AGADEZ — Mahamane Ousmane is an unrepentant people smuggler. He makes no effort to deny having transported migrants "countless times' across the Sahara into Libya. When he is released from prison in Niger's desert city of Agadez, he intends to return to the same work.
The 32-year-old is even more adamant he has done nothing wrong. "I don't like criminals. I am no thief. I have killed no one," he says.
As Ousmane speaks, a small circle of fellow inmates in filthy football shirts and flip-flops murmur in agreement. The prison at Agadez, where the French once stabled their horses in colonial times, now houses an increasing number of people smugglers. These "passeurs," as they are known in French, have found themselves on the wrong side of a recent law criminalizing the movement of migrants north of Agadez.
Aji Dan Chef Halidou, the prison director who has gathered the group in his office, does his best to explain. "Driving migrants out into the Sahara is very dangerous, that's why it is now illegal," he says.
Ousmane, a member of the Tubu tribe, an ethnic group that straddles the border between Niger and Libya, is having none of it. "Nobody ever got hurt driving with me," he insists. "You just have to drive at night because in the day the sun can kill people."
A powerfully built man who speaks in emphatic bursts of English and Hausa, Ousmane worked in the informal gold mines of Djado in northern Niger until they were closed by the military. Then he borrowed money to buy a pickup truck and run the route from Agadez to Sebha in Libya. His confiscated truck is now sinking into the sand at the nearby military base, along with more than 100 others taken from people smugglers. Ousmane still owes nearly $9,000 on the Toyota Hilux and has a family to support. "There is no alternative so I will go back to work," he says.
"Didn't the Europeans think about what would happen after Gaddafi?"
While the temperature outside in the direct sun nears 120F (50C), the air conditioner in the warden's office declares its intention to get to 60F (16C). It will not succeed. As mosquitoes circle overhead, Halidou's earlier enthusiasm for the law evaporates. "Agadez has always been a crossroads where people live from migration," he says. "We need to implement this law gently as many people were living off migration and they were promised compensation by Europe for leaving it behind, but this hasn't happened yet."
Ali Diallo, the veteran among the inmates, blames Europe for his predicament. Originally from Senegal, he made his way across West Africa to Libya working in construction. His life there fell apart after the Western-backed overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. The steady supply of work became more dangerous and his last Libyan employer shot him in the leg instead of paying him at the end of a job.
"In Senegal there are no jobs, in Mali there are no jobs, but there were jobs in Libya and that was all right," he says. "Then the West killed Gaddafi and now they want to stop migration." Diallo retreated two years ago to Agadez and found a job as a tout or "coxeur" matching migrants with drivers. This was what he was arrested for. He has a question: "Didn't the Europeans think about what would happen after Gaddafi?"
Niger is prevented from being the poorest country in the world only by the depth of misery in Central African Republic. It was second from bottom in last year's U.N. Human Development Index. Niamey, the country's humid capital on the banks of the River Niger, has a laid-back feeling and its population only recently passed the one million mark.
But the city's days as a forgotten backwater are coming to an end.
Along the Boulevard de la Republique, past the machine-gun nests that block approaches to the presidential palace, concrete harbingers of change are rising from the reddish Saharan dust. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have vast new embassy complexes under construction that will soon overshadow those of Libya and France, the two traditional rivals for influence in Niger.
Niger is now the southern border of Europe.
Further north in the Plateau neighborhood, the development aid complex is spreading out, much of it funded by the European Union.
"What do all these foreigners want from our little red town?" a senior Niger government adviser asked.
In the case of the EU the answer is clear. Three-quarters of all African migrants arriving by boat in Italy in recent years transited Niger. As one European ambassador said, "Niger is now the southern border of Europe."
Federica Mogherini, the closest that the 28-member EU has to a foreign minister, chose Niger for her first trip to Africa in 2015. The visit was seen as a reward for the Niger government's passage of Law 36 in May that year that effectively made it illegal for foreign nationals to travel north of Agadez.
"We share an interest in managing migration in the best possible way, for both Europe and Africa," Mogherini said at the time.
Since then, she has referred to Niger as the "model" for how other transit countries should manage migration and the best performer of the five African nations who signed up to the EUPartnership Framework on Migration – the plan that made development aid conditional on cooperation in migration control. Niger is "an initial success story that we now want to replicate at regional level," she said in a recent speech.
Angela Merkel became the first German chancellor to visit the country in October 2016. Her trip followed a wave of arrests under Law 36 in the Agadez region. Merkel promised money and "opportunities' for those who had previously made their living out of migration.
One of the main recipients of EU funding is the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which now occupies most of one street in Plateau. In a little over two years the IOM headcount has gone from 22 to more than 300 staffers.
IOM staffer working with Libyan refugees — Photo: Official Facebook page
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of mission, says the crackdown in northern Niger is about more than Europe closing the door on African migrants. The new law was needed as networks connecting drug smuggling and militant groups were threatening the country, and the conditions in which migrants were forced to travel were criminal.
Loprete echoes Mogherini in saying that stopping "irregular migration" is about saving lives in the desert. The IOM has hired community officers to warn migrants of the dangers they face farther north.
"Libya is hell and people who go there healthy lose their minds," Loprete says.
A side effect of the crackdown has been a sharp increase in business for IOM, whose main activity is a voluntary returns program. Some 7,000 African migrants were sent home from Niger last year, up from 1,400 in 2014. More than 2,000 returns in the first three months of 2018 suggest another record year.
Loprete says European politicians must see that more legal routes are the only answer to containing irregular migration, but he concludes, "Europe is not asking for the moon, just for managed migration."
Not everyone agrees that European and Nigerien interests align.
The person who does most of the asking is Raul Mateus Paula, the EU's top diplomat in Niamey. This relatively unheralded country that connects West and North Africa is now the biggest per capita recipient of EU aid in the world. The European Development Fund awarded $731 million to Niger for the period 2014–20. A subsequent review boosted this by a further $108 million. Among the experiments this money bankrolls are the connection of remote border posts – where there was previously no electricity – to the internet under the German aid corporation, GIZ; a massive expansion of judges to hear smuggling and trafficking cases; and hundreds of flatbed trucks, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces.
Normally, when foreign aid is directed to countries with endemic corruption – Transparency International ranks Niger 112th out of 180 countries worldwide – it is channeled through non-governmental organizations. Until 2014 the EU gave only one-third of its aid to Niger in direct budget support; in this cycle, 75% of its aid goes straight into government coffers. Paula calls the EU Niger's "number one partner" and sees no divergence in their interests on security, development or migration.
But not everyone agrees that European and Nigerien interests align. Julien Brachet, an expert on the Sahel and Sahara, argues that the desire to stop Europe-bound migration as far upstream as possible has made Niger, and particularly Agadez, the "perfect target" for EUmigration policies. These policies, he argues, have taken decades-old informal migration routes and made them clandestine and more dangerous. A fellow at the French National Research Institute for Development, Brachet accuses the EU of "manufacturing smugglers' with the policies it has drafted to control them.
Niger, which has the fastest-growing population in the world, is a fragile setting for grand policy experiments. Since independence from France in 1960 it has witnessed four coups, the last of which was in 2010. The regular overthrow of governments has seen political parties proliferate, while the same cast of politicians remains. The current president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has run in every presidential election since 1993. Currently he heads the Party for Democracy and Socialism, one of more than 50 active political parties. The group's headquarters stands out from the landscape in Niamey thanks to giant streamers, in the party's signature pink, draped over the building.
The biggest office in the pink house belongs to Mohamed Bazoum, Niger's interior minister and its rising political star. When European diplomats mention who they deal with in the Nigerien government, his name is invariably heard.
"We are in a moment with a lot of international attention," Bazoum says. "We took measures to control migration and this has been appreciated especially by our European partners."
Since the crackdown, the number of migrants passing checkpoints between Niamey and Agadez has dropped from 350 per day, he claims, to 160 a week.
Niger's interior minister Mohamed Bazoum — Photo: Magharebia
"We took away many people's livelihoods," he says, "but we have to say that the economy was linked to banditry and connected to other criminal activities."
EU officials say privately that Bazoum has taken to issuing shopping lists, running to helicopters and vehicles, of goods he expects in return for continued cooperation.
By contrast, the World Food Programme, which supports the roughly one in ten of Niger's population who face borderline malnutrition, has received only 34% of the funding it needs for 2018.
At least three EU states – France, Italy and Germany – have troops on the ground in Niger. Their roles range from military advisers to medics and trainers. French forces and drone bases are present as part of the overlapping Barkhane and G5 Sahel counterinsurgency operations which includes forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania. The U.S., meanwhile, has both troops and drone bases for its own regional fight against Islamic militants, the latest of which is being built outside Agadez at a cost of more than $100 million.
"Since independence, we've never had a government that served so many foreign interests," says Hamadou Tcherno Boulama, a civil society activist. His organization, Alternative Espaces Citoyens, often has an armed police presence outside its gates these days to prevent people gathering. Four of Niger's main civil society leaders were jailed in late March after 35,000 people took to the streets in Niamey in the biggest demonstrations Niger has seen in a decade. Much of the public anger is directed against this year's budget, which hiked taxes on staples such as rice and sugar.
Foreign aid accounts for 45% of Niger's budget, so the austerity budget at a time of peak foreign interest has stoked local anger.
Boulama calls Bazoum "the minister of repression" and says Issoufou has grown fond of foreign travel and spends so little time in Niger that his nickname is "Rimbo" – Niger's best-known international bus company.
"Issoufou uses international support related to migration and security issues to fortify his power," Boulama says.
The EU and the International Monetary Fund have praised the government for this year's budget, saying it will ease dependence on donors. The most that European diplomats will concede is that the Nigerien government is "bloated" with 43 ministers, each with an expensive retinue.
"Ungoverned spaces' confuse some EU leaders.
European leaders' "focus on migration is 100%," says Kirsi Henriksson, the outgoing head of EUCAP Sahel, one of those EU agencies that few Europeans have ever heard of. When it was conceived, its brief was to deliver a coordinated strategy to meet the jihadi threat in Mali, but its mandate changed recently to prioritize migration. Since then its international staff has tripled.
Henriksson, whose term ended in April, compares the security and development push to a train where everything must move at the same speed: "If the carriages become too far apart the train will crash," she says.
As one of the few Europeans to have visited the border area between Libya and Niger, she is concerned that some European politicians have unrealistic expectations of what is achievable. The border post at Tummo is loosely controlled by ethnic Tubu militia from southern Libya and no Nigerien forces are present. "Ungoverned spaces' confuse some EU leaders, she says, who want to know how much it will cost to bring the border under control. These kinds of questions ignore both the conditions and scale of the Sahara.
On the wall of Henriksson's office is a large map of the region. It shows the emerald green of West Africa, veined with the blue of its great rivers, fading slowly to pale yellow as you look north. If you drew a line along the map where the Saharan yellow displaces all other colors, it would run right through Agadez. North of that line is a sea of sand nearly four times the size of the Mediterranean.
*This is an excerpt. Read the full version on News Deeply here.