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Migration: Niger at a crossroads

By Daniel Howden and Giacomo Zandonini (photos) in Agadez
Posted on Tuesday, 24 July 2018 10:51

Abdourahmane Alfa’s claustrophobic office captures the changing times in Niger’s capital, Niamey. The poky little room is an indication of the importance his own government used to attach to the border and customs police. A plaque from his Italian counterparts and a flat-screen TV playing clips from joint operations with Italian and French counter-trafficking police show how much Europe cares.

The long-serving border and customs chief talks with evident pride of the new status that Europe’s migration obsession has brought him. “There’s a flourishing of meetings, international summits on migration and we’re at the core of all this,” says Alfa.

Niger’s elevation to this new status is reflected in the rapidly changing panor­ama of Niamey. Italy, whose commercial interests in Niger did not stretch much beyond a landmark restaurant, now has a marble-clad embassy, opened in January. Belgium has followed suit. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have splashed entire streets with blue and white.

The reason for the surge in engagement with a country many Europeans would struggle to place is that three-quarters of the 120,000 African migrants who reached Italy in 2017 transited Niger. Raul Mateus Paula, the European Union (EU)’s top diplomat in Niger, describes the world’s fifth-poorest country as a “strategic partner”.

With Mali and parts of northern Nigeria racked by Islamist insurgencies and Libya consumed by conflict, the EU has found a willing partner in the corridor between the Sahel and the Sahara. For its part, the Niger government is open to trading aid and legitimacy for a crackdown on northward migration.

Moving the border

Alfa explains how this works in practice: “We control people at our border posts, at internal checkpoints. And we conduct investigations in [key] transit areas, like Agadez and Tahoua.”

The EU supports freedom of movement within its member states; it is less keen on the principle when it comes to its West African counterpart, the Economic Community of West African States. Citizens of the 15 countries cannot be prevented from entering Niger under a 1979 protocol. But Niger has agreed to bring its border control south, in line with the desert city of Agadez. European ambassadors in Niamey now talk openly of Niger as the “southern border of the EU”.

“If someone intends to head north of Agadez, towards Libya or Algeria, he will lose his right to free movement,” says Alfa. The de-facto movement of the border came with Law 36, passed in 2015 with European technical input. The government implemented it a year later, under acute EU pressure.

The EU’s Paula is happier to give the credit for the crackdown to Niger: “Since 2015, Niger wanted to act. They knew that trafficking networks were dangerous for the state but they were afraid, so they asked Europe for help.”

For Alfa, that help came in the form of a joint investigation team with European police experts – one of 11 projects funded under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a financing instrument billed as “addressing the root causes of irregular migration […] in Africa”.

The migration focus means that Niger is receiving much more EU aid and attention than before. It is getting €230m ($267m) from the trust fund, far more than any of the other 27 countries it covers. Frontex, the EU border agency, has its only permanent staff in Africa based in Niamey. Total EU aid to Niger for the period of 2014-2020 is due to be to nearly $1bn.

Just as unusual as the scale of the spending is the manner in which it is spent. Three-quarters of current aid is in the form of direct budget support, Paula says. When Western governments give aid to countries with high levels of corruption, they channel it in large part through non-governmental organisations.

The funding surge illustrates the broader phenomenon of the EU redirecting development budgets across Africa in pursuit of reduced migration. Under the Khartoum Process, an inter-regional forum covering the Horn of Africa and Europe, pariah regimes in Eritrea and Sudan have been recast as European allies in countering people smuggling.

City of a thousand doors

But closing borders in the Sahel and Sahara is harder than some Europeans might realise. Niger has 50 border posts, says Alfa, to cover a border of 6,000km. Many of the posts do not have electricity. After recruiting 50 new agents, Alfa commands a force of 2,000, but says there is urgent need for “more vehicles and funds”;.

If the mission looks daunting from Niamey, then 900km further north, in Agadez, it looks both improbable and deeply unpopular. “In Agadez, we are on the frontline of the fight against the illicit traffic of migrants,” says Ali Issoufou, the region’s police chief. Unlike Alfa, Issoufou is based in a city that has long survived on the income from the movement of goods and people. Curtailing migration may be popular in Brussels and Berlin – and palatable in Niamey – but it is in Agadez where the effects are actually felt.

Issoufou admits it is tough to “reconcile the fight against migration with the right to free movement”. If the authorities intercept a third-country national in a pick-up heading north of Agadez, they will arrest the driver under Law 36 and confiscate the vehicle. “What counts is the intention,” Issoufou explains. “If you plan to enter Libya or Algeria, then we have to stop you.”

He does not always have the equipment equal to the task. The recent capture of a Gambian smuggler only happened after Spanish agents brought a sophisticated phone-tapping device. “It took only 48 hours to track him down. But then they left and took their beautiful device with them,” he says. The Agadez chief says he detects a lack of joined-up thinking in some European support. Niger got 22 jeeps from Germany but Issoufou’s forces frequently do not have the fuel to operate them.

He unrolls a map on the table and sketches a circle around the city limits: “There are 13 routes to enter the city, but I can control only four of them. Agadez is a city with a thousand doors, traffickers can enter everywhere.” Year-round ­patrols and the threat of prosecution have convinced some drivers to abandon smuggling, says Issoufou, “but there are some smartasses who are still in business.”

The police chief’s portrayal of smugglers does not fit well with Yacoub. A former university student who could not afford to finish his studies, he started driving migrants to Sabha, in southern Libya, as understudy to his uncle. In four years, this fresh-faced Tuareg young man took thousands of passengers to Libya. Since the 2016 crackdown, he says, the whole system has changed: “Risks are higher, but so are rewards.”

Yacoub says it now takes 400 litres of fuel to reach Libya, about double what it used to, and means moving at night and dodging military checkpoints in Agadez, Dirkou and Séguédine. Some of his colleagues have quit, but he says he does not see another way to live: “I wasn’t offered an alternative, and this is still the only way I have to feed my family.”

Migration numbers, from the IOM, show a drastic reduction in the northbound traffic from Niger, falling from 290,000 in 2016 to 33,000 the next year. The knock-on effect can be seen in sea arrivals in Italy, which dropped from 180,000 in 2016 to 120,000 in 2017.

Big players above the law

But internal EU documents seen by The Africa Report acknowledge that “unpredictable and growing new routes have been emerging”. EUCAP (EU Capacity Building) Sahel, a €27m tentacle of the EU apparatus in Niger, is trying to track down where the smuggling routes have shifted to. In late 2016, it opened a heavily guarded compound in Agadez with the only swimming pool in a city which suffers constant water shortages.

Finnish diplomat Kirsi Henriksson, who headed a civilian security mission for EUCAP Sahel until April of this year, says migration has become the complete focus of its mission. Together with Nigerien forces, the EU has been trying to identify the big players in the smuggling business. “The desert is vast,” says Henriksson. “But it talks.” All sides acknowledge that the security forces were so deeply embedded that bribes worked like an informal tax. The sentiment on the ground is that some effort has been made to reduce migrant numbers while the better-connected smugglers continue to operate.

Despite EU efforts to build trust with the local community, anger is building in Agadez, which has witnessed two major rebellions in the past 30 years. Mahmoud Sallah, a traditional leader among the Tubu ethnic group, is one of the government’s most prominent critics. After being jailed for sedition, Sallah joined the Mouvement pour la Révolution Démocratique, a group created in 2017, “to deliver the country back into the hands of its own people”.

Sallah’s movement took part in demonstrations against the widely criticised 2018 budget law. The law hiked taxes on staples like rice and sugar as well as utility bills, while foreign multinationals got tax breaks. Protests swelled earlier this year with as many as 35,000 people marching in Niamey. The government jailed eight leading civil-society figures and slapped a heavy police presence on their headquarters.

Twin grievances

“We’re a rich country, but we’re ruled by a corrupt government, influenced by Western powers”, says Sallah. “Why are more European countries bringing more soldiers to Niger? The reality is that most of our people are killed by poverty and bad governance, not terrorists.” The fight against terrorism is another area where Niger is attracting more attention, due to its strategic location in the Sahel. The United States air force is currently building a drone base near Agadez to serve as a West African base of operations.

The migration crackdown illustrates Niger’s lack of independence, Sallah argues. “The whole region of Agadez is suffering from a criminalisation of migration. The EU corrupted our government to jail our relatives, who were making a living out of it, without offering any real alternative,” he says.

Brussels’ answer to these critics has been an 18-month programme to convert those working in the migration business into the owners of small businesses. So far, it has reached just 371 people out of its own expensively compiled list of 5,118 migration workers. Those 371 people got goods, not cash. Many in Agadez say that fridges and cheap Indian motorcycles are a poor substitute for the hard-currency rewards of transporting people.

Activists like Sallah see the budget protests and resentment over anti-­migration measures coming together in a serious challenge to the government. The EU responded to the budget with praise. “Civil society doesn’t really understand the impact of these reforms, which will ease Niger’s dependence on foreign aid,” says EU delegation head Paula.

Rhissa Feltou, the French-educated mayor of Agadez, also fails to see how the Europeans are helping: “There’s a growing popular discontent because our economy is suffering. Even if the EU would pour millions of euros here, how can you replace a whole economic sector destroyed in the blink of an eye?”

This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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