AGADEZ, Niger—For centuries, the city of Agadez served as a gateway between sub-Saharan and North Africa. While the camel caravans have been replaced by trucks and Toyota 4x4s, the city’s local communities still rely on the transport of merchandise and contraband to get by. Agadez is also the largest city in Niger’s restive north, the birthplace of ethnic-Tuareg rebellions against the Nigerien state, and a place where jihadist gunmen use the lawless, open desert to move between hotspots in this part of Africa.
Beginning in late 2013, thousands of people from throughout West Africa began arriving in Agadez every week, seeking an escape from poverty and a lack of opportunity back home. From there, it was onto Libya, where many hoped to find work or continue onward to Europe. At the height of the migrant-smuggling boom from 2014 to 2016, dozens of pick-up trucks, packed with anywhere from 22 to 30 people, would set off from the city into the desert every week. Nigerien authorities had little reason to intervene: Migrants headed out of Agadez paid an “exit tax” to government officials that went directly into the municipal treasury. (Many of the migrant convoys were even accompanied by a military escort.)
What did all this add up to? In 2016, the United Nations Migration Agency detected over 333,000 migrants, including Nigeriens themselves, passing through northern Niger and onto Libya and Algeria. With each migrant paying smugglers between $100 and $500 and purchasing food and lodging on their journey through the Sahara, even the most conservative estimates suggested a smuggling economy in the tens of millions of dollars.
All that started to change in August 2016, when Nigerien officials began implementing a controversial anti-smuggling law that effectively criminalized the transport of migrants. The law was passed in 2015, under heavy pressure from the European Union, which offered Niger aid and development assistance in exchange for more robust cooperation on immigration enforcement. In the ensuing crackdown, government officials told me they confiscated over 200 vehicles and detained dozens of drivers, guides, and so-called “ghetto owners,” or people who provided migrants with lodging.
By the end of 2017, the flow of detected migrants had fallen by 80 percent from the previous year. It was impossible to know exactly how many people were passing through: Most of the people-smuggling networks had moved underground. As a result, at least 6,000 people—smugglers, along with shop-owners, landlords, restaurateurs, vehicle repairman, and merchants who benefitted from the migrant economy—lost their livelihoods, local authorities in Agadez told me. The EU has pledged to help the newly unemployed find other types of work. So far, the support has yet to arrive.
Adou Ama, a slender, 40-year-old man in Agadez, once earned several thousand dollars a month arranging the transport of West African migrants from Agadez to Libya. Now he spends his days loitering under a hangar nestled within the mud-brick labyrinth of the city center, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with a dozen other former smugglers. He and the other ex-smugglers said that the Nigerien government and its European patrons had failed to bring the jobs and economic development they’d promised. “Our families—what are they going to eat?” Ama asked.
Northern Niger’s economic crisis could destabilize a region that has already suffered through two civil wars over the past 30 years. While the European Union promotes development aid and security assistance as a recipe for stability in Niger, and individual countries like France, Italy, and the United States do the same, locals here insist that EU efforts to curb migration, combined with an increased foreign military presence, threatens to break an already fragile state. “We don’t want a rebellion,” Ama said. “But suffering creates one.”
Agadez emerged as the principal gateway for West African migrants and asylum-seekers bound for Europe after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the former ruler of Libya. Prior to his demise in 2011, Qaddafi blocked those trying to reach Europe, as part of a $5-billion aid package from Italy. Unable to find reliable partners among the competing armed factions in Libya after Qaddafi, Europe turned to Niger to control the movement of migrants, even those who didn’t necessarily want to go to Europe. Last year, the European Commission pledged to contribute 1 billion euros in development assistance to Niger by 2020.
On the military front, France has several hundred troops in Niger, including special forces stationed at a revamped colonial fort in Madama, near the border with Libya. In December, Italy announced plans to send up to 470 troops to Madama in order to curb people-smuggling and fight jihadists. The exact amount of military spending by the EU and individual European nations in recent years is unclear, but is likely in the hundreds of millions of euros.
Such a strong emphasis on security, however, seems to misdiagnose the problem. Development economists argue that rates of migration from poor countries increase as their economies grow, and only levels off once they reach a certain level of economic development. Heavy-handed measures, like those called for by Niger’s 2015 anti-smuggling law, can exact an economic cost, for both migrants and those who move them.
The 2015 law also crippled the economy of northern Niger at a time when jihadist groups were expanding their presence throughout the region. Fears of impending collapse prompted the EU to allocate 687,500 euros in June 2017 for a program to help smugglers find new employment. A spokesperson for the EU delegation in Niger, reached by email, referred to the project as a “reconversion plan” for “former recognized smugglers and other actors of migration,” including drivers, recruiters, guides, and local merchants.
As part of the program, former smugglers are required to register with the Nigerien government, and prepare a dossier outlining new business proposals and start-up costs. But smugglers in Agadez who have sent in their plans, including those who said their dossiers have been approved, told me that they have yet to receive any assistance. According to government officials and the EU delegation in Niger, of the 6,500 people that have registered as part of the program, around 287 have been approved to receive any assistance.
Over time, complaints of bureaucratic red tape and accusations that funds have been misappropriated by local authorities have piled up. Government officials are urging patience. “The program was launched with EU funds and we have to follow the EU process. We cannot just dispense funds,” Sadou Soloké, the governor of Agadez region, told me. According to Soloké, part of the frustration stemmed from a misunderstanding: Those who registered expected to receive monetary compensation; instead, he said, the program was only ever intended to furnish them with material and supplies purchased and procured by the EU in partnership with the Nigerien government. “We never said we would give them money. They have to start a legal activity and we will provide support. We will deliver what they need.”
A spokesperson for the EU delegation to Niger confirmed that assistance to former smugglers has not yet started, in part because of the EU’s stringent procurement and compliance procedures. “We might be able to provide the first beneficiaries in one and a half to two months,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
The longer the EU takes, the greater the likelihood that the simmering frustration will boil over. In Mali, Libya, and Nigeria, which share long, porous borders with Niger, jihadist groups, some with ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have translated abundant disillusionment with ineffectual governments into varying levels of local support.
Until recently, Niger had largely been spared from Islamist violence. This changed in 2013, when Saharan jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar rocked Agadez and Arlit, another city in northern Niger, with a pair of coordinated suicide attacks. Since then, militants in both Niger and Mali have launched multiple attacks against Nigerien security forces.
As jihadist groups make inroads with economically disenfranchised communities south of Agadez, local leaders warn that young people will prove susceptible to jihadist recruitment. “The migrant-smuggling, at least, allowed people to make money. At a minimum it kept people occupied,” Issouf Ag Maha, a former rebel who is now mayor of Tchirozerine, a town just north of Agadez, told me. “If there isn’t an alternative, people aren’t just going to cross their arms,” he said. “The jihadists are smart, and they will insert themselves into this situation.”
Traditionally, jihadists rally local support by exploiting the presence of foreign military forces, and capitalizing when an operation goes awry. With the expanding U.S. military presence in the region, the odds of such a thing occurring may be rising. Since the early 2000s, the United States has stationed special-forces operatives in Niger, and began flying drones out of the capital city of Niamey in 2013, long before Islamist gunmen killed four American Special Forces servicemen in an ambush in October 2017. The United States is also currently building a new drone base in Agadez. In addition, Washington recently received approval from Nigerien officials to begin flying armed drones to strike jihadist groups in the region—a decision that did not involve Niger’s legislature or public debate.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rudy Atallah, who served as the Africa counterterrorism director for the secretary of defense from 2003 to 2009, told me that part of the challenge for U.S. special forces in the region is that they are limited to working directly with their Nigerien counterparts. The Nigerien military is “not seen favorably in many pockets of the country, and so it taints our guys,” Atallah told me. As a result, “our human intelligence is very, very weak in that area,” he said, posing a major challenge to executing drone strikes accurately.
Calls for more robust intelligence gathering by U.S. troops on the ground, however, may soon meet resistance in Washington. The New York Times recently reported that a draft military investigation into the ambush in October calls for the Pentagon to scale back its ground operations in the region, rather than expand them.
Mahamane Elhadj Souleymane, who represents over 90 tribes throughout the region as chief of the Kel Eweye Tuareg confederation, said he has yet to receive a straightforward explanation from either his own government or from U.S. officials for why the Americans are building a drone base on the edge of Agadez. “We just have no idea what they are actually doing,” he said. “What happens the first time the Americans make a mistake and kill civilians?”
It’s a hypothetical question for which he already has an answer. “With the economic crisis and this government, people here are already so fed up,” he said. “One mistake and the jihadists will have no problem recruiting 200 people the next day.”