The Agadez economy was severely affected by measures taken since 2016. The interconnectedness of the migration business with many parts of the economic fabric of the region meant that the economic impact was felt both by human smugglers, including drivers and ghetto operators, and by sectors as diverse as local markets, taxi drivers, money transfer agencies and restaurants. Further aggravating the situation was the impact on supply chains of other goods affected by increased checkpoints and transaction costs. While the economic downturn did provide some jobs for those involved in the migration business as drivers for the increasingly present international actors, and while efforts were made to mitigate the impact of the measures taken, they fell short of even coming close to the secure livelihoods that the migration business offered prior the implementation of Law 2015-36.
From 1990s, the Nigerien government encouraged young Tuaregs to engage in the transport of people as a livelihood activity. It facilitated such activities by issuing permits and licences. The facilitation of travel across the desert has since then been an integral part of northern Niger’s economy, in part fuelled by the longstanding connectivity patterns described above. Smuggling in northern Niger used to be seen as a legal activity. The distinction between the smuggling of goods or the smuggling of people is not as clear cut in local perceptions as it is in international policymaking. Whether a person transports goods or people did not matter up until 2015 – both were considered cargo. The criminalisation of a specific type of smuggling, namely human smuggling, meant that other parts of the industry were left untouched.
Estimates suggest that some 6,000 people were active in the smuggling business in Agadez prior to its criminalisation. A large number of smugglers had to abandon their work and were expecting to receive EU funds through a reconversion plan that would integrate them into the Agadez economy. The plan was an EU-funded attempt to reinvigorate the economy by providing seed funding for actors in the migration industry. The initiative was marred with problems in the selection of beneficiaries – most of whom appeared to have links to local authorities and many of whom did not have an established link with the migration industry – and proved far too little to shift the slacking local economy back into gear.
As a consequence, there seems to be widespread agreement among respondents in Agadez that the plan has had minimal impact. Local authorities describe a significant level of discontent about the lack of funds made available by the EU for the so-called reconversion. While such complaints in the early days still voiced some hope about a next phase of the plan that would bring additional funding, they have become much harsher as time went by. There is some general recognition now that there will be no more further programming, and several interviewees have voiced their disappointment with what they call broken promises.
While it is very hard to estimate the number of smugglers who are currently active in the region, it is clear that the activity continues in part, albeit by using harder-to-access roads, thereby rendering the vehicle at higher risk of breaking down or running out of fuel, and turning the crossing of the Ténéré into a (more) perilous undertaking. Some migrant smugglers still enjoy relative freedom of operation because of their political connections and ability to pay off security forces along the route. Ghettos or transit houses where migrants wait for onward travel remain active, albeit no longer in the same form they once took in the city of Agadez. While previously ghettos were large spaces where up to 100 migrants could reside at the same time, they have became small houses for five to ten migrants. Local police are often aware of the presence of such ghettos and levy illegal taxes on the migrants. This practice continues until this day, with at least 30 ghettos still active in the city.
Formally determining the number of people employed in the different sectors of both the formal and the informal economy of Niger’s north is not possible in the absence of disaggregated data. In general, respondents indicate that a large number of people, particularly young people, are or have been unemployed for a significant amount of time. While the people smuggling business is still somewhat active, many actors have been driven out and have explored alternative livelihood options in Niger’s north. New economic opportunities have emerged in the region, often revolving around the seasonal mobility patterns that have characterised the region since precolonial times.
Some of the young people who previously worked in the migration business decided to leave once their income from those activities fell away. Some left for Libya in search of work as seasonal labourers or to join rebel groups in the country’s civil war. Much like former pastoralists turned to mobility as a coping strategy when faced with droughts in the 1970s, this seems to suggest that mobility remains a key element of coping strategies in the region. Mobility can thus be seen as a form of livelihood diversification inherent to the economy of the north.
Another opportunity for seasonal or short-term migration that has become attractive in the region – mostly to young men – is gold mining. Gold was discovered in northern Niger in 2014 and mining formally started in the spring of that year. The gold deposit strip running through the Central Sahel has exposed several mineral-rich deposits in northern Niger as well as in the southern regions of the country. Crisis Group estimates that about 300,000 people are employed in the artisanal mining sector in Niger and production is estimated at 10 to 15 tonnes per year. The main sites in the north are Djado, Tchibarakaten, Amzigar, Tabelot and Goffat. The Djado gold mines attracted a high number of fortune seekers after promising early discoveries, but was subsequently closed due to authorities being fearful of the involvement of armed foreign miners, mostly from Chad. The site had started to draw defected soldiers from Chad’s ongoing campaign against Boko Haram and provoked concern from N’Djamena and Algiers who in turn pressured Niamey. In March 2017, between 25,000 and 50,000 men were evacuated from Djado by the Nigerien army. There have been rumours about concessions being handed out to foreign mining companies but those have yet to materialise.
While the site is officially closed, small-scale mining continues with the implicit approval of local defence forces. The Tchibarakaten gold mine is currently active and host to a large number of young miners that hope to find their fortunes on the site close to the Algerian border. Some have left in the hope of returning rich but have lost all their money; others have become rich. The Nigerien army provides armed escorts between Agadez and the sites for miners. There is some level of formal organisation through the establishment of local miners’ committees, further signalling the backing of local authorities for mining activities. Such organisation and the security provided by the state does not, however, prevent mining activities from turning into incidents.
In addition to migrant smuggling and gold mining, the Agadez region traditionally serves as a transit point for various types of illicit goods such as counterfeit cigarettes, drugs and, to a lesser extent, arms. Traffickers have close ties with local elites who implicitly tolerate their activities, partly as a means to keep the north pacified. Grey economies, while risky in the longer term, can act as a social safety valve, to help integrate former rebels or neutralise the risk of community polarisation. While Law 2015-36 and the ensuing measures described above targeted people smuggling specifically, it did nothing to counter other illicit flows passing through the north. In recent years, particularly since 2016, tensions between traffickers are on the rise. Violent confrontations between traffickers remain relatively uncommon but can occur, such as an incident in June 2020 near the Salvador Pass, where at least ten people were killed. The lack of conflict-sensitive migration policies has also led to increased grievances among the Tebu ethnic community, who feel disproportionally targeted by such policies. As the Tebu-Tuareg divide also runs along other smuggling routes, the routes are often divided between groups based on ethnic divisions. However, creating grievances among one ethnic group as collateral damage due to migration policies is a risky strategy.
Small-scale businesses make up a significant part of the Agadez economy and have been badly hit by the overall decline of the Agadez economy since 2016 after the implementation of repressive migration policies. Some sectors, especially those providing services to migrants, have been particularly hard hit. Many residents formally employed in the sector now try to find new ways to make ends meet. A group of women formerly employed in the restaurant businesses in Agadez said they try to make a living by setting up microbusinesses such as grilling and reselling peanuts, which generates very little income. Young respondents in a focus group discussion in Agadez indicated that many young people are disillusioned and increasingly frustrated by the lack of jobs and that many had left town in search for opportunities in other, mostly Nigérien, cities. Such examples indicate that in relative terms those previously employed in the migration sector now struggle to make ends meet and confirm findings from earlier studies that unemployment and losses in income have significantly risen since 2016.
In addition to residents struggling to find employment, existing businesses are also under strain. Entrepreneurs interviewed in Agadez and Arlit indicate that job creation has been slowing down and scaling up the production of agricultural produce or adding value to it remains an issue. In addition, many respondents point to more structural issues such as a lack of proper infrastructure, which negatively affects the overall business climate. Road infrastructure, and electricity and water provision are key choking points for many residents. Construction of an EU- and AFD-funded hybrid photovoltaic and thermal power plant is underway and parts of the Tahoua-Arlit road are being renovated. But the results of these infrastructure upgrades will be felt only several years after the economic shock of 2016, while seasonal floods continue to damage existing stretches of road on a yearly basis.
Some sectors have managed to overcome the challenging business climate. Tuareg craftsmen who managed to sell some of their products to tourists in the early 2000s indicate that since the decline of the tourism industry they have started to diversify their markets. These days, most of the jewellery is exported to coastal countries in the subregion where products can be sold to tourists. In addition, export to North African countries, notably Morocco, and to Europe represents a significant part of their business these days. While the Covid-19 outbreak has significantly reduced the ability to export products abroad, especially to Europe, the example does show the remarkable flexibility with which the businesses have adapted to hardships in the past, building on transnational connections. In addition to craftsmanship, the small-scale production of fruit and vegetables has fared particularly well in recent years and is described as flourishing. Crops vary according to the season, with oranges from the Air being exported nationwide. Onion production is booming and onions are exported to several West African countries. While onion production is a notable exception due to its export potential, even respondents of relatively successful businesses indicate that on the whole the market is tough. Apart from demand having fallen, a host of practical concerns also plague owners of small businesses. Import arrangements for the construction sector, for instance, are cumbersome and need to take into account additional import costs at informal border crossings with Algeria or Nigeria. An additional concern for food exporters is the worsening road infrastructure in the north, which can lead to harvests rotting before they reach the market.
While such examples lead central government representatives to stress that the economic situation is not too bad at the moment, respondents indicated an overall level of dissatisfaction with the economic situation. An economic decline against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation and population growth in Saharan cities gives cause for concern. Cities in Niger’s north have changed dramatically in recent years under the impetus of large migration flows passing through them. Respondents indicate a feeling of nostalgia towards the times when customers, in the form of migrants passing through, were many and business was good. Stimulating small businesses and entrepreneurial spirit, often the focus of international programming under the guise of ‘income-generating activities’ in a worsening economic climate has had limited success. The recent outbreak of Covid-19 is the latest shock to be borne by Agadez population. As noted by one district chief, for now the economic grievances resulting from the pandemic have nearly eliminated prior dissatisfaction related to migration, as residents are faced with adapting to yet another shock to the socio-economic equilibrium.
This situation of economic downturn has had a direct impact on the resilience of local households. Households use different coping strategies to deal with economic shocks, ranging from non-erosive to erosive. The latter are considered harmful in the longer term, as their long-term use signals failed coping, and diminishes the chances for revived economic activity over time. Non-erosive coping strategies observed among respondents include migration to neighbouring countries or to mining sites described above, as well as moving into other sectors of the economy, such as fruit and vegetable farming.
Respondents noted frequent use of corrosive coping mechanisms, such as cutting back on non-essential expenses, selling productive assets such as livestock, land or a house. Investment in land and houses was a proven strategy for many involved in the migration business. Because of the lack of a significant economic alternative many now say they will be forced to sell their land and live in makeshift constructions. Others have sold their house but can pay rent and continue living in it.
Previous research by Clingendael illustrates how the implementation of Law 2015-36 has pitted residents of Agadez against local authorities. Data collected in 2017 highlights that residents of Agadez do not only blame the detrimental effects of Law 2015-36 on distant governance actors such as the European Union or the government in Niamey, but also on municipal governance actors. This has put local authorities in a difficult position where they must cope with executive pressure from Niamey to contain migration movements, and also bottom-up pressure from a frustrated electorate. Clingendael focus group discussions conducted in May 2019 indicate that this bottom-up pressure continues. In particular, individuals formerly employed in the smuggling and restaurant sector indicated limited contact and general dissatisfaction with elected authorities, which they perceive as accessible only to those belonging to favoured groups.
While such effects and discontent with elected and executive governance providers have been documented previously, much less attention has been given to the effects on traditional authorities. As elsewhere in the Sahel, traditional authority positions constitute the first level of governance in Niger, and district chiefs are often the first entry point to government for many citizens. In the city of Agadez, this puts district chiefs in a key position to mitigate and manage the discontent of a population affected by the socio-economic impact of central government migration policies described in the first section of this report.
Traditional governance positions in Agadez follow a hierarchical order. District chiefs, called Gonto, are organised under the authority of the Sultan, the highest position of traditional authority, who oversees their activities including in terms of tax collection and conflict mediation. The role of traditional authorities as part of the formal state administration was refined in law in 2010 and 2015, entitling them to state protection and to financial compensation. While the position of district chiefs is traditionally occupied by men, female traditional authorities called Tambaras act as their counterpart. Just as each Gonto is responsible for one district, a Tambara is similarly designated a district and works in cooperation with the Gonto. A Tambara is led by a spokeswoman called Magajiah – typically the oldest Tambara among them. In cooperation with the Gonto, the Magajiah determines the succession of another Tambara. The responsibilities of female traditional authorities are defined by the Sultan. In case of conflict, they act just like the district chiefs as the Sultan’s eyes and ears: ‘We transfer all difficulties, all problems that are presented to us to the Sultan and it is there that a solution is found.’
Since traditional authorities are related to the central state, through their connection with the Ministry of the Interior, they are involved in carrying out state policies locally. This dynamic became apparent when traditional authorities helped carrying out migration policies at the local level. In the early days after the implementation of Law 2015-36, district chiefs were asked to identify ghettos or smugglers in their neighbourhoods to guide intervention. They were also engaged is sensitisation efforts in their communities about the implementation of the Law.
Such involvement in the rollout of migration control measures seems to have had an impact on their positioning within society. Trust levels measured by Afrobarometer show a clear decline in the trustworthiness of traditional authorities as perceived by the local population. According to data collected in 2014/15, 83 percent of respondents indicated high trust levels towards traditional authorities. In 2016/18, this number had dropped to 66 percent. This seems to be in line with focus group discussions conducted in 2019. Youths were especially critical in their depictions of traditional authorities, describing the Sultan as being “behind the government” and “not understanding of the population”, while district chiefs were described as unavailable to address their problems.
At the same time, when compared to other local governance providers, and as elsewhere in the Sahel, traditional authorities still figure significantly higher in trust rankings. While traditional actors are not accountable to an electorate, they are generally perceived as more legitimate than their elected or appointed governance counterparts at municipal or regional level. Even taking into account their sharp loss of trustworthiness, Afrobarometer data in data rounds of both 2014/15 and 2016/18 confirm them to be more trustworthy than their elected counterparts. In addition, district chiefs were cited as a possible source of assistance for citizens in need more than twice as often as their elected counterparts.
It should be noted that the surveyed reduction in trust levels in Agadez does not necessarily point to a clear causal relationship between the implementation of Law 2015-36 and the legitimacy of traditional authorities. Rather than being a unique characteristic of Agadez, data from other regions in crisis or conflict across Niger denote a similar reduction in the trustworthiness of traditional authorities. It is important to bear in mind that frustrations with and negative perceptions of representatives of the traditional administration are more illustrative of their embeddedness in both state administration and local politics. As an intermediary institution, traditional authorities play a role in asserting the status quo, one in which participants of youth focus groups did not see themselves sufficiently represented. While they continue to be an entry point to the world of government, the socio-economic impact of Law 2015-36 could mean they have very limited scope to mitigate its consequences for local populations.
Besides a reduction in trust another dynamic became apparent whilst interviewing traditional authorities themselves. Asked about the governance provider that residents most often turn to, many district chiefs indicated international organisations with programmes in Agadez. One district chief stated, ‘The population most often turns to international organisations, especially IOM.’ A similar argument was made by another district chief who explained that ‘populations have more confidence in the international community, in particular IOM’. These quotes indicate the extent to which external actors, including organisations with a primarily migration focused mandate, are increasingly seen as key governance actors.
The bigger picture that emerges is the overall positioning of traditional authorities within the governance system of Niger. As traditional actors are appointed by the executive, their formalisation into the Nigerien governance system has aligned them with central authorities. This formalisation has been described as both an ‘alliance’ and an ‘appropriation’, depending on who profits from these arrangements. Recent case studies from Mali and Niger demonstrate how the integration into the state governance system in the process of democratisation has limited the role and responsibilities of traditional authorities. This has exposed traditional authorities to state pressures that ultimately risk undermining their locally embedded legitimacy, as the example of Agadez described above illustrates.
As participants in the effort to centralise local administration, traditional authorities have thus become implicated in state governance. As authorities subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, their space to criticise policies or political representatives is effectively minimised, and they are tasked with encouraging citizens to comply with state policies which risks uprooting their legitimacy. In addition, and although they occupy a politically neutral position as part of the central administration, traditional authorities are often aligned informally to political parties – raising their role as influencers during elections. In cases where a lower-ranking traditional leader supports a different political party then a traditional leader of a higher echelon of power, traditional authorities can be discharged. This highlights the fact that their position – while formally neutral state agents – is de facto politicised both within the traditional administration and in its interactions with other governance providers.
In addition to this process of formalization and at times politicisation, the number of mandates available for traditional authorities has gone up rapidly in recent years. As noted by one participant, positions of traditional authorities have multiplied in municipalities of Agadez region, a process considered to be undermining the hereditary legitimacy they hold. This proliferation of chieftaincies – more a concern for traditional authorities above the position of district chief, such as village chief – has also been observed in other regions of Niger. The creation of a new traditional authority position formally takes place once a village district grows to a large enough size that allows it to form its own village. In these cases, the creation of traditional authority can provide a channel for previously excluded groups to ensure their representation, a process that older chiefs consider to be a devaluation of the hereditary chief position. At the same time, the creation of a new position can be susceptible to political influence and monetary resources. As expressed by an interviewee, describing the observed process in a municipality of Agadez region, ‘they are created for political issues, for issues of electoral interest (…) it's cacophony’.
While these governance dynamics in Agadez might be perceived as marginal microdynamics, they illustrate a wider dynamic of local governance in Niger, in which the involvement of local populations remains limited. This holds true for other local authorities as well, such as municipally elected officials. Since 2016, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) has consecutively postponed municipal elections, invoking the requirement for a biometric electoral register. As a consequence, the government has since extended the mandates of local elected authorities by six months. Opposition movements have criticised this circumvention of municipal electorates as a move that calls into question the very idea of decentralisation. Ahead of presidential elections later in 2020, the latest postponement of municipal elections in July moved municipal elections originally scheduled for November to 13 December 2020, drawing criticism from both opposition and government parties. In this context of repeatedly postponed municipal elections, legislative positions such as those of the mayor have been regularly deposed by ministerial decree and been replaced by a delegated administrator – as last happened in June 2019 in Agadez and other municipalities.
Taken together, such issues related to different levels of government demonstrate the predominance of a hierarchical and centralised governance model in which the citizens of Agadez have a limited possibility of holding both traditional as well as elected authorities accountable for state policies. Amid the political limitations of decentralisation, the migration control measures could be considered a magnifier of already weak local governance authorities. While the decentralisation process had already stalled prior to 2016, the political limitations of decentralisation have become most apparent under former Interior Minister Bazoum – in office 2016-2020. Since 2016, the decentralisation of power – as much a prerogative of the Ministry of Interior as migration governance – has taken a backseat. While first competences for basic services were formally transferred to the municipal level in 2017, the continued postponement of local elections and their replacement by ministerial degree is illustrative of the central level’s refusal to free up local power.
While analysing the effects of migration policies on governance providers in Agadez, it is important to consider the broader dynamics around traditional authorities into account. Their complex positioning as the first governance level for local residents and as representatives of the central administration puts them in a delicate situation. The attributing of migration governance to traditional authorities, as described above, underlines the dangerous repercussions that this intermediary role between central state authorities and local populations can hold for them. While their formalisation at once can contribute to enhanced legitimacy of state authorities, the example of migration governance in Agadez seems to demonstrate that the way traditional authorities are perceived can similarly be impacted by the actions of authorities at the central level. This precarious position of traditional authorities in society underlines the need for external programme planners to tread carefully when involving traditional authorities in projects with a migration focus.
As a legacy of previous Tuareg rebellions in Niger’s north, governance actors have adopted several mechanisms to mediate conflict and ensure stability in the region. This applies both to trafficking management strategies and to discontent management strategies employed by both regional and local elites.
At regional level, both the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP) and the regional council play a key role in the management of discontent. Originally set up to support implementation of the 1990s peace agreements with a particular focus on the Agadez region following two Tuareg rebellions in the last three decades, the HACP has since extended its role, acting as a central institution to mitigate grievances. To this extent, their role includes not only early warning and crisis management, but also gives them a central place in the construction and preservation of social peace. For instance, in the Mali-Niger border region the HACP played an essential role in bridging the widening gap between aggrieved communities in Tillabery region and the state. In Agadez, the HACP is a key institution of a preventive approach to instability and security, through community-centred mediation and dialogue formats.
The Regional Peace Committee constitutes an additional regional initiative to manage discontent. Headed by the president of the regional council, Mohamed Anacko, the body combines all sensitisation efforts in the region by bringing together traditional and religious authorities, state representatives and members of civil society. One of its initiatives is the ‘Taghlamt N’Alkher’, the Peace Caravan, which organises meetings to sensitise communities on issues such as the circulation of weapons, drugs and radicalisation. At regional level, this peace committee has been a central component of Niger’s trafficking management strategies, successfully resolving clashes between rival traffickers and preventing communal clashes.
The Peace Committee also manages discontent among unemployed young people by serving as a far-reaching platform for voicing discontent and providing a channel to address it. As explained by one interviewee, ‘Dissatisfaction is detected from these structures, because they are practically installed all the way to the villages.’ Most recently, a meeting of the Committee led to a commitment for 200 young men from the city of Agadez to be integrated into the National Guard. This is a notable move that beckons increased attention on grievances and their management not only at regional but also at local level. The integration of aggrieved populations into the military is a tried and tested strategy in Niger. First employed to integrate ex-combatants of the rebellions into the army, it was similarly employed in an attempt to manage grievances in the border region of Tillabery. Such a commitment in Agadez reflects the perceptions of high-ranking officials, who believe recruitment of local youth is a win-win situation that enables both a more effective security response and a means to address youth discontent.
Accompanying this regional approach, and in order to detect potential stability risks at an early stage, district committees have been set up to strengthen the mediation position of traditional district chiefs, who play a key role in mitigating discontent by residents. As governance authorities living side by side with residents of a district, district chiefs are also more accessible than other local authorities. This gives them an intimate knowledge of the comings and goings in their district. As expressed by one interviewed traditional authority, ‘Any self-respecting Gonto must not let something happen in his neighbourhood without his knowledge.’ This description is in line with the general function of traditional authorities in other regions of the country.
In the local governance structure of Agadez, district chiefs are heads of neighbourhood committees that have been set up by regional governance actors such as the Sultan and the Governor in an effort to improve local mediation capabilities. District chiefs are thereby supporting governance authorities at higher echelons of power through the sensitisation of citizens and the settling of conflicts at the micro level. In terms of conflict management, a Gonto notified of a complaint or problem would call on the committee composed of the Tambara, a religious authority such as the Imam, and a youth representative. This committee discusses any complaints brought forward, and makes a ruling that is communicated to the Sultan. The Sultan of Agadez, as chief of the traditional authorities, reinforces such efforts. In an effort to mediate tension, he visits the various districts of Agadez to listen to citizen complaints and boost the role of district chiefs. As one interviewed traditional leader described, ‘The Sultan and the Gonto are the same team, because we are his collaborators. And whatever he asks us to do, we do it.’
Yet despite mediation efforts, the role of traditional authorities as intermediaries between elected state authorities and local populations is under strain. Several participants in our focus group discussions note that the function and value of traditional authorities has altered significantly since 2016. Young male respondents in particular described district chiefs as powerless, unwilling to listen to their concerns and siding with state representatives instead of the local population. As one respondent expressed it, ‘Before (the law), the Gonto was attached to his population but this is no longer the case.’ This dynamic was echoed by a district chief himself who stated that, ‘Right now the youth see the Gonto as responsible for other authorities. We have no means, but we are made responsible.’ Such findings are in line with the context of the increasing politicisation and instrumentalisation of traditional authorities described above which can, de facto, override previous perceived differences between traditional and modern authorities. Underlining his limited scope, one district chief explained, ‘It’s the law of the Republic, you are obliged to submit.’
One exception in this regard seems to be the female chiefs of districts, the Tambara. As participants the women’s focus group indicated, they regularly consult with their respective Tambara if they need to reach out to another authority. Along the same lines, women in the Tambara Focus Group clearly voiced their opposition to the migration governance, a view that was not expressed by any of their male counterparts. As one respondent expressed it, ‘The Tambara are with the young – it is the young who have provided money for their families.’ Contrary to district chiefs, Tambara do not occupy a formally codified role, which would explain why their position is less associated with policies implemented by local authorities and central state representatives.