When four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last October, few back home knew they were even there. Niger, a Francophone and Muslim country that is bordered by Libya and Algeria to the north, Nigeria to the south, Chad to the east, and Burkina Faso and war-torn Mali to the west, rarely comes up in discussions of foreign policy. On the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education, and other vital statistics, Niger ranks 187th out of 188 countries. Its population is doubling every twenty years, as women have an average of 7.2 children.
Yet because of concerns about security and migration, Western governments are now investing huge sums in Niger. The European Union will disburse more than €1 billion in aid over the next few years, and policemen from the EU are training thousands of their Nigerien counterparts. Across the Sahel, the vast and arid swath of land between the Sahara and tropical Africa, €6 billion will be spent by foreign governments and development banks over the next five years. The US military is building an airbase in Agadez, Niger’s gateway to the Sahara, which will cost $110 million to construct and $15 million a year to maintain. The CIA is building another in the northern town of Dirkou. French Mirage jet fighters patrol the skies, German aircrews are here, and British military transport helicopters arrived in July to help the French. Italy is planning to send troops to Niger, and there are French and US bases scattered across the region.
With conflicts along Niger’s border with Mali and jihadists from Boko Haram spilling into the country from Nigeria in the southeast, defense takes up 17 percent of the country’s budget, of which 45 percent comes from foreign aid. Students I talked to at Niamey University in June said they did not know what foreign troops were doing in their country. “Maybe the French are there to protect the president from a coup d’état,” said Aliu, twenty-five, a math student. “We heard that our army is not allowed to go to the American base,” he added, referring to a base in Niamey, the capital, that is run by the US but officially Nigerien. Maybe the foreigners were there because they wanted the gold that is mined in Niger, he said.
When I asked a colonel in charge of information at Nigerien army headquarters what French troops were doing at Madama, an army base deep in the Sahara and close to the Libyan border, he picked up his phone and called someone: “What the fuck are the French doing up there? Are they still doing their patrols or what?” Even he did not know.
It is clear to Western strategists, at least, why there is a need for a growing military presence in Niger. The Western ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 destabilized the Sahel. Arms flooded out of Libya, which also became a base for al-Qaeda. This led to the rise of Islamist groups and a rebellion in Mali, where Tuareg nationalists, using arms from Libya and in alliance with mostly non-Tuareg Islamists, seized the north of the country in 2012 and declared independence, calling their new state Azawad. In January 2013 the French led an emergency coalition to evict them, and the Tuareg, whose members are spread throughout the region, fell out with the Islamists.
In 2014 the French created Operation Barkhane, which consists of 4,500 soldiers in the Sahel and costs €600 million a year. The French were also behind the creation in 2017 of the G5 Sahel force, which will eventually consist of five thousand soldiers from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Chad and has support from the French army. At a fund-raising conference in February, €414 million was pledged for it, including €100 million from Saudi Arabia, €100 million from the EU, and €49 million from the US. Barkhane is also supporting MINUSMA, a 12,000-troop UN peacekeeping force in Mali. Fighting spilling over the border has displaced at least 14,600 people within Niger since the beginning of the year, adding a further strain on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which already cares for 58,000 Malians on the Niger side of the border and 250,000 displaced by Boko Haram in the southeast. About 2,000 Sudanese from Darfur have also recently fled, mostly from Libya, to Agadez, where many of them are camping in the streets.
The G5 Sahel headquarters in Mali was attacked by jihadists on June 29, leaving several dead. On July 1 a Barkhane convoy was attacked, injuring several French soldiers and killing at least four civilians. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, one of the groups the G5 Sahel is fighting, has not been defeated, said General Bruno Guibert, then the outgoing commander of Operation Barkhane, but its members were dispersed and many of its leaders killed or captured. In the border region of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, a “vast operation to finish off and neutralize the enemy” was imminent. When I asked General Guibert what he thought Barkhane’s successes and failures were, he claimed that there were “only successes” and “no failures.”
Guibert and I were talking in the canteen of the French base in Niamey, which acts as an aviation hub for Barkhane. It is commanded by Colonel Guillaume Gauthier, who showed me four Mirage fighter jets with underwing rockets ready to scramble. He said the planes sometimes swoop low over groups of jihadists without firing, “just to say ‘hello, I suggest you do something else!’” Nearby were helicopters, four French and German transport planes, a refueling plane, and five French Reaper drones. Next year these sleek intelligence-gathering aircraft will be equipped with missiles. The US military refused to show me its base (there are up to eight hundred American troops stationed in Niger), but it is next to the French one, so I could see the slim rockets under the wings of the US drones in open hangars. When the US base in Agadez is complete, these drones and other aircraft can be moved there, giving them a far greater range across the Sahara into Libya, Algeria, and the north of Mali. Drones are already reported to be flying from the CIA base at Dirkou, which is even closer to Libya. On May 10, Robert S. Karem, the US assistant secretary of defense, said of the Agadez project, “This effort is necessary because the establishment of terrorist safe havens in the Sahel could pose a significant risk to US national security interests.”
Given the turmoil in Libya, Mali, and northeast Nigeria, there is clearly a legitimate security interest here. If they are not resisted, Islamists would take over and control vast areas. But the situation is complicated. As Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos makes clear in his new book, L’Afrique, nouvelle frontière du djihad?, jihadists in the region attach themselves to existing conflicts, for example between herders and pastoralists of different ethnicities. On the Mali–Niger border French and G5 Sahel troops are allied with Tuareg-dominated militias. The mostly nomadic Tuareg are in a conflict over pastureland with local Fulani (also known as Peulh) and others who, as a consequence, are joining militias dominated by their own people and Islamists.
Montclos also notes that Western responses to terror provoke backlashes from people who would not otherwise have gotten involved in conflicts. Young men take up arms after the often-corrupt local armies, backed by French and American advisers, drones, and planes, kill civilians or burn their villages. Local groups will claim allegiance to al-Qaeda or ISIS even if there is little genuine connection with them, because it can make them appear more important. Montclos writes that “Western armies have neither the capacity nor the will to replace failing states in Africa, in particular when they pursue scorched-earth policies,” and that “the goodwill with which they are received when they arrive can quickly turn them from ‘liberation forces’ into occupying troops, bolstering accusations of neocolonialism as their stay lengthens.”
Likewise, the region’s small jihadist groups cannot replace states or bring order. Their contraband networks can be nothing more than a mere palliative, unable to pay for modern services such as hospitals or infrastructure such as roads. But if Western governments see them only as terrorists and fanatics and ignore legitimate complaints—poverty; marginalization by governments, particularly of people who live far from their capitals; the complete absence of any government or services across large areas—then a “war of civilizations” between the West and Islam might seem convincing. And that is what Islamist ideologues want.
Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of West African migrants and refugees destined for Europe passed through Agadez. On the trip there, they were likely to have passed trucks carrying Nigerien uranium ore to West African ports, from which it is shipped to France to fuel nuclear power plants.* The numbers shot up after the fall of Qaddafi, peaking at an estimated 333,891 in 2016. Once migrants arrived in Agadez, they had to arrange the next leg of their journey, across the desert to Libya, from which they attempted to cross the Mediterranean. In the last four years some 600,000 have made the crossing from Libya to Italy, and it is believed that hundreds of thousands more are trapped in Libya waiting to do so. Now the Nigeriens are enforcing an antitrafficking law, which means that fewer than a thousand people a month make it through. This is the other reason the EU is giving Niger so much money, and why Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, says that Europe’s southern border is now the police checkpoint at the entrance to this ancient city.
This vast flow of people has meant boom times for Agadez, which for centuries has profited from the Trans-Saharan trade. In the past camels were loaded up with gold and salt, and slaves and pilgrims trudged along with them. In the 1980s a flourishing tourist trade developed here, but that was ended by a Tuareg rebellion beginning in 1990. When the migrants began to arrive, the people of Agadez adapted accordingly. Bus companies added extra lines to transport them. At the bus station they were met by men who took them to “ghettos,” as migrant lodgings are called. They ferried them around town to money transfer companies where they could get cash from home and helped them prepare for the journey. In the meantime the migrants went to local shops, bought food, and paid fixers commissions for matching them up with drivers. Migrants would leave every Monday in convoys of up to two hundred vehicles carrying five thousand people, with a military escort for the next stage of the trip north to Libya. In a town of perhaps 200,000 people, fortunes were made. The Clingendael Institute reckons that six thousand people were directly employed in the business, with half of the town’s population benefiting in one way or another.
All West African nations belong to the Economic Community of West African States, so their citizens have the right to travel and work wherever they like within the region. Up until a few years ago, if travelers wanted to pass through the middle of the Sahara on their way to Libya, that was their right. Then everything changed. It is commonly said that EU pressure to slow migration led Niger to pass an antitrafficking law, which it began enforcing in 2016. Gogé Maimouna Gazibo, the head of Niger’s antitrafficking unit, bridled when I asked her about this and pulled out her computer to show me pictures of desiccated dead children. She told me that the laws were drafted following outrage in 2013 over the deaths of ninety-two Nigeriens, including thirty-seven women and fifty-two children, some of whom were in the pictures and who were abandoned by traffickers in the desert. Still, the fact that very soon after those deaths the EU began pouring hundreds of millions of euros into one of the poorest countries on the planet probably helped accelerate things.
No one knows exactly how many West Africans are still trying to get to Europe via Niger, but the EU says the number of those trying to get to Europe from Libya, Turkey, and elsewhere is down 95 percent from 2015. But people are still dying in attempts to do so as drivers take riskier routes through the desert to avoid detection. Italy has also clamped down on boats picking up migrants from the sea off Libya, so fewer attempt to cross because the journey is so dangerous. More than a hundred people drowned off the Libyan coast on June 29.
Anyone you ask in Agadez laments the end of the migrant boom, complaining that business has collapsed. Mayor Feltou suggested that people are also “bitter” because the EU’s promised aid is taking so long to get here. Some migrants still pass through the city, however, despite police checkpoints along the road, but with drivers in jail and cars impounded, most of those who used to drive them north don’t want to take the risk anymore. The entrepreneurs of Agadez who have money are now investing elsewhere. David, who used to work in the migrant business, showed me pictures on his phone of cars he bought in Libya and delivered for a hefty profit to customers across the region. Cars were good, he said, but nothing like the easy money you could make before from migrants.
In Europe and America, migration has become a major political issue. In Agadez, as the Americans build their military base on the edge of the desert, the issues of migration and Western security come together. While Mali is the epicenter of the struggle against the jihadists, in Niger the West’s military fight against them and Europe’s fight against African migration come together. The two stories are not directly linked, but they make Niger a country of strategic interest in a way it has never been before.
According to many Nigeriens I met, Westerners have ignored President Mahamadou Issoufou’s increasing authoritarianism and the corruption of his government because of their concerns about security and especially about migration. The French and American bases were installed in Niger illegally without any debate in parliament, says Issoufou Yahaya, a political scientist at Niamey University. In March and April, twenty-six activists were arrested, and on the day I met Yahaya, he had just come back from visiting one of them, Ali Idrissa, in prison. They had been organizing protests against the new budget, which will increase taxes for most ordinary people but lower them for multinational corporations, which activists accuse of pillaging the country’s uranium and gold. In the past, the EU and the US might have been vocal when civil liberties were infringed like this, but now French president Emmanuel Macron praises Niger as an “example for democracy” and has made no comment about the arrests.
Today, Agadez, home to a mosque built in 1515 with a famous pointed minaret, remains a crossroads for the few people who still try to leave West Africa, for failed migrants coming back from Libya, or for West Africans deported from Algeria. The International Organisation for Migration runs a transit center for West Africans trying to get home. On the day I visited, 544 were staying there, according to a whiteboard in the IOM compound. Almost all were young men who had thought it worth the risk and the money to try to get to Europe to escape lives of drudgery and poverty at home. That day 173 came from Guinea Conakry, 99 from Liberia, 88 from Nigeria, and the others from all over the rest of the region. As they waited to go home they rested in the shade or played football, despite its being 110 degrees. Those I spoke to had harrowing but drearily repetitive tales of being kidnapped, beaten, and detained in Libya. Their captors gave them phones so they could call their impoverished families back home and beg them to pay ransoms.
Alfred Leigh, a thirty-one-year-old Liberian who wants to be a musician, told me his story, which was typical. He had reached Libya and worked as a tiler to earn some money to cross the Mediterranean. Finding Libya too dangerous, he moved to Algeria where he got a job in a restaurant. For the first couple of months all was fine, but when the restaurant stopped paying him and Leigh asked for his wages, the boss called the police. Leigh was arrested, put on a truck, and dumped with hundreds of others in the desert twenty miles from the Nigerien border. Leigh said that “some got lost, some were throwing away their suitcases, there was no water or food…. I just thank almighty God for my life!” After his experiences, Leigh said, he decided he did not wish to risk his life on a sea crossing and would be happy to go home. But Giuseppe Loprete, the head of IOM in Niger, pointed out that many who have set off, funded by family, are reluctant to go home if they don’t make it to Europe or have nothing to show for their trip. They are afraid of being regarded as shameful and hence unmarriageable losers.
In a center run by the UNHCR, I met Elisabeth Zamke Massagong, a thirty-six-year-old Cameroonian who had also been working in Algeria when she was picked up off the street by police. After being dumped in the desert, she and the other migrants she was with were told to walk to Niger. “Fuck you! Go back to Africa!” shouted the Algerian security forces as they abandoned them. Algeria has an agreement with Niger to deport its migrants, and it has sent back 31,697 people since 2014. However, in the last fourteen months it has also illegally deported to Niger 13,000 West Africans from countries with which it has no agreement. In Algeria Massagong had run a small restaurant catering to fellow Africans and was still in a state of complete shock when we talked. She had saved €22,000, which she kept in her home, but was not allowed to retrieve any of it. When the police bus left Oran, where she had been living, it passed her home, which was in a part of town inhabited by African migrants. All the doors had been kicked in and the houses robbed. “Why do they destroy people’s lives like this?” she asked. She said she thought the police were in league with criminals and tell them whom they have arrested and where their homes are.
Nearby, a mission of the French and Nigerien Red Cross had set up a clinic in a ghetto for migrants who still hoped to get to Europe. Two years ago, it would have been packed, but now there were just a few Senegalese and Gambians. They had heard stories of Africans being kidnapped by Libyan militias. They knew about the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean. But so many of their friends had successfully made it to Europe that they thought the trip a risk worth taking. Basirou Bolle, a twenty-seven-year-old from Senegal, said that if he died on the way to Europe, “it is not a problem, it is destiny.” Others spoke in equally fatalistic terms. Lamine Jeng, a twenty-seven-year-old Gambian, said, “Europe owes us because it took our ancestors to work there, as slaves in Europe and America.” They had been bought in exchange for salt and gunpowder, he explained, and then “our ancestors—they are called Negroes and Black Africans—built America and Europe. But now, if we want to go to Europe, it is a problem!”
When I went to get my Nigerien visa at the embassy in Paris, I saw women and children begging at the Gare du Nord with signs saying “Famille syrienne” (which many believe they are not). Among them were a large number of young African men. Many, if not most of them, had probably passed through Agadez to get there. “Baskets! Baskets! Baskets!” they cried, chanting the French word for the sneakers they were hawking. I wondered if it was really worth it—getting into debt or selling land and property to risk their lives on the Mediterranean, just to sell sneakers in the Paris metro.
But in the ghetto of Agadez young men were staring at their phones, reading Facebook posts full of encouraging words by friends or even traffickers, who claimed that those who had gone before them were having a great time. “Whatever their difficulties in Europe,” said Daouda Yacouba of the Red Cross in Agadez, “for them it is better than the precariousness of life in Africa, even for thousands of them selling small things in Paris. They take a picture in a nice place and send it back to their village, and there they think ‘he succeeded!’—so the next one goes ‘why not me?’”
—September 27, 2018
According to a “conservative estimate” from the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations, which has made detailed studies in Agadez, since 2000 nearly 100,000 people a year have traveled through Niger on their way to Libya, almost all of them via Agadez. ↩