AGADEZ, Niger – Issa Tahir and his friends, who all worked in one way or another in the people-smuggling business, kill time and hide from the relentless high-noon heat in a darkened room in the bowels of the town hall of Agadez in northern Niger.
While they wait on Rhissa Felthou, the Saharan city’s mayor, Tahir flips anxiously through the pages of a long dossier he hopes will open up new horizons for them. “If everything’s in order,” Tahir says, “we’ll be recognized soon as an official association and then we’ll really be able to start working.”
Half an hour later, and with evident satisfaction, they are on their way to another municipal office for the next step in the paper chase. Tahir’s brainchild, the Association for the Reconversion of Actors of the Migration Economy, or ARAEM, is closer to becoming a reality.
In Tahir’s mind, this sheaf of densely written sheets is a first attempt to take control of an uncertain future, not just for himself but for hundreds of other Nigeriens who relied for work on the migrant-smuggling business.
Unlike many of the other “passeurs” – the desert drivers who were central to Agadez’s recent fame as a people-smuggling hub on the route to Algeria, Libya and ultimately Italy – Tahir is not a critic of the European Union.
“In Niger, we are too often used to extend our hands and take,” he says, shaking his head in disapproval, “while we need to have the wit to study and learn from experiences.” A lean man in his early 40s, he is fond of using the French word “esprit” to describe a deeply rooted personal motivation, something that cannot be imposed from outside.
Many of the “passeurs” in this ancient caravan city feel left out and embittered by the shortcomings of the E.U.-funded program meant to provide alternatives to the smuggling trade that Niger’s government has been persuaded to crack down on.
Tahir knows very well how European pressure has made life tougher than it was before, but he is determined to focus on the opportunities in Agadez more than the hardships. This attitude, together with his decades of experience in transporting travelers and migrants across the Sahara, has earned him the respect of many “passeurs”, even those who have lost their jobs since the authorities shut down much of the trade.
The Empty Migrant Ghettos
We meet the next morning in front of the central mosque in Agadez, a 16th-century minaret that is the symbol of the city, the world’s tallest mud brick structure and known as a kind of lighthouse for travelers crossing the great ocean of sand. Huge puddles from a recent storm, a last downpour at the end of the rainy season, make it harder than usual to drive across the city’s sandy streets.
After 15 minutes of swerving in and out to avoid getting soaked, Tahir parks his motorbike under a rough straw canopy, in the popular district of Pays Bas, on the northern side of town. As in other outlying neighborhoods, rough-hewn streets are flanked by ocher mud walls, separating public life from private spaces. Within 20 minutes, more than 20 men have gathered under the canopy.
“Until a few months ago, all this area was full with migrants,” says Tahir with a sweeping gesture. In recent years, the courtyards and dormitories of Agadez were a staging post for tens of thousands of travelers from central and western Africa on the road to the Maghreb or Europe.
Now they are empty after Niger’s government was persuaded by the E.U. to crack down on irregular migration. Those who lived from the the business are trying to scrape a living by other means. “These people worked as drivers, managers of ghettos, sellers of water tanks, caterers,” says Tahir, “and they need to find an alternative in a short order, to feed their families.”
Ever the optimist Tahir has an idea: “First of all we need a cohesive group, where everybody’s willing to invest a limited sum to form an initial capital.” In his mind, this would allow the association to launch small commercial activities and reinvest part of the revenues. Potential businesses include construction, poultry breeding and motorcycle-taxis.
And there is something more fantastical that makes Tahir’s eyes light up: “We need to grow gardens in the Sahara, even if this seems like an impossible dream.”
But even this project is an echo from Agadez’s past connections with Libya. Tahir worked for nearly two years from 2007 on one of the most grandiose schemes of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – the irrigation scheme known as the Great Manmade River, a project to cultivate an enormous strip of desert from Kufra to Tripoli and Tobruk.
Launched in 1984 and advertised as a way to “make the desert as green as the Libyan flag,” the scheme plowed oil revenues into bringing water from giant aquifers under the southern desert to coastal cities. Despite the parlous state of the local economy, Tahir sees similar possibilities in Agadez.
“Many of those in the migration business are familiar with agriculture, but they don’t have a budget to start new production.” Seasonal rainfalls, if well exploited, could water crops throughout the year even in parts of the arid Agadez region, and as such the government’s ambitious 3N plan (Nigeriens Nourish Nigeriens) recognizes small-scale agriculture as a way to fight desertification and food insecurity.
But there’s something more that connects Tahir to the vision of the former Libyan leader’s project: The Great Manmade River, in his experience, “was a meeting place for workers from all over Africa, a mix of nationalities that reminds me of Agadez, with its many travelers.”
Alhassane Backo, who worked for years with Tahir as a “coxeur,” a middlemen in the migration business, interrupts his former boss to bring the discussion back down to earth: “For the last year, we haven’t had any income. Our savings are gone, and some of us haven’t made the rent in months. Our wives and kids are suffering.”
Backo is more concerned with what he sees as false promises from Europe than reviving Gaddafi-era pipe dreams. In July 2017, he submitted his papers to apply for support from the E.U. funds, “but we haven’t had anything,” he says.
The job of transforming an economy that Europeans view as criminal, without endangering Niger’s fragile social cohesion, has been shouldered in theory by local authorities and international donors alike. With a budget of just 8 million euros ($9.5 million), the Rapid Impact Economic Action Plan for Agadez (PAIERA) is the smallest program in the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa’s budget for Niger. Still, its political importance is huge. An E.U. official working in Niger describes it as “a pilot operation, with a high risk of failure but a strong political dimension.”
According to official documents, the program aims to provide “support measures, in parallel with [the] repressive ones taken by Nigerien authorities in the field of irregular migration … to offer employment opportunities to actors of migration.”
How Can We Finance Criminals?
The actors are the same drivers, guides, “coxeurs,” ghetto managers that Tahir calls friends. An official from Niger’s Ministry of Planning, M. Kanta, who was party to discussions with the E.U., says that they wanted to exclude drivers from the program, asking him: “How can we finance criminals?”
The Europeans were eventually convinced, and everyone was included apart from the owners of ghettos and vehicles. The foundations for PAIERA came with a law against the “illicit trafficking of migrants,” adopted in 2015 but only put into force meaningfully from September 2016. That was when the government of Niger launched a crackdown to stop the passage of migrants north of Agadez, dubbed the “Bazoum plan”, after Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum.
“All of a sudden, pickup trucks were confiscated, drivers and agents arrested,” says Kanta, “and PAIERA was a way to offer alternatives to these people in a rapid way, considering that part of them had fought in rebellions (against the government) in the 1990s and 2000s.”
Niger’s need to find swift alternatives for potentially restive northerners clashed with E.U. concerns over “paying criminals.” Even after this queasiness was put aside, there were the typical bureaucratic delays, social tensions and the difficulties of intervening in a largely informal economy. Months of meetings, accompanied by angry debates, led to the creation of lists of “actors of migration” in the 15 municipalities of the region along migration routes.
Issouf Ag Maha, the mayor of Tchirozerine, a rural town close to Agadez, who took part in the endless meeting rounds, explains the main issues: “How can we be sure that the names on the lists are real ‘passeurs’?” he asks, explaining that “in my municipality I didn’t know these people, so I can’t verify.”
The financial amounts involved – some $2,700 for individuals and $7,200 for groups – are not attractive to drivers, “who could earn the same amount of money with a few trips to Libya,” says the mayor.
“Actors of migration,” according to Maha, “shared a popular feeling: that the E.U. caused them to lose income, pressing the government of Niger to curb migration, so they expected to receive compensation. And got disappointed when realizing it wasn’t going to work like that.”
The E.U. program’s local component dedicated to small-sized individual or group reconversion projects, known as AGAPAIR, had an initial budget of half a million euros ($596,000), later increased by another 187,000 euros ($223,000). This sum would, at best, fund a maximum of 300 applications to be selected by a regional committee. Tensions became evident during a meeting in Agadez in late July 2017 when authorities revealed some numbers. More than 6,500 applications were received, of which 5,118 were eligible, but only 181 were to be funded at the first instance.
The disillusionment felt by “passeurs” was compounded when they realized that funds would be granted in kind, through the purchase of materials, such as food stocks, equipment, animals or other goods, not hard cash. Street protests followed. A leaked E.U. internal document seen by Refugees Deeply notes these events as “signs of the level of violence and mutual distrust in which this world of smuggling actors flourishes, hoping finally that the reconversion process will fail.”
Is There a Real Intention to Reconvert?
That anger translated into pressure and threats against local authorities and members of the E.U. project’s board. The internal report ends with a question: “Is there a real intention to reconvert?” The answer doesn’t sound encouraging: “We have strong doubts: even if risky, particularly after recent repressive measures, migrant-smuggling continues to be profitable, and not everyone will abandon it, especially to engage in small economic activities […], there’s thus a high risk that project funds will be diverted, goods and equipments sold.”
In a tour of his past in the migrant business, Tahir takes me to the gare routiere, the public bus station. This huge concrete hangar used to be at the heart of the Agadez migration business, and in some ways still is. This is where Tahir earned his first money in 1998, starting as a “coxeur” and going on to become a respected agent, with an office and employees. After introducing me to one of them, a man called Ibrahim who sells water canisters and striped plastic teapots, Tahir shows me his desk; a dusty folder contains the names of 352 actors of migration, or “the first members of our association,” as he calls them.
While walking through the half-empty station, he insists on introducing me to some of his old competitors, like Issa Iklali, another agent who runs a small restaurant called “Exodus”, and Kore Yesko, the head of the line from Agadez to Dirkou, once the main axis for travelers heading to Libya.
Yesko, a former soldier who served in Gaddafi’s personal guard, is also the vice-president of another committee of ex-“passeurs,” but one that is recognized by local authorities and backed by the E.U. program.
As Yesko speaks to Tahir, a man approaches him and starts complaining vehemently. Yesko’s committee, he says, is not doing enough: “The project was launched in March, we submitted papers in July, and we still haven’t seen a cent.”
A mixture of long waits and the news that funds would reach only a few people has fueled resentment towards the committee and the whole E.U. reconversion program. As Yesko defends his work and asks the man to be patient, the atmosphere gets tense. Tahir tries to channel the man’s anger in a more positive direction and to get him to sign up to his scheme, telling him “passeurs” will take control themselves.
Shortly after and in private, he is less confident: “It’s difficult to collect money from actors of migration. Most of them don’t trust anybody, and some cannot really afford to give even a small sum.”
Like everyone else in Agadez, Tahir’s fledgling organization hopes to profit from Europe’s desire to block the migrant trail, and the donor funds they hope will flow to make this a reality. A green revolution in the desert is still possible, he says hopefully: “We found two areas in the east of Agadez, one close to the village of Tigerwitt, where hundreds of hectares of land are available. This is the place to build our first farming village, God willing.”