Mobility has played an important role in Niger’s north throughout its history. Local populations, in response to droughts or shifting border regimes in Libya and Algeria, have traditionally been able to make changes to their livelihood strategies and have shown a remarkable capacity for adaptation, often through migration as a way of diversifying livelihoods. However, since the early 2000s, and particularly since 2016, this system has come under pressure as increasing collaboration with Western countries, whose agendas are aimed at curbing irregular migration from Africa to Europe, has reduced the options available for income generation. The European Trust Fund (EUTF) was created to promote stability and address the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa. It bundled these efforts together into a powerful instrument which, in Niger, led to a migration paradigm based on a securitised approach to migration, while at the same time attempting to offer economic incentives not based on mobility. On the whole, local disappointment with programmes emanating from these policies seems to point to a failure on the part of implementing organisations either to sufficiently reach those who suffered income losses due to migration policies or to shift the overall economy back into gear. The justification of migration policies in Niger and the wider region is constructed through a set of narratives recurrent throughout policy documents, calls for proposals and general communication about migration-related activities in the Sahel. In their implementation in Agadez, these narratives point to a crowding out of pre-existing forms of governance by new legal and international norms based on territorial control, the fight against transnational crime, and the protection of migrants against smugglers and traffickers – concepts that are often conflated.
This paper lays out the emerging longer-term dynamics in the region in response to the criminalisation of smuggling in Niger in 2015 and the measures subsequently taken to curb northward migratory movements. It has discerned such effects on the local economy and on the perception of governance providers, who are often responsible for detecting and managing discontent.
The economy of northern Niger has taken a serious blow since 2016, in part due to implemented migration measures. While some sectors seem able to cope and adapt to a tough business climate, a large proportion of the population, especially young people, struggle to find employment. Infrastructure remains a key problem for businesses and residents alike, with poor roads and electricity provision hampering economic development. More profound developmental challenges facing the region in terms of its economic development, such as road infrastructure, efficient energy and water supply, and access to healthcare, have often been ignored, slow to be tackled or given too little attention. This exposes the fact that the programming focus of many interventions in the region has for too long been on migration issues, while there are other more urgent matters to address from the perspective of local residents. This fits within a tendency where even normal development interventions increasingly include a component to help prevent migration or deal with its impacts. Half a decade after promises of investment in the region were made in exchange for cooperation on migration issues, measures that might have a positive impact on local development are still lacking.
In addition to a challenging economic situation that offers little prospects, migration governance has, since 2016, aggravated strains on local authorities in Agadez. This paper has shown that as well as having a significant impact on locally elected authorities, migration governance has also put strains on traditional authorities at the lowest level of governance. At a crucial entry level between the state and its citizens, traditional leaders find themselves in a delicate position in which they have come to be perceived as complicit with the unpopular migration policies of the central state. Such dynamics take place in a context where central state efforts to centralise power have led to the continued postponement of municipal elections and resulted in the installation of centrally appointed administrators.
In this context, international organisations working in migration programming are perceived as having taken on a broader governance role in Agadez, and have been identified as key governance actors by authorities at local level. Yet, while international organisations rely on district chiefs to provide participants for workshops and training sessions, the actual influence of those local governance actors on project design and priority setting remains limited.
Trust in traditional authorities, while still higher than trust in other governance providers, has taken a drop in recent years. While one should be cautious of attributing the full blame of such developments to external migration programming, migration policies have the potential to upset the delicate balance between the state and local residents which traditional authorities are able to maintain. In the context of Niger’s north, that is a dangerous dynamic.
The slack in the economy, combined with a declining trust in governance providers, begs the question of regional stability. Nigerien governance actors are well aware of the fact that complex governance dynamics in Agadez are lost in a narrow migration focus. While international actors in Agadez often continue to use migration as the underpinning of their interventions, regional and local governance actors put great emphasis on the management of discontent and the preservation of social peace. In the legacy of repeated uprisings, these close-knit initiatives illustrate the importance of not losing sight of more structural governance factors in the preservation of stability. In order to not upset such a precarious balance, these initiatives need backing that is based on conflict-sensitive programming and which avoids any political or ideological undertone.
At a more fundamental level, the situation in Niger’s north displays the inherent mismatch between the international norms and legal frameworks being put in place under the guise of migration management on the one hand, and local needs in terms of development, governance, and mechanisms for mediation and conflict prevention on the other. If this analysis of economic hardship and challenges of local governance providers is any indication, migration programming could undermine livelihood strategies and governance structures in Agadez and might therefore have a negative effect on the region’s stability.