In the past five years there has been an increase in border controls and foreign military presence in Niger; paradoxically this has only diversified and professionalised the criminal networks operating there. In fact, this development was to be expected. Sustained law enforcement against smugglers removes the weaker players while allowing those with greater means and connexions to adapt, evolve and in some cases even monopolise criminal markets. As such, although Western-supported goals of curtailing irregular migration in Niger have been reached in the short term, criminal networks continue to thrive with devastating consequences for the wider Sahel region. Recorded migrant deaths in northern Niger have hit record highs and illicit flows of drugs and arms through the country continue to fuel conflicts. To address the country’s chronic lack of security and underdevelopment, innovative approaches that prioritise the fight against criminal networks while considering the negative socio-economic impacts of interventions must be developed.
The economic, social and security landscape of Niger has undergone four milestone events, which have all led to changes in the country’s criminal networks. These included the criminalisation of the migration industry in May 2015; the clampdown on the Djado goldfield in February 2017; the ensuing multiplication of armed actors and growing banditry, which had already increased after the outbreak of the conflicts in Libya in 2011 and northern Mali in 2012; and the militarisation of Niger since 2014.
The EU-backed enforcement of law 2015-036 criminalising migrant smuggling in mid-2016 delivered a first, considerable blow to northern Niger’s informal economy. Transporting foreign migrants to Libya, a practice that had become a source of livelihood for thousands of people in northern Niger, was outlawed overnight. Dozens of passeurs (migrant smugglers) and coxeurs (middlemen who gather migrants for passeurs) were arrested and hundreds of vehicles were seized in a crackdown that shocked the system.
The second blow, which was closely linked to the first, was the closure of the Djado goldfield in February 2017. Up until its closure, the gold economy had been a vital back-up for ex-passeurs. Many had repurposed their activities towards the transport of artisanal miners to and from northern Niger’s gold mines to compensate for lost revenue from the outlawing of migrant smuggling. Many passeurs also invested in artisanal gold extraction. The goldfield was officially shut down for security reasons, as it had become a key hub for the operations of armed bandits. However, the fact that it was also a key stopover location for migrants travelling north was perhaps more influential in the government’s decision-making.
Many analysts have attributed the rise in banditry and convoy hijackings over the past two years to these two economic blows. While it is difficult to determine whether the actors involved in these attacks are the same as those previously involved in the migration industry, it is clear that the lack of economic opportunities have pushed some to seek alternative sources of revenue.
Although the migration industry initially shrank, it has now partially recovered (albeit still very far from 2015/2016 levels) with the transport of Nigerien migrants who are increasingly seeking seasonal work in Libya. But although a majority of passeurs have repurposed their activities towards the tolerated practice of transporting Nigeriens to Libya, many passeurs are still ready to transport foreign migrants, who pay up to eight times what local Nigeriens pay. To do so, smuggling networks have become both more professional and clandestine. Passeurs also take more dangerous and remote routes through the desert that avoid security forces. This has posed a significant risk to migrants, who are increasingly vulnerable to death from unexpected breakdowns in the desert. The number of recorded migrant deaths increased from 71 in 2015 to 427 in 2017.
Currently, the number of active drivers is close to that before the peak of migration in 2015/2016. But the number of migrants who can afford the journey has lessened. In some reported cases, the price for the Agadez-Sebha journey has increased five-fold since 2016. Passeurs incur higher costs primarily as a result of longer, more clandestine routes that require more fuel. They must also pay higher fees to coxeurs, whose role in gathering migrants for passeurs has become central since migrants have been more difficult to find in Agadez. Prior to 2016, migrants could easily reach the town with commercial bus companies. Today, these undergo stringent checks by Nigerien police. Even migrants from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who have the right to visa-free travel to Niger with valid documentation, are having to pay higher bribes to security forces to reach Agadez through commercial transportation.
To compensate for this lack of more lucrative foreign migrants, many passeurs have turned to the smuggling of synthetic opioids (especially Tramadol), the demand for which has boomed across the Sahel-Sahara in recent years. Smugglers can sell Tramadol purchased from Nigeria for up to 15 times the price in Libya, transporting the drugs along the Chadian border through Niger.
These developments have mostly been undeterred by the increased militarisation of Niger since 2014, which saw the posting of French and American security forces in key strategic locations in the north (with bases in Madama, Dirkou, Agadez, Aguelal) and south (in the Tillabéri and Diffa regions). While their primary concern has been the fight against terrorist networks in the Sahel, French security forces in Madama have also specifically targeted arms and high-value narcotics trafficking (albeit prioritising those suspected of having links to terrorist networks). The increased scrutiny of French troops on key trafficking crossroads is seen as a key factor in making the trans-Sahelian cocaine route less attractive for conveying drugs from Latin America to destination markets in Europe and the Middle East, with traffickers increasingly favouring maritime routes instead.
The increased targeting of drug convoys by armed groups is also a key factor behind the reduced use of the trans-Sahel cocaine route. These groups, which have multiplied in northern Mali, southern Libya and north-western Chad since the Libyan revolution in 2011 and Malian rebellion in 2012, have increasingly shifted their business model towards armed robbery and the hijacking of convoys that transit northern Niger. One such group includes armed men mostly composed of Chadian military defectors, who have used the Djado area (600 km north-east of Agadez) as a base to target convoys trafficking drugs, arms and goods but also artisanal miners traveling to and from gold mines (such as the Tchibarakaten goldfield). The Forces Armées Nigériennes, whose capacity is limited in northern Niger’s difficult terrain, have so far failed to overrun the group.
Nevertheless, recent cocaine seizures, including a record seizure of 789 kilograms of cocaine in March 2019 in Guinea-Bissau, suggest that the route is still being used, boosted by increasing cocaine production in Colombia in recent years. In fact, trafficking routes seem to have simply pushed outwards to areas bordering Algeria and Chad, avoiding the patrolling and surveillance activity taking place out of the French outpost of Madama. However, this route shift may be temporary. France’s withdrawal from its temporary base in Madama since May (although officially announced in July) has reduced its oversight over the Toummo crossing and Salvador Pass, both key trafficking gateways to Libya. In reaction to France’s withdrawal from Madama, one passeur interviewed by phone boasted: ‘maintenant on opère comme des rois [now we operate like kings]’.
Niger’s stability relies on a fragile economic, political and social equilibrium that is threatened by the current approaches to achieving Western priorities of reduced terrorism and irregular migration. The EU and its member states successfully addressed the latter by disrupting the business model of passeurs and raising the costs of migration. But while the EU must be commended for initiating projects to compensate for passeurs’ lost income, these have not yielded the results that had been hoped for. Many passeurs accuse the local non-governmental organisation in charge of dispensing funds of having been nepotistic in its fund allocation. Only a fraction of passeurs received EU support, leaving many to be forced back into their old activities.
If support is not effectively delivered in the long term, current approaches to reducing irregular migration and terrorism may be undermined: poverty and unemployment fuel the very elements that securitisation hopes to tackle.
Currently, strategies to tackle smuggling and illicit flows have targeted easily-replaceable low-level actors in criminal economies. Yet to have a longer-lasting impact, actors higher up in the value chain would need to be targeted. Criminal culture in Niger is as much a top-down issue as it is a bottom-up one. The participation of the Nigerien political elite in trans-Sahelian illicit economies is strong. Their business interests are as much a catalyst of flows as the widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunities that push so many into criminal endeavours. This involvement is well-known and recognised by international partners behind the scenes, yet it is not prioritised, perhaps for fear of impeding on strategic counterterrorism and anti-irregular migration goals. Meanwhile, the illicit flows of arms, drugs, goods, and people continue to foster instability in the wider region.
 Micallef, M. Horsley R. & Bish, A. (2019) The Human Conveyor Belt Broken – assessing the collapse of the human-smuggling industry in Libya and the central Sahel, The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, March 2019.
 Micallef, M., Farrah, R. & Bish, A. (forthcoming) After the Storm, Organized Crime across the Sahel-Sahara following the Libyan Revolution and Malian Rebellion, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
 Micallef, M., Farrah, R. & Bish, A. (forthcoming) After the Storm, Organized crime across the Sahel-Sahara following the Libyan Revolution and Malian rebellion, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
 Telephone interview with Tebu passeur based in Dirkou, July 2019.