Niger is the main transit country for sub-Saharan migrants heading to Libya, and to a lesser extent to Algeria, then eventually to Europe. The IOM estimated at least 333,891 migrants transited through northern Niger towards Libya, and to some degree to Algeria, in 2016, making it a peak year. That same year, the EU gave Niger EUR 140 million to curb migration through its territory; however, Niamey indicated that would not be enough and requested EUR 1 billion. By May 2018, the amount had been increased, with the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (or ‘Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa’) allocating EUR 230 million to Niger, shared out among 11 projects largely focusing on migration. The EU also earmarked EUR 600 million for more classical development aid in Niger between 2016 and 2020.
For the Nigerien government, addressing EU demands created practical, legal and political challenges. Practically, the northern Niger desert and its border with Libya are difficult to control. In 2015, Niamey passed a new law on ‘illegal trafficking of migrants’, which involved several legal challenges. First, most migrants transiting through Niger originate from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), a 15-member-state zone allowing its 350,000 million residents freedom of movement – without visas – and trade across its borders. Niger itself is a member and clearly benefits from those freedoms. But the new law, as its Nigerien and other critics argue, de facto violates ECOWAS residents’ rights to enter and travel within Niger.
Further, given that there is practically no government in Libya and that the internationally recognised GNA has no control over the country’s south, not to mention the rest of the Libyan territory, there is no proper Libyan visa system or border control which could prevent those West African migrants from entering Libya. Although the destination of migrants crossing the Libyan border is not, in principle, Niger’s responsibility, the new law de facto prohibits exit from Niger, or ECOWAS, into Libya – thus opening another legal grey zone.
In a more practical sense, the criminalisation of both smugglers and migrants was at odds with the fact that transporting migrants was regarded as both a ‘normal’ and ‘licit’ occupation in northern Niger – and one that has contributed to economic development and stability in the region. Until implementation of the 2015 law began in mid-2016, migrants were travelling openly in buses legally operated by private companies, such as Rimbo, to and within Niger, as far as the Saharan transit town of Agadez. There, the difficulty of the roads across sandy plains obliged them to board the back of pickup trucks, which were operating openly and no less legally. Drivers were picking up their passengers from buses at Agadez autogare (bus station) then waiting for the weekly military escort allowing them, every Monday, to travel safely along the first stretch of the road to Puits Espoir (Hope’s Well), in the middle, or even as far as the Dirkou oasis, mid-way to Libya – a stretch of road long made dangerous by chronic banditry.
The majority of the passengers travel voluntarily on this road. In spite of this, the new 2015 law assimilated assistance to any foreigner (no matter if the person is from ECOWAS) to enter or exit Niger to ‘illegal trafficking of migrants’. Niger only began to enforce the law in mid-2016. The authorities targeted the transport of migrants from Agadez and onwards north, in spite of the fact the town lies 1,100km from the Libyan border. Between mid-2016 and April 2018, Niger’s security forces arrested more than 282 drivers, car owners, ‘coaxers’ (intermediaries) and ‘ghetto’ owners housing migrants, and confiscated 300 to 350 vehicles, in Agadez and on the road to Libya. During the first half of 2017, when enforcement of the new law was at its peak, nearly 10,000 foreigners were sent back to the border or expelled from Niger.
The implementation of the 2015 law had various impacts. While migrant flows north of Agadez appear to have decreased, it is difficult to estimate by how much. The number of (non-Nigerien) migrants entering Agadez reportedly had declined from 350 per day in 2016 to 60-120 a week in 2018. At the Seguedine (also known as Segedim or Sow) checkpoint mid-way between Dirkou and the Libyan border, the number of registered people travelling north dropped from 290,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017. The IOM estimated that migrant flows north of Agadez had gone down by 75%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate, as smugglers have stopped following the Monday convoy and taking the Agadez-Puits Espoir stretch of road.
Instead, smugglers now drive on various new or little-used roads. They avoid hubs such as Agadez and Dirkou, escaping government control and IOM counts in these places and along the normal route. The main new axes appear to skirt Agadez on all sides in order to reach and follow international borders, including the Niger-Algeria border and the Niger-Chad border, up to the border with Libya. Such itineraries are partly resurrecting older contraband itineraries used during the period of the UN air traffic embargo against Libya in the 1990s. They also partly merge with existing drug trafficking routes, reportedly occasioning new ties between drug traffickers and migrant smugglers, since both activities are now seen as similarly criminal. Migrant smugglers also now travel at night, because, as one of them explains, ‘the Nigerien army rests after 6 pm.’
Those more difficult roads have proved to be more dangerous for both migrants and drivers. As a result, the number of cars and drivers involved has declined, with the less experienced abandoning the activity and only the most seasoned ‘stuntmen’, as a smuggler called them, ready to take the risks. The migration business is thus said to have become ‘professionalised’, and its revenues concentrated in fewer hands. Chased by either security forces or bandits, drivers more frequently abandon their passengers. The IOM reported more than 1,000 abandoned migrants in the first eight months of 2017. According to the organisation’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, the number of migrants dead in the desert on the roads between Agadez and southern Libya or southern Algeria rose from 71 in 2015, to 95 in 2016, and to 427 in 2017 (see fig. 1).
During the first 18 months following the law becoming enforceable in mid-2016, 38 migrants died in the desert every month, versus 11 each month in the previous 18 months. Each year, the peak month for mortality appeared to be June: 40 migrants died in Niger in June 2015, 55 in June 2016, and more than 130 in June 2017. Further, in 2017, the peak period for mortality was not limited to June, with more than 70 migrants dead monthly in May, July and October (see fig. 2). In 2015, there had been very few serious incidents leading to more than ten casualties, while in 2017, 44 migrants reportedly died of dehydration near Dirkou on 31 May and 52 near Seguedine on 25 June.
Prices have risen alongside risks: between 2016 and 2017 the fee for the Agadez to Libya journey increased by at least a factor of two – commonly reaching EUR 400, and sometimes twice that amount. Bribes to security forces to get through checkpoints or escape control also reportedly doubled to reach XOF (West African franc) 300-600,000 (EUR 450-900) for the entire journey between Agadez and the Libyan border. New opportunities for corruption have also appeared. For instance, in June 2017, M.N., a migrant driver left Agadez for Libya in a convoy of four cars. As smugglers had already been arrested, he had taken some precautions, paying XOF 25,000 (EUR 38) to a member of the security forces who escorted the cars on a motorbike, at 3:00 AM, until they were out of town. But this bribe was not sufficient for the rest of the journey and the four vehicles were arrested, together with three others, mid-way between Agadez and Dirkou. The drivers were able to give the security forces XOF 1.5 million (EUR 2,300) each to escape.
Political, economic and security consequences, related to each other, were no less important than the new risks for migrants and smugglers. It was estimated that, prior to the implementation of the 2015 law, migration ‘offered direct jobs for more than 6,000 people’ in Agadez. By March 2017, the Agadez Regional Council counted around 3,000 vehicles used to transport migrants. It estimated that 100,000 people in the region (about a fifth of the population) were indirectly benefitting from this activity, and that 10,000 were directly making a living thanks to it – the figure was later reduced to a list of 6,565 individuals.
The implementation of the 2015 law took place in a context of economic hardship in northern Niger. The drop in global uranium prices led to the closure of mines and projects being abandoned. Several thousand miners were left jobless, some of whom reportedly became migrant smugglers. The lack of income-generating activities was aggravated later, in March 2017, by another government decision – to close the gold mines of Djado between Dirkou and Libya, which employed several thousand artisanal miners and drivers. Some Djado miners had been migrant smugglers, and others were migrants who stopped on their way to Libya, or gave up their plans to migrate, in the hope of finding gold.
‘We’re trying to persuade the youth to respect the law but we lack arguments,’ regretfully noted Agadez Regional Council President Mohamed Anacko in March 2017. The Council estimated that compensating for loss of income and creating alternative activities would cost more than EUR 400 million and proposed a EUR 30-million project to the EU. In June 2017, Nigerien authorities announced they were allocating EUR 250,000 for redeployment – shortly afterwards the amount doubled, fixing the amount that would supposedly enable a ‘smuggler’ to change activities to EUR 1,200-2,200, which was far from the monthly income of some migrant smugglers. The project can, at best, involve some 400 smugglers, far from the 5,110 officially listed as potential beneficiaries. Some of the smugglers, usually more discreet then publicly, expressed their dissatisfaction: ‘They think we’re losers!’, a driver called Alkassoum told La Nation newspaper.
Tensions also increased between the authorities and local Tuareg and Tubu communities. Over the last decade, the relative security and stability in northern Niger appeared to be due to a balance between three poles of power, all benefitting from migration: Tuareg and Tubu communities, including many former rebels, for which migration was a main income generating activity; security forces, taking bribes on migrants or smugglers; and civilian authorities, who rightly saw migration as a source of wealth not only for northern smugglers but also for the whole country, including private companies operating transnational bus lines or money transfer operators, whose owners are said to be among the main associates and funders of the ruling party. Migration also contributed to the coexistence of Tuareg and Tubu communities, who had to cooperate to cross each other’s territories, in spite of being in conflict within Libya. The new migration policy threatens to upset these fragile balances.
Crucially, a significant number of northern Niger’s migrant smugglers were former Tuareg rebels. After signing peace agreements in the late 1990s and the late 2000s, most of them had not been integrated into regular armed forces. With integration processes long delayed, successive governments had encouraged them to use their vehicles and their knowledge of desert roads to become migrant transporters. One of the rebel leaders recalls distributing his faction’s vehicles to groups of ten ex-combatants, each with a specific assignment. Other ex-combatants were in charge of managing official ‘departure points’ at Agadez and Arlit bus stations.
As a result, not only was this activity transparent and considered to be legal, it was also considered to be the result of a peace deal. Former rebels thus feel that the new law is a violation of the peace agreements they signed, and some have openly threatened to start a rebellion again. Incidentally, in late 2016, Adam Tcheke, a former Tubu rebel, briefly announced he was starting a new rebellion, and among his main requests was that the (mostly Tubu) jailed drivers of migrants be liberated. Although no bullet was fired, the rebellion threat was taken seriously by the authorities. The people of Agadez also continued to ask for the release of the detained drivers. In late 2016, reports also circulated that disgruntled Tubu youths were about to use force to recover about 100 confiscated cars. As a precaution, the cars were moved from Agadez police station to the safer military garrison.
By late 2017, the authorities, while presenting the new law as a success, appeared to take this local discontent into account. They reportedly stopped arresting smugglers and gradually released those detained. But they still refused to return confiscated vehicles – reportedly, unless the owners could pay bribes of XOF 1 to 1.5 million (EUR 1,500-2,300). In September 2017, most likely in the realisation that the Nigerien forces’ ability to curb flows was limited, Italy announced discussions with Niger on ‘military collaboration (…) about training and border control’. Then in January 2018, Rome announced the deployment of 470 troops to Madama – the last military post before the Libyan border, 80km south of it – where 150 French soldiers were already stationed. However, Italy was publicly rebuffed by Niamey, which might have foreseen that such a deployment against migrants would not be welcomed locally.
While Tubu and Tuareg smugglers’ threats of rebellion did not really materialise, at least on a large scale, all agree that the new migration policy provided strong arguments for those wanting to take up arms. Tuareg and Tubu communities saw migration policies as the ‘diktat of Europe, to which the Nigerien authorities obeyed to hit the jackpot’; they accused the government of diverting EU migration funding, including that earmarked for smugglers’ redeployment, and the military authorities of continuing to benefit from, and raise the amounts of, bribes. Since early 2017, there have been reports of migrant smugglers turning, as a result of the ban, to road banditry and drug and alcohol trafficking.
Nigerien authorities admit the new law has been responsible for an upsurge of banditry. Migrant smugglers reportedly began trafficking the synthetic opioid tramadol between Nigeria and Libya along new less-controlled migrant routes. Some also left Niger to join or re-join militias in Libya. Some had already been members of Libyan forces under Qaddafi and during the revolution, before being encouraged by their Nigerien relatives to turn to more peaceful migration activities. Since 2017, possibly a hundred Tuareg as well as Tubu migrant smugglers joined their respective ethnic militias in Libya, taking taxes on roads or fighting in community conflicts, or they became mercenaries for one of northern Libya’s rival powers. Possibly another hundred Tuareg migrant smugglers joined armed groups in Mali.
In Libya, the EU and EU member states largely saw the migration issue as too urgent to wait for the rebuilding of a functioning Libyan state, and decided to engage, directly and indirectly, with militia forces. Those forces included militias involved in migrant smuggling or trafficking, and were supposedly ready to stop and fight smuggling in exchange for financial support and political recognition. The possibility of such incentives also attracted some ethnic militias in the borderlands between Libya and Niger, and even contributed to the formation of a new armed group operating in this area. Like in northern Libya, it also raised the risk of new conflicts between pro- and anti-smuggling armed actors, in particular among Tubu forces largely controlling the Niger-Libya-Chad borderlands.
The Tubu (or Teda) community lives in northern Chad, north-eastern Niger and southern Libya. Tubu vehicle owners and drivers have long been involved in the transportation of migrants from Niger, and to a lesser extent from Chad, to Libya. This has been a major source of income for Nigerien Tubu of the Kawar oases, strategically positioned mid-way between Agadez and Fezzan. More recently, since 2011, it has also become a major activity for Libyan Tubu youths who obtained vehicles, legally or not, during or after the Libyan revolution. Among those youths are members, full time or part time, of Libyan Tubu militias. Some of those forces are led and composed of former goods and migrant smugglers, including Nigerien Tubu, with their good knowledge of the Libya-Niger border and past military experiences in Nigerien rebellions. In addition, Libyan Tubu militias, sometimes presenting themselves as official border guards, earned money by taxing migrants and migrant smugglers at checkpoints. Members of Libyan Tubu militias also remained directly involved in migrant smuggling as drivers and car owners, thus supplementing their militia salaries.
Other members of Libyan Tubu militias appear to have been involved in curbing the smuggling and expelling of migrants. This seems to have been the case for militias that were affiliated to one of northern Libya’s successive or rival authorities or were looking for such recognition and the funding that it attracts. At times, funding for southern Libya’s Tubu militias by northern Libya’s authorities reportedly included specific allocations to arrest, detain and deport migrants. It may have included European funding given to one of the successive Tripoli-based governments, which was then transferred to Tubu militias. Thus in 2012-13, the katiba shuhada Um-el-Araneb (battalion of the martyrs of Um-el-Araneb), one of the strongest Tubu militias, received funding from the Ali Zeidan government in Tripoli to intercept migrants.
In 2015-16, Italian officials promised six vehicles to another main Tubu militia, Barka Wardougou’s Dira’ Sahara (Sahara Shield), who controlled the strategic Tomou post on the Niger-Libya border; the vehicles were never delivered. Later in April 2017, Italian government mediation between Tubu and Awlad Suleiman representatives on their conflict in Sebha managed to merge that issue with that of migration, more crucial to Rome, and reportedly convinced the negotiators to commit to the formation of a multi-tribal ‘border guard’. On its side, Italy reportedly committed to funding the training and equipment of such a force, which led some Tubu to think Rome was ready to support Tubu militias. Some of the tribal representatives saw it as an opportunity to obtain international recognition and funding, but reportedly lost local support because of their commitment to such a project. Others appeared more sceptical, fearing it could create intra-Tubu fighting between the so-called border guards and other militias involved in smuggling.
In September 2017, Italy announced it was ready to send 100 troops to the Niger-Libya border to train Libyan border guards. Since then, Rome seemed to have become more cautious, after increasing media coverage of abuses against migrants in Libya, as well as after warnings by the GNA, Niger and Chad against support of Tubu militias. However, in July 2018, Italy signed a new agreement with the GNA, again referring to the 2008 Qaddafi-Berlusconi Friendship Treaty. The new deal reportedly allows Rome to deploy troops in southern Libya.
In Niger, as mentioned above, the Tubu community appeared essentially hostile to the new anti-smuggling government policy. Yet it was also one of the reasons why, in mid-2017, Tubu leader Barka Sidimi took up arms. Unlike his former comrade Adam Tcheke (see above), Sidimi was not asking for the release of arrested smugglers. Rather he presented himself as a border force against migrant smuggling, obviously in the hope of obtaining European funding.
It appeared an odd position. Barka Sidimi had himself been a migrant smuggler, notably in 2009-10, at the time crossing between Niger and Libya through Wour in Chadian Tibesti. Prior to this in the 1990s, he had been, like Adam Tcheke, a leader of the Nigerien Tubu rebellion, known as the Forces armées révolutionnaires du Sahara (FARS, Sahara’s Revolutionary Armed Forces), under Barka Wardougou. In the 2000s, while the FARS had signed a peace agreement with the Nigerien government, Sidimi had recreated an armed group against both Niger and Libya. He was then involved in attacks against drug traffickers in Niger as well as in a carjacking attempt against a Chinese oil project in Libya. Because of the latter, Qaddafi sentenced him to having a hand and a foot cut off.
In spite of this, in 2011, Barka Sidimi accepted Qaddafi’s money to recruit a force to fight on his side. But because other Tubu leaders such as Barka Wardougou gradually sided with the revolution, and because Sidimi’s men were in part Tuareg who were increasingly hostile to the Tubu, he gave up fighting and went back to Niger. It seems he was not involved in armed activities between 2011 and 2017. Unlike other Nigerien Tubu, he did not mobilise to fight Tuareg and Awlad Suleiman forces in Ubari and Sebha, respectively. In 2014, Sidimi was appointed, like other former rebels before him, as an adviser to Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, a Tuareg himself. In early 2017, he was presiding over a Tubu committee of ‘wise men’ in Agadez, one of several committees with the stated objective of opposing authorities’ actions ‘perturbating trade’ and migrant smuggling.
It was thus a surprise for many when he recreated an armed group under the name Saqur Sahara (‘Sahara Falcons’) with a stated anti-smuggling agenda. Another part of his agenda was more popular – fighting against road bandits, not the least Chadian and Sudanese Zaghawa, who were increasingly active in the Niger-Libya borderlands. Those foreign bandits had also attacked drug traffickers and then been hired by them as escorts, replacing older Tubu escorts, which reportedly motivated some Tubu traffickers and combatants to support Sidimi. Thanks to this, he managed to recruit a force, including disgruntled migrant smugglers. He reportedly promised to enrol 500 youths, were he to obtain sufficient support. Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called ‘Libyan National Army’ controlling most of eastern Libya, allegedly recognised the new force and promised vehicles.
With 10 to 20 vehicles, Sidimi positioned himself in Libya near the border and arrested some foreigners, reportedly including in September 2017 three cars of possibly Chadian and Sudanese Zaghawa and Arab bandits. There were rumours that Sidimi has been offered Italian funding either through the intermediary of Zintan brigades, or through Chad, that he visited in January 2018. Contact between Sidimi’s representatives and the EU also took place, mostly in late 2017. Sidimi’s representatives notably argued, as other Libyan Tubu militias had done before, that migrants were bringing diseases such as AIDS and Ebola to Libya and Europe. In October, Sidimi reportedly requested EUR 3 million a year to finance his militia, but with no result.
All in all, Sidimi’s story appears to be one of an old Tubu rebel who, failing to position himself in any post-Qaddafi new Libyan Tubu militias, tried to regain a leading role at the Niger-Libya border. For this, he instrumentalised the migration issue in the hope of obtaining Europe’s sponsorship. Yet this strategy got Sidimi into trouble with the larger Tubu community.
In 2017, other, more important, Libyan Tubu militia leaders also met with EU officials to discuss collaboration, but they were reportedly more cautious about engaging with the anti-migration agenda. Between 2012 and 2015, some of us ‘blocked the migrants in order to show we were serving the [Libyan] state,’ one of them explained. ‘But since 2015, because of the conflicts between communities in southern Libya, we lost hope in the Libyan state and fight for the [Tubu] community. We need a stable state before we can fight against migration.” Another Tubu militia leader stated: ‘Migrant smugglers are our brothers, we can’t block them or force them to stop. We can only block those who are not Tubu.’
Sidimi’s anti-migration agenda, and the fact that he pretended to close the border and began to tax even Tubu smugglers, made him unpopular within his own community. As Tubu leaders had warned over Italian anti-migration attempts, Sidimi’s rise threatened to create a conflict between Tubu forces. In early 2018, existing Tubu militias formed a coalition under the name Hodh Murzuq (‘Murzuq Basin’) and deployed forces in the main smuggling hub of Um-el-Araneb, preventing – without violence – the Sahara Falcons from creating a checkpoint. Later, another Tubu militia reportedly prevented Sidimi from deploying his forces on the Chad-Libya border. Even if Sidimi did not benefit from European funding, Europe’s apparent readiness to engage with militias or non-state armed groups to address migration and smuggling triggered competition between Tubu militias, which nearly led to violent conflict.
It is likely that European policies against migrants, in Niger, Chad or Libya, will continue encouraging some Tubu politicians and militia leaders, and even Chadian rebels based in Libya, to profess an anti-smuggling agenda in order to get European political and financial support. It is also likely that those leaders are in fact unwilling or unable to implement such an agenda, or if they try to do so, will be in conflict with other Tubu forces. The Tubu community is already deeply divided, but appears to remain eager to avoid internal conflicts, not the least because it is keen to remain united in the context of continuous conflicts with other communities in southern Libya. Until now, Tubu efforts to avoid violence among themselves have prevented conflicts between pro- and anti-smuggling Tubu forces. But policies against smuggling that are not conflict-sensitive may generate such conflicts in the future.