Dehai News 'Agadez has begun to live again'

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 13 April 2024

Agadez, Niger
The history of Agadez, the 'gateway to the Sahara', is linked to the passage of traders and travellers [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Agadez, Niger - Ousmane Kouyate* stands beside a petrol station on National Road 25 that runs through Agadez, more than 900km north of Niger’s capital Niamey.

The thin 25-year-old from Guinea is a "passeur" - a travel agent or, for some of the migrants and refugees passing through the city, a smuggler organising their journey to the Mediterranean on their way to European shores.

Wearing sunglasses and earphones under a baseball cap, he seems cautious and alert, even though he no longer needs to hide.

In 2016, Niger’s previous government, under heavy pressure from the European Union, enacted controversial Law 2015-36, which criminalised the transportation of irregular migrants northwards.

But with the July 2023 coup, things began to change.

By November, the new military government - the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, or CNSP - repealed the law, effectively decriminalising Kouyate's trade.

"Hosting and transporting migrants has become normal again,” the young passeur says, with an air of contentment.

Agadez, Niger
National Guard of Niger soldiers at a checkpoint along National Road 25, north of Agadez [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Agadez is widely seen as the "gateway to the Sahara", its history inextricably linked to the passage of caravans of traders and travellers.

In recent decades, Agadez has become a hub for migratory routes from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and Algeria, and then northwards towards Europe.

In West and North Africa, the transit of migrants has created economic opportunities for thousands of families in extremely poor areas.

But after the 2016 law was enacted, hundreds of drivers, brokers and "passeurs" were charged with trafficking, arrested overnight, and their vehicles seized.

This led to a notable decrease in attempted crossings and the number of visitors to Agadez.

A man in Agadez, Niger
The young passeur Ousmane Kouyate [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Kouyate arrived in Agadez for the first time in 2017, with dreams of reaching Europe.

After facing rejection and risking his life several times, he turned to the passeur business.

In 2021, he was arrested by the Nigerien police for smuggling, and spent two and a half years in a prison in Niamey, before being released and returning to Guinea.

Recently, however, he decided to return to Agadez."I was motivated to come back here when I heard that they had repealed the law," Kouyate says, climbing into one of the many yellow tuk-tuks swarming the city.

"I came back to seek payback. The policemen who used to catch us and treat us like traffickers and bandits are ashamed to meet me today."

The tuk-tuk enters the sandy side streets of the Doubai neighbourhood, where brick and sheetmetal houses are barely visible behind tall iron gates.

People in Agadez, Niger
A group of young migrants waiting to head north [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Kouyate manages one of the many “ghettos” that have emerged in this area that serve as temporary shelters for migrants in transit.

They are called “ghettos”, Kouyate explains, because, under the previous law, migrants were forced to remain locked up here for months in harsh conditions until facilitators could smuggle them out.

"Today it's easier to manage and people have more freedom to leave and even seek small jobs," says the passeur as two guests in transit prepare to leave.

Inside, the surroundings are spartan. There is no furniture and people sleep on mats on the floor, storing their few belongings in corners of rooms.

Outside, there is typically a courtyard for communal activities and shared latrines.

Agadez, Niger
Kouyate shows the distance between Agadez and Tripoli, Libya [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

"When the law was in effect, everything had to be done in secret," Kouyate explains.

"We had strategies to get migrants out of the bus station and bring them here.

"I used to contact people long before in their countries, speaking in coded language due to police surveillance."

The passeur says "timing the desert pick-up was crucial and usually done at night on untravelled roads".

Law 2015-36 did not halt migration through Niger, but redirected it to more dangerous routes, research says.

Recent data shows an increase in irregular migration to Europe particularly via the Mediterranean, and a rise in Sahara-related fatalities, mostly among the undocumented.

Despite his time in prison, Kouyate had maintained his network to transport people to Libya, from where "other contacts from Libyan groups then take over”, he says.

Men in Agadez, Niger
Khalifa Cisse, right, an Ivorian migrant, has been saving money to leave [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Libya is the goal for Kaba Bangoura, a 24-year-old migrant from Sierra Leone.

He has been waiting since December to receive more funds from friends in Italy so he can reach his destination and find work as an electrician.

"I had been thinking about it for a while and as soon as I heard about the law being revoked, I decided to leave,” he says.

“Before, they would ask for documents and arrest you, now you just need money."

Across the street, another ghetto, usually managed by a Senegalese passeur, is now temporarily overseen by Khalifa Cisse, a 26-year-old Ivorian migrant with a troubled past.

Formerly a bus driver, Cisse fled after a fatal accident that nearly led to his lynching.

Since arriving in Agadez before the law's repeal, he has been saving money to continue his journey.

"To reach Libya from here, I need 300,000 [West African] francs ($492). I'm currently seeking the initial 100,000 ($152), but I aim for more to ensure safety along the way."

With the law repealed, Cisse feels relieved "because vehicles crossing the Sahara now fill up faster and leave more frequently".

A woman in Agadez, Niger
Bamira Hassane answers calls for NGO Alarm Phone, Sahara's emergency hotline [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

However, concerns persist about the safety of the journey, due to the risk of being stranded in the desert or facing attacks by bandits or armed groups.

In the courtyard, Pita Favour-David, a 35-year-old Nigerian, does the laundry.

She is less optimistic. Having travelled for several years and worked in Libya, she got pregnant, was fired and later deported back to Niger.

"There is no future for me in Nigeria. I don't want to go back, but with a baby to take care of, it's not easy to earn the money to continue my journey, so I'm stuck here," says Favour-David, who is accumulating debt with the passeur.

Support for people like her is available from Alarm Phone Sahara (APS), an NGO providing support and relief for migrants in need in the desert.

Bamira Hassane, a 23-year-old APS operator, explains that she used to handle 10-20 calls daily but since the law’s repeal, she manages up to 30-40 calls.

"Most requests are for medical or food support; many emergency calls originate from the desert or from deportees in Algeria."

Deported migrants are taken to the "zero point" near the border "where they access the helpline from the first town in Niger".

Mosque in Agadez, Niger
Built in 1515, the great mosque of Agadez is a symbol of the city, and a lighthouse for caravans crossing the desert [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

Estimating current migrant flows is challenging due to reduced NGO and humanitarian activity on the ground amid strained relations between the CNSP and Western partners.

Before the law's repeal in 2023, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) latest available data reported more than 60,000 migrants crossing from Niger to Libya and Algeria.

The flow can be visually confirmed around bus stations in Agadez.

The minaret of the great mosque of Agadez, a landmark for desert caravans, stands in the background.

Market stalls sell supplies for the journey, like food, water cans and phone batteries, while nearby houses serve as garages for loading trucks with goods.

Travellers, mostly boys and young men, wait under tarps with their belongings.

A man in Agadez, Niger
The old bus station in Agadez is like a second home to experienced passeur Abdou Amma [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

In the chaotic central station, everyone points to Abdou Amma in the transporters' union office, a 53-year-old man smoking in a burgundy shirt and sunglasses.

Amma is among the most experienced passeurs back on the job. He says he has worked in the business for 19 years, driving people from all over Africa.

When the law went into effect, Amma fled to avoid arrest, sold all his cars and remained unemployed.

Like many here, he believes that the law promoted by Europe has "stifled the economy and worsened the living conditions of the population" forcing people to often take up illegal activities.

"We were promised help, but nothing came. Many drivers have turned to drug and arms trafficking, as well as banditry," he says.

Niger's adoption of Law 2015-36 was linked to European funding promises contained within the massive 5 billion euro ($5.3bn)  Emergency Trust Fund for Africa plan.

More than a billion euros were allocated to the Sahel country between 2014 and 2020, but mostly in migration control projects.

Since the law was repealed, things are better for people like Amma.

“Since we are no longer criminalised, our region has begun to live again. We are back to work at last," he says.

It is as if "Agadez broke out of its cage", he adds, as many benefit from the flow of migrants in transit, "from the merchant, to the passeur, via the restaurateur and even the authorities, because each migrant pays a tax to the municipality of 1,000 francs ($1.64)".

The passeur adds that today people also travel in better conditions. "Every Tuesday, as before 2015, drivers and migrants are escorted by the military on their way to the northern borders," he explains.

Agadez, Niger
Transporting goods and people has always been the centrepiece of Agadez's economy [Marco Simoncelli/ Al Jazeera]

This convoy is made up of dozens of overflowing pick-up trucks that gather at the gates of Agadez and follow the Niger army going to military bases in the north. According to local association sources, some convoys consisted of more than 100 vehicles in January.

The mayor of Agadez, Aboubacar Touraoua, confirms this practice is authorised by authorities in Niamey and facilitates the supervision of the territory: "Now 98 percent of the vehicles leaving Agadez for the north declare themselves. Before, only 30 percent showed up, afraid of being arrested for trafficking. Now we know who is moving in and out."

For the mayor, agreements for stricter border control with the EU were accompanied by unfulfilled promises of future support.

"Niger is a country in re-foundation and everything that does not respect our sovereignty is being challenged by the junta," he says.

Yet, before the CNSP military led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani removed ex-President Mohamed Bazoum, a close ally of the West, Niger had received as much as 503 million euros ($544m) allocated from the EU between 2021 and 2024 to improve governance, education and sustainable growth in the country.

Local experts suggest these funds may have benefitted a small elite or been misused. That is why the repeal of the law earned support from the people, fuelling a paradigm shift.

The CNSP suspended military cooperation with the United States in March, after having interrupted security and military cooperation with France and the EU, including the costly EUCAP Sahel which had deployed 130 European policemen, and the military partnership mission (EUMPM).

Meanwhile, the military forges increasingly close diplomatic relations with Russia, Iran and Turkey, who appear to be more willing to offer military support without interfering in domestic politics.

But away from the political machinations in Niamey and European concerns, dusty Agadez has not seen such frenetic activities fuelled with optimism in years.

Kouyate is convinced that as long as the military is in power, the law will not return. "I should say we are in paradise. And I am 100 percent on this job now. I want to make money because we live on migrants, only on migrants," he says.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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