For years, Nigerien leaders have limited trafficking-related bloodshed in the country’s north through tacit understandings with those involved, but today such tactics are under stress. The north’s once booming illicit economy took a hit in 2015, when the government, under European pressure, banned migrant smuggling. At the same time, heightened competition over drug trafficking routes has upped tensions, and now newly discovered gold brings its own risks.
The government should shore up its informal conflict management initiatives and strengthen the north’s formal economy, while simultaneously confronting the most violent traffickers. International actors, particularly European leaders keen on curbing migration, should back this two-track approach.
Foreign militaries that focus primarily on fighting jihadists should avoid getting sucked into efforts to disrupt illicit trade. The escalation of trafficking disputes into open armed conflict would fuel the militancy and migration that Western governments hope to contain.
Over the past 20 years, trade in drugs, gold and people has generated unprecedented revenue in northern Niger. To safeguard their interests, traffickers have hired armed groups, some of whom are bandits and others ethnic-minority rebels. They have also cut deals with state officials, either to shield their business activity from official scrutiny or to buy soldiers’ services in protecting their convoys. Some have become legitimate businessmen and even entered national politics.
For their part, central and local Nigerien authorities have mostly sought to manage rather than stop trafficking, focusing on resolving quarrels between rival kingpins lest they escalate into communal fighting. Managing illicit commerce has often been an important means of strengthening weak economies and incorporating former rebels in government.
Many locals regard the new class of politically connected traffickers warily. They worry that these men could ally with particular political factions for mutual advantage, hollowing out state institutions, co-opting state security forces and, in effect, turning the state into a criminal enterprise.
These concerns are serious, but for now Niger is better off continuing to compromise with traffickers, provided that these understandings deter violence. Such accommodation has worked well in the Agadez region, where the state has integrated previously disaffected Tuareg elites into the state and used dialogue to ensure that illicit commerce yields economic benefits for locals.
In contrast, similar informal systems are lacking in the far north Kawar region, where Tebu elites nurse grievances against the state and trafficking disputes have aggravated friction between Tebu and Tuareg.
The area also suffers from conflicts spilling over from southern Libya and northern Chad, adding to the difficulties that national and regional authorities face there.
An increase in foreign involvement in the Sahel brings another challenge. As foreign governments step up campaigns to counter jihadism and seal off migration routes to Europe, trafficking is under fresh scrutiny. Not only are European governments determined to stem the northward flow of migrants, but they and other foreign actors increasingly cast trafficking as a security risk that bankrolls militants and undermines the state.
A 2015 law, passed largely as a result of foreign pressure, banned migrant transport, a lucrative business with little negative effect upon Niger itself, and threw the northern economy into disarray. Were it not for a gold mining boom, which happened at the same time and absorbed unemployed migrant smugglers, the economic damage could have been much worse. Many of the jobless men might have found their way into armed groups and competition for scarce resources could have taken more lives.
Niger and its partners should focus on containing trafficking’s potential to drive violence. Local mediation initiatives, which have prevented clashes among rivals, particularly around Agadez, and deterred communal conflict tied to illicit commerce, should continue. Nigerien authorities should be particularly cautious in attempting to disrupt trafficking in Kawar, instead seeking to establish similar conflict management systems to those in Agadez.
At the same time, the authorities should confront those traffickers who are heavily armed or violent; the state should tailor its tactics —from military action to prosecution to stripping of political privileges — based on what is mostly likely to work with each individual or network.
It should also do more to create alternatives in the formal economy, starting by investing in road construction, electrification and better management of resources.
The EU and European governments should ensure that policies aimed at disrupting trafficking do not inadvertently fuel the trends they aim to curtail. European leaders appear set to keep placing high priority on curbing migration, even if the number of people passing through Niger has dropped considerably since 2015.
Critical is that their policies do minimal economic damage and do not upset the informal systems that have allowed Niger to escape major violence even as neighbouring Libya and Mali collapsed. Foreign military operations that concentrate on tackling Islamist militancy should avoid getting involved in efforts to disrupt trafficking, which would inevitably embroil them in local politics.
The EU should also take care that development programmes do not give the sense of favouring one group over another and thus exacerbate ethnic competition. The collapse of the fragile equilibrium that Niger has more or less maintained over the past decade would almost certainly play into the hands of militants and further stimulate northward migration.
This is an edited extract from Managing Drug Trafficking in Northern Niger, a report by the International Crisis Group, which is an independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies for a more peaceful world