International Work

Niger after the Coup: new migration patterns in the Sahel?

What are the consequences of the cancellation of the migration agreement between Niger and the EU? An interview.


On 28 November 2023, the new Nigerien military government abrogated the law of 2015 that criminalized migrants transport from Agadez to Libya, defined as “human trafficking” and “migrant smuggling.” The law was an important piece in Brussels’ policy for controlling and repressing migration to Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly from West Africa. We talked about the implications of these recent developments with Dr. A. Idrissa Abdoulaye from Leiden University.


Mr. Abdoulaye, was the former agreement considered to be successful by the EU and what were the effects on migration patterns in the region?

Dr. A. Idrissa Abdoulaye: The agreement between Niger and the European Union on controlling transit migration to Libya was one element in a system for controlling and reducing migratory flows to European territory in a swath of land that extends to Libya and Tunisia. The specific benefits of cooperation with Niger included not only a reduction in the number of migrants reaching Libya – difficult to quantify due to lack of reliable figures regarding the bypass routes, but real – but also the management of relevant migrant populations in centres run by the International Organisation for Migration; the possibility of organising the deportation of migrants from Libya to Niger; and of funding the return of migrants to their country from Niger. The Niger facility was therefore a central element in the EU’s policy of externalising its borders into Africa. Its three priorities were: strengthening migration control; combating human trafficking; and supporting growth and employment alternatives. To secure Niger’s cooperation, the EU provided substantial budgetary aid, at least part of which was conditional on progress on migration and security. As the data needed to analyse the evolution of this conditionality over time are not accessible, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the level of EU’s satisfaction about it. Nevertheless, the fact that the EU did not interrupt its budgetary aid indicates that it was generally satisfied with the results of cooperation. Furthermore, this cooperation framework enabled European police forces, in particular Frontex, to intervene directly in the implementation of the migration policy resulting from the Niger law from 2015.

The law did not put an end to transit migration, but rather informalized it. The law targeted the passeurs, namely, those who offered transport services to migrants, not the migrants themselves, who could only be “managed” or “returned” with their consent. This meant that they retained the initiative to continue their migration project, but with considerable increase in terms of outlay and physical danger (hazardous bypass routes, higher transport costs, corruption). The law had also increased police corruption at the borders of Niger and, by imitation, at those of Burkina Faso, a country that did not have such a law. As a result, illegal fees had increased for many foreigners travelling to these two countries, even when their destination was not Libya or Europe.


What effects did the Migration Agreement and its implementation have on the Security Situation in the Region?

From the EU’s point of view, the agreement was, on paper, part of a general scheme of migration control based on “security, development and protection”. In theory, migrants who agree to enter the processing tracks set up under the policy (border posts and administrative handling, holding camps, reinsertion and return policies) would escape the security risks of areas outside police control, benefit from support for the development of alternative projects to migration, and were protected by being able to move around or settle in safe areas. But this would come at the price of giving up the migration project. As a result, the agreement created a dual space, a secure and a non-secure one. It focused EU support for Niger’s defence and security forces and its judicial system on the construction of this secure area, which encompassed the regular road system. There was less active concentration on the non-secure terrains in the desert bordering northern Mali and Algeria, where the bypass itineraries tended to develop. In such areas, migrant flows were connected to a world of merchandise smuggling, illicit trafficking and other criminal activity.

The main migrant routes are from northern Benin to Libya via Dosso, Tahoua and Agadez; and from Nigeria to Agadez via border towns near Nigeria. These routes are away from the part of Niger under intensive Jihadist activity, i.e., the three-border region with Mali and Burkina. Thus, the agreement has no significant impact on the security issues in that part of the country. It might be that some of the people deprived of a job or a business by the law would join these bad actors. They fell into a lumpenproletariat that would be vulnerable to such opportunities. But this would not just be in Niger, but across trouble areas in the Sahel (many Nigeriens have joined for instance the troops of the Sudanese warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo “Hemetti” in the ongoing war in Sudan). To trace this back to the law is conjectural at best and would require research that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been done.


What are the new migration patterns and security challenges after revoking the law 2015-36 by the junta in Niger, mainly in the Agadez region?

It is too early to tell, particularly since for some time after the revocation of the law, Niger’s southern borders – with Benin and Nigeria – were closed as a result of ECOWAS’ anti-coup sanctions. This had the effect of stilling migrant flows into Niger.

One may be certain, however, that there will be a significant increase of migration toward the Mediterranean. Under the previous policy, migrant transport was deregulated by the fact of being clandestine. The fact that it is now licit does not mean it will be regulated. Regulation is a matter of policy, and the junta is not at present envisioning a migration policy. This means a return to the situation that existed before 2015, under which migration was stimulated by safe travels and deregulation. This is the best scenario for migrants, as it creates a market that will allow them to better invest their funds and find the best services for their journey.

The junta will not invest more in securitizing migrant routes, but migrants will no longer have to follow the unsafe bypass routes to which they were confined before. Migration was not a significant security issue in Agadez in the past, and it is not to be expected that it will become one now – maybe the reverse. The main security risk was tied to the law, which, it was feared, would incite passeurs to turn to criminal activities after they were deprived of their main income. If some of this did happen, one may expect the new situation to draw many who took to shadier business back into the profitable licit trade of serving the needs of migrants. 

In general, the abrogation of the law means that the economic ecosystem around migration (transport, hospitality and restoration, money transfer) will be revived, thus decreasing security risks associated with alternative criminal activity. But corruption will not diminish and may in fact increase and metastasize due to the influx of migrants and the multiplication of corruptive opportunities induced by the fact that migrant circulation is licit but not regulated.


Will the new government in Niamey use migration as a bargaining chip against the EU?

The Niger junta does not control migrant populations and cannot therefore use them as a weapon to be discharged, as the question implies. Under the abrogated law, the Niger government had a certain amount of control over migrants, since it constrained their circulation and compelled a significant number of them to integrate, even intermittently, the system of control and management set up in collaboration with the EU. Under the new dispensation, that control has been relinquished. This means Niger does no longer have a migration bargaining chip to use in its relations with the EU. As a result, the only change now possible is Niger returning to collaboration with the EU on migration control against financial help. It is not Russian interest that is precluding such a scenario, but the junta’s claim that it is defending Nigerien sovereignty against European meddling, as the language that justifies the revocation of the law expresses. At least in Agadez region, where the migrant economy is going to be revived, that claim is bound to supply the junta with some much-needed bases of legitimacy.

Given the dogma in Niger’s ruling combine that Russia is the country’s exclusive security partner, there will be greater Russian involvement going forward. For Russia, this is not about resources – Niger’s oil is in the hands of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and uranium remains under contract with France’s Orano – but about exploiting local ideologies to make things more difficult for the West in the framework of a new cold war.


What are policy options for the EU and its member states in light of the current developments?

According to the Niger junta, it is not for transit countries like Niger to solve the migration dilemma of destination countries, but rather for those destination countries to do it. This stance means that the EU preferred policy options in collaborating with Niger on migration are no longer available in that country at the moment. But there are scenarios that may be envisioned with regard to cooperation with Niger.

The first scenario is: what happens if the junta stays indefinitely in power. The working idea of the junta is that they have the “right” to stay in charge so long as the security problem of Niger/the Sahel is not resolved, which can be forever. Challenges to this project may come up and force them to change track, but for now we must assume the junta will be in power for years. It is possible to collaborate with them on migration, but this will need to be based on: (1) the junta being ready to talk, which is not yet the case; and (2) knowing what their bargaining terms and objective constraints are, and developing policy propositions in reaction to that.

The second scenario is: the junta moves out of power within the next several months; elections are organized and a civilian government is voted in. In that case, collaboration with Niger will be easier, but the law of 2015 is unlikely to be revived as is. Lessons will need to be drawn about some of the issues/problems caused by the law as well as the ways in which it did not meet expectations and standards of care; and a new form of regulation and control of migration will then be designed on that basis.

In the meantime, Brussels will need to work with ECOWAS. Migration is a West African phenomenon. One mistake about the 2015 law is that Brussels took what it thought was the easy route and asked one country to become responsible for addressing an issue that did not even originate within its territory. In so doing, Brussels put all its eggs in one basket. Brussels should work to find out on what terms and in accordance with what constraints diverse countries in West Africa (especially the main departure countries of Guinea, Senegal, and Nigeria) are ready to work on the issue and how this could be made to converge with agendas that have purchase at an inter-government level within the region, and in Europe itself. In previous work I found that the difficulty that the EU faces in negotiating with West African states comes as much from those states as it does from European states. The policy options that will come out of this will be necessarily diverse and variable (in accordance with countries), but they will give a toolbox that is better than a single basket with all the eggs in it.

As for Niger, at the moment, the black-and-white ideological views of the ruling combine, military/sovereigntist – cemented by the inward-looking club of the Alliance of the Sahel States – makes engaging them productively an impossible proposition. This is particularly the case because the interest of the European states in the Sahel has to do with migration and Jihadism (and now Russia) essentially – and on these subjects, the juntas have resolved to sidestep them, as they categorize as “the West” and thus the enemy while Russia is the friend and ally. (The Russia-centrism should also be understood more pragmatically as a protection deal against potential coup-makers and potential French machinations).

Military rule and the Russian partnership – which is purely based on the use of military force – means heightened securitization in terms of domestic policy, though not migration control. This is in contrast to the path taken by the EU, which included increased development aid, particularly aid to the economy in terms of infrastructure building (solar power plants, roads, dam). This was the right kind of aid for a country like Niger. It has been rejected by the new rulers mainly as a result of a political problem, i.e., a fight within the Niger elite between pragmatists and ideologues. The pragmatists (people like deposed president Mohammed Bazoum) thought that (1) the EU interest in stopping migration could be exploited to secure to Niger the kind of aid it really needs, as opposed to the kind of aid that rich governments prefer to give, and (2) there was a convergence between the EU’s interest in stemming Jihadism and Niger’s interest in ending Jihadist violence. The ideologues/radicals see any relationship with the West as tainted by imperialism and driven by some ulterior motives, especially “the plundering of our resources”. With the military coups, the ideologues won over the pragmatists. Given the state of mind of the former, there is little the EU can do to escape the taint that it is an imperialist entity. The French, for example, radically changed their approach between 2014 and 2020, going from dictating to the Malians to becoming essentially the auxiliaries of the Nigerien army once they moved to Niger— and leaving President Bazoum to define the theory of change in Niger (something they failed to do in Mali under Ibrahim Boubacar Keita). Their change of ways did not change the minds of the ideologues. Facts matter less than ideas and concepts. It is on that ground that they should be engaged, which is what the Russians did, with the help of ideological stooges such as the Cameroonian-Swiss African nationalist Nathalie Yamb and her Franco-Beninese fellow-traveller Kemi Seba, as well as through intensive work of disinformation and propaganda on social media, etc. The French/Europeans were not able to respond in kind. Given the current outcome, only a change in the internal situation in the Sahel countries is likely to create new opportunities for dialogue and engagement.



Dr. A. Idrissa Abdoulaye is a political scientist at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University (ASCL). His doctorate in political science, with a concentration on democratisation and political Islam in Africa, was obtained at the University of Florida. Idrissa’s research expertise ranges from issues of states, institutions and democratisation in Africa to Salafi radicalism in the Sahel and current projects on the history of state formation in Africa, with a focus both on the modern (Niger) and premodern eras (Songhay). Before joining the ASCL, Idrissa has founded and run EPGA, a think tank in political economy in Niger, training students and coordinating projects based on methodologies of political economy analysis that focused on migration, youth employment and demography.


The opinions and statements of the guest author expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the position of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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