were directly employed in the industry, from drivers and ghetto owners to people running restaurants or selling scarves and water bottles for the trip across the desert. Bachir Amma, the 38-year-old head of an association for former smugglers, said the true number is much higher. “Those 7,000 people who were working, they are just the ones who agreed to stop,” he said.
“Before, 250 vehicles left every Monday to go to Libya. Each vehicle had 25 people. That’s 6,250 people per week,” Amma said. Each of those people paid for a place to stay, food, water, and clothing and made money transfers at the banks. “Everyone was getting their cut.”
Each person who was earning money from migration also acted as a benefactor for others in the community, Amma explained. They would distribute money to family members and friends and even pay school fees for children and invest in community institutions like football teams. Now, many of these benefactors have no source of income.
To try to smooth the transition, the EU launched an eight-million-euro ($9.4-million) economic initiative to help people formerly involved in the migration economy start new businesses. The owners of vehicles and ghettos are excluded from the EU’s reconversion programme, but everyone else can submit project proposals. Accepted proposals receive up to 1.5 million CFA (about $2,700) in material, not financial, support.
On a stifling afternoon, Soumaila Chafaatu, 27, was in the small restaurant she runs off a bumpy, dirt side street in Agadez. She used to work in another restaurant with her sisters, one that catered to migrants passing through the city. “Before, business was good. We were getting more customers than now,” she said.
When Chafaatu heard about the EU programme, she decided to submit an application and was selected to receive support to open her new restaurant. The plastic tables and chairs and a small refrigerator humming in the corner came from the programme. But, Chafaatu was barely scraping by. Before, she would make around 50,000 CFA ($90) per week, a decent income in Niger. Now, after accounting for expenses, she takes home only about 5,000 CFA ($9) per week. “I’m only doing it because I don’t want to stay without doing anything,” she said. “It’s not enough, but I’m trying.”
The economic disparity for others is even greater. Drivers reported earning around 500,000 CFA ($900) per trip to the Libyan border. In comparison, the aid the EU is giving “is insignificant. It’s nothing at all,” Ahmed Algous said.
Algous is the regional coordinator of the Agadez Rapid Impact Programme at the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP), a governmental organisation that is contracted to implement the reconversion initiative. He’s aware of the programme’s limitations. Of the roughly 7,000 people who stopped working because of the law, only 371 have received, or are in the process of receiving, support. “We are worried that we are creating situations in which frustrations can arise, which will encourage these people not to stop their activities. And, if they don’t stop, then it’s like we never did anything at all,” he said.
The EU Ambassador, Paula, said it was important to look at the reconversion programme in the context of the EU’s other development activities in the region. “We have other projects that also create jobs,” he noted.
Out of 12 West African countries, Niger is the top recipient of aid from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a fund that was set up in 2015 to address the root causes of migration. So far, Niger has received 229 million euros ($270 million) and, in December, the European Commission announced it planned to provide Niger with one billion euros (about $1.2 billion) in assistance by 2020. There are nine Trust Fund projects underway in Agadez – including the reconversion programme – the most of any region in the country.
Despite this investment, there is little sign the projects are having an impact on the ground, and they certainly aren’t mitigating people’s frustrations. “There is development, but [it’s] not addressing the grievances of the local population,” said Anca-Elena Ursa, a researcher with the Netherlands based Clingendael Institute.
Potential for conflict, extremism
It’s difficult to have a conversation with people in Agadez about migration and the economy without the subject of conflict coming up. Pretty much all of the men who were involved in the migration business know how to use weapons, residents explain, and many of them are former Tuareg rebels. So the question lingers: if the situation doesn’t improve, will these men take up arms again against the government?
“This law is going to push people to go to the rebellion again, because you have your kids, you have your family. You have many mouths you need to feed,” Mousa Ahmed, a 51-year-old former driver and former rebel, said. “They came one day and said, ‘Stop this.’ And they didn’t give you anything to replace it. They’re pushing you to do something.”
Another fear is that the combination of economic desperation, lack of education, and grievances with the government might push some to join Islamist extremist groups. “We really think that these young people could be attracted to join various terrorist organisations,” Oumarou Ibrahim Oumarou, a traditional Tuareg leader whose title is the Sultan of Aïr, explained. “We really want to try to help these young people as much as possible so they are not attracted to join these types of organisations.”
Bazoum, the interior minister, dismissed these concerns. “That is a conversation that is presented to journalists; it’s a discussion that is prepared specifically for them,” he said, adding that the government is working with the EU and various European countries to provide alternatives to the migration economy.
But, for others, the possibility of conflict is real. Aklou Sidi Sidi, vice-president of the Agadez Regional Council and a former rebel himself, is worried things will spiral out of control. “We don’t want the situation to deteriorate to the point where these youth will rebel,” he said.
Civil society activists are trying to channel people’s frustrations into political action instead of violence. “We don’t want to fight. We don’t want something bad to happen. We just want the government to think about us and resolve the issues,” Tabanhal Saeed, a 50-year-old activist in a women’s group, said. “We already tried the rebellion, but it wasn’t good. Many young people died.”
More than 18 months since the law was implemented, the issues in Agadez only appear to be growing worse, and the likelihood of instability is increasing. “The conflict lines in the Agadez region are now stronger than they used to be,” Ursa, the Clingendael researcher, said. “There’s a disconnect between the needs of the citizens and the priorities of both the central government and, at this point, also the local government.”
If the migration industry in Agadez is supposed to be dead, who are the people in the pickup trucks at the checkpoint? And where are they going?
Ask these questions, and everyone offers different answers. Some people, including former drivers, react with genuine surprise. Others explain that the anti-smuggling law isn’t being implemented as strictly as it had been in the beginning or say that the people in the trucks are mostly Nigeriens going to Libya and Algeria for work. Authorities turn a blind eye, many people said, because Nigeriens rarely cross the sea to Europe.
A 47-year-old smuggler, who asked to be called Mohamadou Issa, had another, convincing explanation: the migration business is still happening; the people who didn’t quit when the law was implemented have simply learned to adapt. “Wherever you find authorities, you have to circumvent them,” Issa said. He knew because he was one of the ones who hadn’t quit.
People still working in the business changed their departure locations and routes and posted lookouts in the desert to warn drivers about military patrols, Issa explained. West African migrants were also hidden among Nigeriens, migrants were disguised as workers heading to mines in the desert, and bribes were paid to police at checkpoints to smooth the way.
Still, the crackdown has taken a toll. Fewer people are making the journey to Libya, and it has become more difficult, and dangerous, to depart from Agadez. The profits from the business also aren’t being spread around like they were before because people have to be more careful.
Even though he hasn’t quit smuggling, Issa, like others in Agadez, is struggling financially and looking for a way out. “I’m trying to change. I’ve already started a small restaurant, but it’s not working because there are no customers,” he said. The idea that the boiling frustrations in the city could lead to conflict doesn’t seem far fetched to him. “Because of the political problems, another rebellion could be possible,” he said. “One problem is bringing another.”
About the author:
*Eric Reidy is a freelance journalist and regular IRIN contributor.
This article was published at IRIN.