The route passing through northern Niger is characterised by an increase in the level of irregularity of migration amidst the presence of state authorities. This irregularity is an artificial result of the fact that bus companies do not travel further than the northern desert towns of Arlit and Agadez. In theory, ECOWAS migrants are still allowed to move unencumbered through northern Niger. In practice, they turn themselves over into the hands of ghetto owners who provide them with shelter in transit hubs and arrange for the migrants’ departure on 4x4s that travel through the desert. The vigilance of state authorities in the region – a direct consequence of EU pressure for more stringent anti-smuggling measures according to respondents – means that these ghettos and desert convoys are increasingly subject to state action.‍[71] In the process, the conflict risk of investing in state action without recognising the problematic relationship between the Nigerien state and the North is becoming increasingly visible.

Figure 4
The co-opted route
The co-opted route

Source: Molenaar, F. 2017. Irregular migration and human smuggling networks in Niger, CRU report, The Hague, Clingendael.

A developmental paradox

A closer look at the developmental situation of the north serves to entangle a complex web of stabilising and destabilising tendencies surrounding the migration industry. As discussed in Chapter 1, the roots of contemporary irregular migration and human smuggling networks can be traced back to a historic legacy of transnational ethnic and kinship relations that spawned trade networks between local communities in border regions. Connectivity formed – and continues to form – the guiding principle of these exchanges, meaning that ethnic and kinship ties, rather than physical proximity, traditionally bound cross-border trade networks together.‍[72] Initially developed around the smuggling of subsidised goods from North Africa, this cross-border trade increasingly focused on illicit commodities such as counterfeit cigarettes and goods, arms and drugs.‍[73] Its significance has grown to such an extent that ‘there are [currently] no alternative sources of income and employment that could rival those of contraband and drug smuggling’.‍[74]

Over time, the central government’s laissez-faire approach to illicit cross-border trade, combined with the income-generating opportunity these activities provided to local government officials, resulted in northern desert towns increasingly relying on the illicit cross-border trade rather than the formal national economy for their economic development.‍[75] In the case of northern Niger, the informal smuggling economy became even more important when armed rebellion and the deteriorating security situation in the region led to a decline in tourism and other economic opportunities.‍[76] Intra-regional migration both strengthened and profited from these ties as migrants used existing trade infrastructures and travelled alongside trade caravans through the desert.‍[77] Human smuggling should thus be understood as part of this larger desert context, meaning that its significance extends beyond direct criminal environments to the societies that depend directly or indirectly on the smuggling trade for their livelihoods and that look upon smuggling as an accepted practice. It plays a vital role in the economic development of border towns, which – for stability’s sake – would require substantial alternatives.

This is not to say that regional development is solely related to human smuggling activities. Transit towns in northern Niger have witnessed spectacular economic growth due to all manner of migration-related activities. Next to specialised transportation companies, this industry includes the local infrastructure of hotels, restaurants and call shops, and/or capitalises on the availability of cheap migrant labour.‍[78] Given this economic relevance, visible also in the fact that Agadez’s population has grown from 100,000 to an estimated 500,000 residents in the last five years, the European border management agency, Frontex, has warned that tackling the human smuggling industry could spark local protest – as occurred in Algeria when the government upped its repressive anti-smuggling efforts.‍[79] Some even fear that the irregular migration industry is all that prevents a new tribal uprising in the north – potentially increasing the number of conflict-driven migrants and reducing the ability of the international community to address migration in the region.‍[80]

Policy recommendation 2: invest in economic development

A common understanding has therefore started to grow that migration (and national economic) policies need to invest in local development in desert towns to provide an alternative to the irregular migration industry. It is imperative that such policies pay attention to the relation between irregular migration, cross-border trade, local economies and the micro-dynamics of smuggling and political authority in migration hubs. The starting point for such economic programming should be that the economic migration boom has created conditions for local development. Care should now be taken to use this boom as a kick-starter for other economic activities that take place outside of the irregular sphere and that are organised in an inclusive manner. Recent advances in programming that target the informal economy recognise that such development formulas ‘should factor in informal institutions and non-state actors’ and should avoid one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions ‘precisely because they discount the context-specific dynamics of fragility and the informal economy, and could thereby do more harm than good’.‍[81]

In addition, and based on insights from programmes on informal economies and private sector development,‍[82] the following practical recommendations apply:

Use the EUCAP Sahel training centre that is currently being constructed in Agadez as a post for economic advisors. These economic advisors should identify existing (informal) economic initiatives that can be worked with as a starting point. In this sense, one may think of identifying individuals that have used the money generated by the irregular migration industry to diversify their economic activities, create local businesses and employ others. This might provide important pointers as to the opportunities that exist for local development that could be supported through alternative funding schemes;

Work with local informality rather than trying to impose new formal structures. Formal structures ‘require a lot of prerequisites that fragile contexts tend to lack (infrastructure, formally trained staff, registration/certification systems etc.)’.‍[83] For their successful execution, economic development programmes would need to involve local, often informal, companies that are able to absorb labour forces. The process of selecting participants is crucial to ensure that these programmes do not become new corrupt, rent-seeking schemes. Selecting participants through a lottery is one way to ensure that this does not happen.

Invest in the organisation of both informal and formal businesses into associations, cooperatives or chambers. As such, they should be involved in public-private dialogue forums and business environment reforms (e.g. on formal and semi-formal taxation, business licences, cross-border customs etc.) that will ease doing business in the region.

Hegemony on a shoestring

Next to economic development, the irregular migration industry affects regional stability in northern Niger. The maintenance of this stability historically relied more on the outsourcing of this security to these local actors than on the central state’s ability to keep the internal peace. This strategy, also called “hegemony on a shoestring”, consists of the delegation of ‘power to local proxies instead of building institutions driven by values of impartial public action’.‍[84] In the case of northern Niger, these local proxies are mainly constituted by elites belonging to the Tuareg tribe who, together with leaders from the Tebu tribe, participated in large-scale revolts against the Nigerien states on several occasions (see Box 3 below for an introduction to these tribes and their role in the Nigerien political economy). The government’s solution has traditionally been to co-opt these elites in the state by providing them with spoils and a relative degree of regional autonomy.

Box 3
The Tebu and Tuareg

The Tuareg constitute 10 percent of the Nigerien population and are predominantly concentrated in the sparsely populated and impoverished northern region of country surrounding Arlit and Agadez. Their ties extend to neighbouring countries such as Libya, Algeria and Mali. The Tebu constitute a mere 0.4 percent of the population and are located in desert areas of north-eastern Niger. Their tribal ties extend to Libya, Chad and Sudan.‍[85] Due to these two tribes’ geographical spread, combined with their active forging of political agreements, they have generally not conflicted over control of the desert trade routes (although some potential for conflict will be discussed in more detail below).‍[86]

The same cannot be said about these tribes’ relationship with the Nigerien state, which has been troublesome to say the least. By the late 20th century, grievances caused by the tribes’ socio-economic marginalisation and violent repression reached a boiling point. The military experience that many young Tuareg men had gained from the early 1970s onwards under Qadhafi’s Islamic Legion, a Libyan-sponsored pan-Arabic paramilitary force, added further fuel to the fire. Between 1990-1995 and 2007-2009, the Nigerien state faced two periods of Tuareg rebellion, which also had a substantial Tebu component part.‍[87] The rebellions sprung from a desire to reach substantive goals, such as obtaining more political participation for the populations in the north and – even more importantly perhaps – gaining access to the uranium profits from the mines near Arlit.‍[88]

Nevertheless, more personal elitist goals shaped the trajectory of these rebellions and of the rebel movements as well. The state’s response to the 1990 rebellions consisted of peace deals that focused on military integration, regional economic development and decentralisation.‍[89] It addressed the tribal elites’ more personal goals through a strategy of co-opting rebel leaders into government structures. This strategy only proved effective, however, as long as it served all militant leaders’ interests. It could not prevent the intra-elite and intergenerational conflict within the Tuareg community that eventually resulted in the outbreak of a second rebellion between 2007 and 2009.‍[90] The solution to this rebellion proved even more pragmatic, as the government bought off the militants and once again co-opted their leaders through state appointments.‍[91]

Source: Molenaar, F. 2017. Irregular migration and human smuggling networks in Niger, CRU report, The Hague, Clingendael.

With the fall of Qadhafi in 2011, the rapid outbreak of rebellion in Mali in 2012, terrorist attacks carried out by jihadist groups near the Malian and Algerian borders as well as by Boko Haram in the south, maintenance of internal security and unity became the Nigerien government’s core priority. For President Issoufou, elected in 2011, this resulted in the continuation of co-optation practices. Keeping the tribal elites close has proven crucial to the maintenance of stability in the north. By extension, the north has thereby come under the control of authorities that are either implicated themselves in illicit cross-border trade or that turn a blind eye to such activities to maintain local order.‍[92] Human smuggling is particularly relevant in this hegemony-on-a-shoestring model of governance, as this industry’s profits now exceed those of narcotics and weapons smuggling by far, turning smuggling proceeds not only into an important economic but likely an important political tool as well.‍[93]

Despite its name, the hegemony-on-a-shoestring strategy creates substantial conflict risks. Current developments in the region show that the groups that control the human smuggling trade have been empowered by the increase in smuggling proceeds. This is especially the case for the Tebu, which control the Libyan border crossing and the territory surrounding the smuggling route to Sebha. In Agadez, Tebu smugglers’ wealth and swagger have heightened tensions with the Tuareg.‍[94] At the same time, both tribes also experience internal frictions between their traditional leaderships and up-and-coming younger generations that have returned from Libya to Niger on the tails of the human smuggling industry and that feel that their power on the ground is not reflected in the voice they have within their tribes.‍[95] Combined with recent reports of weapons being smuggled back from Libya into Niger,‍[96] these developments indicate that – in the case of northern Niger – conflict fuelled by migratory proceeds is not an unlikely scenario.

EU policies targeting local security forces, such as by providing capacity building which has culminated in the construction of a EUCAP Sahel training centre in Agadez, may further contribute to such inter- or intra-tribal conflict. To understand this, it should be noted that state neglect affects not only the local populations living in North Niger; it extends also to the security forces that operate in the region. The salaries paid to security personnel are low and a substantial part of the military budget appointed to the troops stationed in the north to buy fuel, spare parts and food disappears in the pockets of corrupt officials in the capital.‍[97] As a result, the armed forces rely on money made through more illicit means, be it the taxation of illicit trade and smuggling routes or even their active involvement in such activities, to supplement their income and to keep their bases running.‍[98]

This extractive practice is facilitated by the fact that human smugglers often join official transport convoys and/or travel in groups to mitigate the risk of being attacked by the armed bandits that roam the region.‍[99] The clustering of irregular migrants in groups allows security forces and local public officials to tax groups of migrants arbitrarily along the route. It has even been stated that ‘travel within the country depends on the good will of state security forces’.‍[100] The practice of taxing migrants is so rampant that reports even indicate that migrants receive receipts when paying the authorities a municipal tax, checkpoint fee and/or border bribe.‍[101] The profits to be made here are such that the different sets of security forces, such as the police, gendarmerie and army, have also been reported to conflict over the division of migratory proceeds. In at least one case, this resulted in the mayor of Dirkou, a desert relay town, adopting a formal decree that institutionalised the distribution of migrant taxes among these three sets of security forces.‍[102]

Regardless of these relationships between irregular migration and security forces, part of the current EU and UNODC policies focus on improving the strength of securitised approaches to human smuggling. Moving beyond questions of whether these forces are reliable partners to work with in the fight against irregular migration – due to their strong involvement in this industry – some destabilising effects of these policies have already been identified in Agadez. Firstly, police forces have started rounding up human smugglers and ghetto leaders, resulting in the arrest of 47 individuals since the adoption of the 2015 anti-smuggling law. Local authorities did not possess sufficient capacity, however, to deal with the legal implications of these arrests. As a consequence, smugglers have been thrown in jail without any charges and/or sentencing.‍[103] This clearly violates principles of rule of law and human rights.

Secondly, the arrests that have been made, as well as the 67 vehicles that have been seized, form part of a campaign that targets one sub-set of smugglers only: the Tebu. This should come as little surprise given that the Agadez police fall under the local structure of government, which is headed by Tuareg elites.‍[104] The securitised anti-smuggling approach thereby fails to take into account existing inter-tribal rivalries and power struggles, which – as discussed above – have only been exacerbated by recent increases in irregular migration and smuggling proceeds. The risks this generates for local stability are very real. Indeed, police forces had to transfer the seized 4x4s to an army compound as the local Tebu population threatened to overrun and burn down the police station where these vehicles were impounded.‍[105]

Figure 5
The co-opted route’s political dynamics
The co-opted route’s political dynamics

Source: Molenaar, F. 2017. Irregular migration and human smuggling networks in Niger, CRU report, The Hague, Clingendael.

Policy recommendation 3: invest in conflict-sensitive institution building

From the above, it follows that the irregular migration industry contributes to stability and instability in the Agadez region in complex ways. It supports a booming industry that adds to people’s livelihoods (stabilising factor), but this economic development is not necessarily inclusive and has the potential to pit newly empowered tribes or tribal factions against one another (destabilising factor). The securitised measures that are currently being implemented in the region run roughshod over these local interests and their implementation is insensitive to local conflict dynamics. They thus run the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the state, which – as the previous sections have shown – is already precarious to begin with, and thereby sow the seeds for conflict-driven migration. More importantly, and as the Libyan case discussed below outlines in detail, regional stability is a prerequisite for being able to work with local partners in developing migration policies in the region.

This is not to say that nothing can be done. The current focus on migration means that external momentum has been created and resources have been made available to instigate a positive change in one of the world’s most neglected regions. Thoroughly designed migration policies could contribute to – rather than undermine – livelihoods and higher quality institutions, thereby addressing some of the root causes of migration from within. To this end, current migration policies could benefit from insights from security sector reform programmes. At the very least, migration measures should be undertaken in lockstep with existing capacity-building programmes, while being calibrated in terms of their objectives and demands on institutions. In addition, security programmes should be informed by political economy analysis type assessments to ensure that they are designed in a conflict- and politically sensitive manner.

Based on insights from security sector reform programmes,‍[106] the following practical recommendations apply:

Use the EUCAP Sahel training centre that is currently being constructed in Agadez as a post for political advisors. These political advisors should continuously map the actors on the ground: who are the main authority figures, how do they relate to other authority figures, how do they finance their activities and to what extent are they engaged in the human smuggling trade. Such a mapping allows identification of the most benign partners to train but would also ensure that collaborative efforts are designed in a conflict-sensitive manner;

The political advisors should ensure that an awareness of political dynamics and the need to work in a conflict-sensitive manner are placed centre stage in the design of securitised approaches to migration. Programmes should be designed in a flexible manner to respond to political challenges on the ground and in a progressive manner to allow for smaller steps leading to bigger change. Where possible, they should include a community-based component, such as targeting local migration-related crime and violence, increasing legitimacy for the police as an institution. This is a crucial starting point to be able to engage local communities in the fight against the worst excesses of human smuggling and irregular migration;

Invest in maintaining a continuous political dialogue and structural leadership development. Programmes that target mid-level cadres, for example, are able to leave their mark on the next generation of leaders. Rather than merely focusing on arresting human smugglers, this more comprehensive approach to security sector reform in the region would lay the foundation for institutional growth and would thereby address one of the root causes of migration;

Invest in the ability of (customary) justice systems to address mistreatment of irregular migrants by local actors, organisations or even state agents. Tackling corruption starts with raising awareness of migrants’ rights and protecting them against abusive state and non-state officials. In many of the more remote geographic links of the irregular migration chain, the state, or its judiciary, holds little sway. Customary actors in all likelihood offer the best option for recourse, but they are not traditionally equipped to handle migration issues. In parallel, greater state capacity could be built in line with the logic set out above.

Respondents also recount that these measures occur in a sporadic – and likely even strategic – manner, such as surrounding a recent visit by the German Chancellor. Personal communication, Sahel migration expert, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 11 December; Personal interview, high-ranking magistrate with experience in investigating irregular migration, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 4 August; Personal interview, president of a local migrant NGO, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 3 August.
Scheele, J. (2012). ‘Garage or Caravanserail. Saharan connectivity in Al-Khalil, Northern Mali.’ In Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Scheele, J. and McDougall, J. (eds.), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 222-237.
Sandor, A. 2016. ‘4x4s’, in: Making Things International: Catalysts and Reactions, ed. Salter, M., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 338-356; Brachet, J. 2012. Op. cit.
Wehrey, F. 2014. Introduction to Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara, by Wehrey, F. and Boukhars, A., Washington, DC, Carnegie, 3.
Scheele, J. 2015. ‘Circulations marchandes au Sahara; entre licit et illicite’, Hérodote, 3(142), 143-162; Brachet, J. 2012. Op. cit. The evolution of smuggling and trafficking in the region thereby took on a staged logic of development, with each set of commodities ‘providing the platform for the next stage, and each in turn more profitable’. Shaw, M. and Reitano, T. 2014. The Political Economy of Trafficking and Trade in the Sahara: Instability and Opportunities, Sahara Knowledge Exchange Paper, Washington, DC, World Bank, 24.
Dambo, L. et al. 2014. ‘Insecurity and Generalized Political Crises: A Challenge for Tourism Development in the Aïr Massif Region of Niger’, Journal of Alpine Research, 102(1), 1-13.
In the present day and age, human smuggling has become a more specialised trade, not least because increases in border controls meant that trucks carrying other types of goods were often unwilling to carry migrants due to the risk of being fined or detained. Brachet, J. 2011. ‘The Blind Spot of Repression: Migration Policies and Human Survival in the Sahara’, in: Transnational Migration and Human Security, eds. Truong, T. and Gasper, D., Berlin, Springer; Id. 2012. Op. cit.
Brachet, J. 2012. Op. cit.: 253-254.
Frontex Risk Analysis Unit. 2015. Op. cit. Also see: Personal interview, president of a local NGO, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 6 August; Tinti, P. and Reitano, T. 2016. Op. cit. 18; Reitano, T. 2016. ‘Further Criminalizing People Smuggling Will not Work’, Refugees Deeply, op-ed posted 30 September 2016. link (accessed November 2016).
Personal interview, public official in the field of national security and stability, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 4 August.
Schoofs, S. 2015. Op. cit. 1,6.
Hoffmann, A. 2015. Employment Promotion in Contexts of Conflict, Fragility and Violence: Opportunities and Challenges for Peacebuilding, Bonn, GIZ; Hoffmann, A. 2014. Policy Review: International and Dutch Policies in the Field of Socio-Economic Development in Fragile Settings, IS Academy Occasional Paper No.10, Amsterdam, IS Academy, Wageningen UR and Clingendael; UNDP. 2013. Livelihoods and Economic Recovery. Enabling Local Ingenuity, Crisis Prevention and Recovery Report, New York, UNDP.
Hoffmann, A. 2014. Op. cit., 46.
Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Op. cit., 19.
The main ethnicities in Niger are Hausa (53.0%), Zarma-Sonrai (21.2%), Tuareg (10.4%), Fula (9.9%), Kanuri Manga (4.4%), Tubu (0.4%), Arab (0.3%), Gourmantche (0.3%), other (0.2%). Structure de la Population, Institut National de la Statistique, Niamey, 2012, link (accessed November 2016).
Tinti, P. and Reitano, T. op. cit. 151; Reitano, T. and Shaw, M. op. cit. As will be discussed in more detail below, this may change in the near future.
Also, after the fall of Qadhafi in 2011, the Nigerien state saw itself confronted by scores of experienced Tuareg militias returning home. Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Op. cit., 8–9.
The second rebellion occurred at a time when the president was renegotiating mining contracts and selling licenses to mining.
Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Op. cit., 9.
Guichaoua, Y. 2009. Op. cit., 13; Deycard, F. Op. cit.
Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Op. cit., 9.
Lacher, W. 2013. ‘Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region’, in: Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara, ed. Wehrey, F. and Boukhars, A., Washington, DC, Carnegie, 71.
Tinti, P. and Reitano, T. 2016. Op. cit., 148.
Personal communication, military expert, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 16 September; Personal communication, Sahel expert, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 11 December.
Personal communication, conflict mediator working in northern Niger, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 14 September 2016.
Frontex, 2015, op. cit., 23. IRIN News. 2013. ‘After Mali, Niger Battles to Secure its Borders’, IRIN News, 13 September. Although the government started to invest in the armed forces after the last Tuareg rebellion, it merely upgraded its military hardware and training. Idrissa, A. 2014. In a Neighborhood on Fire: ‘Security Governance’ in Niger, Sahel Research Group Working Paper No. 8, Gainesville, FL, University of Florida; International Crisis Group. 2013. Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?, Brussels, International Crisis Group.
As one high-level public official put it succinctly, “it is the smugglers that supply the fuel to military outposts.” Personal interview, high-ranking magistrate with experience in investigating irregular migration, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 4 August. Also see: Personal communication, military expert, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 16 September.
Brachet, J. 2011. Op. cit., 63. The same has been stated for contraband smuggling and the facilitation of irregular migration more generally. Lacher, W. 2013. Op. cit., 71.
Pellet, J. 2013. ‘Niger/Agadez, le prix pour migrer vers la Libye’, Occitan-Touareg Blog, contribution posted on 6 November 2013, link (accessed November 2016); Lewis, D. 2014. ‘Special Report: Despite deaths, crackdown, Sahara migrant trail thrives’, Reuters, 15 May, Politics section.
Personal interview, high-ranking magistrate with experience in investigating irregular migration, 2016. Niamey, Niger, 4 August.
Personal communication, Agadez migration expert, 2016. The Hague, the Netherlands, 1 November.