News | West Africa Niger after the Coup

The economic blockade imposed on Niger by ECOWAS has drastically worsened conditions in the country


Migrants abandoned in the desert and found by National Patrol on the Agadez-Dirkou road
Migrants abandoned in the desert and found by National Patrol on the Agadez-Dirkou road in Niger. Photo: Giacomo Zandonini / Borderforensics

When dissident military officers overthrew the elected government of Niger on 26 July, decrying its pliant attitude towards the West and the ongoing French presence in the country, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened a military intervention with support from much of the West. Such an intervention never came to pass, but in its place, a total economic blockade has been imposed, choking off every source of financial aid the country has.

Rhoumour Ahmet Tchilouta is a doctoral student at the Université Grenoble Alpes and the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, where he researches cooperation between Europe and Niger around migration and border management.

Yet the Nigerien putschist government presses on, refusing to cooperate with the country’s former Western partners and proposing a number of reforms that have proven popular among the country’s young population — including loosening migration controls. To learn more about the situation on the ground and what the future may hold for the country, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Franza Drechsel spoke with Nigerien migration researcher Rhoumour Ahmet Tchilouta of Border Forensics, who was in the country until recently.

You were in Niger until a few weeks ago. How do you view the situation in the country after the coup d’état of 26 July?

Due to the draconian ECOWAS sanctions and the suspension of budget and development aid, the situation is bad. Fifty-five percent of the state budget comes from Western countries, the European Union, Germany, or France. So, currently, a lot of money is lacking.

The sanctions of the ECOWAS as well as the West African Monetary and Economic Union (UEMOA) blocked the Nigerien economy: nothing is entering the country, nor does anything leave. It is an unprecedented economic and financial blockade.

Is the situation similar all over Niger?

No, you feel it mostly in Niamey, the capital, where most of the public servants live and where private companies, their directorates, are based. Since the Central Bank of West African States is not giving any more money to Niger, it is impossible to withdraw any money. This means that even if you get money on paper, you have none for daily transactions to pay your rent, your bills.

By contrast, in Agadez, the situation is less dominated by fear and the people feel less of the effects of the coup. They mostly only face difficulties when they buy food such as rice, because prices have risen massively. This is a big problem.

How are the people doing?

Generally, the people are very worried, they do not know where to get money from. I would say that although Nigeriens are over all quite resilient, the country is heading towards a humanitarian disaster if the ECOWAS sanctions continue. That means that more and more voices are expressing their worries concerning the sanctions, but also concerning the putschists. The situation is highly problematic!

Your research focuses on migration. What do you currently observe in Niger?

Migrants are the ones who suffer the most. The borders with Nigeria as well as with Benin are closed, nonetheless, people are arriving in Niger. Border movements in West Africa are usually informal and continue.

At the same time, people on the move are stuck in Niger, especially in Agadez. There are those who had been here before the coup, those who arrived afterwards, and those who were and continue to be deported from Algeria.

There are deportations of migrants from Algeria?

Yes! Despite the difficult socio-political situation in Niger, Algeria has never stopped the deportations to “Point Zero”. This is located 15 kilometres away from Assamaka, the last Nigerien city before the Algerian border. One could even say that Algeria deports more people since the coup.

The sanctions that were put in place after the coup are the biggest blow that could happen to Niger — it could even prove fatal.

Alarm Phone Sahara states that since 26 July, more than 5,000 people have been expelled. According to Aïr Infos, the city currently accommodates more than 6,000 people deported from Sub-Saharan Africa, which is double the number of inhabitants. They are stuck there.

Where are the other migrants?

The transit centres run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Agadez and Niamey are more than full. This is because the so-called “voluntary” returns which IOM normally executes no longer happen due to the border and air space closures as well as a lack of finances.

Currently, the need of the migrants is more evident than ever before. When you drive through the streets of Agadez, you see people sleeping on the street under horrible conditions, among them women and children. It is highly alarming!

The number of people in need rises while the capacities and resources to accommodate them diminish. The reason is that IOM, like the majority of humanitarian organizations working on migration, normally gets its money from the EU. In brief, the situation is horrible, particularly in Agadez.

In 2015, the Nigerien government, with Mohamed Bazoum as Minister for Internal Affairs and under pressure from the EU, implemented Law 2015-36, which criminalizes all services related to migration. Checkpoints were set up along the routes across the Sahara which — as the Border Forensics report you contributed to, Mission Accomplished? The Deadly Effects of Border Control in Niger, shows — had the effect that migrants took more dangerous routes with less access to water. How did you prove this?

The aim of the research with Border Forensics was to change the narrative and to provide new evidence. After the ratification of Law 2015-36, organizations such as APS relentlessly made public the human disaster for migrants.

The real number of deaths in the Nigerien desert will never be known. The Missing Migrant Project of the IOM puts the death toll in the Nigerien Sahara at at least 1,092 since 2014, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. The drastic measure of the law had the effect that migration takes place in more remote areas where accidents go unnoticed. This makes it more difficult to collect data.

To address this crisis and the lack of empirical data, Border Forensics developed new techniques for geospatial analysis and remote sensing with the aim to empirically document the deadly effects of the controls along Niger’s borders.

How exactly did you work?

The methods were applied in three key locations: the city Seguédine, the military fort Madama, and the border crossing Toummo between Niger and Libya. The criminalist analyses of the borders focused on loss of water and the tracking of migrants by defence and security agents.

Two methods which had been applied as part of the militarization of the Sonora Desert along the border between the US and Mexico were used and adapted to the context of the Trans-Sahara routes. The visual field analysis uses an algorithm that evaluates the visual range from the main street. The second method integrated a cost-distance analysis that estimates the minimal water quantity a person in need would need to reach the main road in order to get help.

Although the migration dynamics differ from place to place, there are obvious patterns. The remote sensing analyses show that military activities have augmented after the ratification of the migration policy. They prove that the growing criminalization of migration and its support means that carriers and migrants chose more remote and less visible roads. As a consequence, the risk of dehydration rises in case of an accident or lack of water.

Has the coup had effects on migrants’ current choice of routes?

Migration always takes place. No matter what regulations and whether they prohibit migration, it will never stop those who want to leave.

But it is not yet clear which stance the government will take on migration. We only know that several Nigerien contingents that had been stationed in the north were re-positioned at the borders of Benin and Nigeria to counter a possible military intervention by ECOWAS. This means there is less personnel for controls.

Also, there had been regular patrols to fight migration in Agadez. Due to a lack of finances, these were reduced. This makes transport agents of migrants become more visible again. Before the coup, it was not possible to start a journey in the middle of the day, whereas now one can see passengers boarding in broad daylight.

Many questions remain with regard to the future of initiatives such as EUCAP Sahel Niger, which had been deeply involved in controlling migrants, or of the Joint Investigation Teams in which European police and military worked.

Let’s get back to contemporary politics. Is it possible that the transitional government will change the migration law?

Yes, since the coup, some new dynamics are emerging and it has actually become possible that Law 2015-36 will be adapted or abolished. If this happens, the paradigm of migration control will be changed completely, as all other measures would become ineffective, since they would lose their legal and repressive grounds.

Is this an initiative of the military government?

I wouldn’t say so. It is rather an initiative of a part of the public from the region of Agadez, particularly ex-rebels, political leaders, and leading entrepreneurs in the field of migration, who organized themselves in the Union of Nigeriens for Vigilance and Patriotism (UNVP). This is an alliance to support the transition government.

The demand to modify the law (by rather moderate voices) and to abolish it (by more radical ones) started to appear for the first time in certain WhatsApp groups in the Agadez region just after the coup. Later, the UNVP contacted the region’s governor, who had been appointed by the transition government, and a delegation went to Niamey to, among other things, hold a press conference on the topic. There, the delegation met the Minister of Justice, who became active to reform the law.

The regime change and the socio-political dynamics that followed are a good moment for Niger’s international partners, especially the EU and its member states including Germany in particular, to rethink their approaches to migration policy.

Put briefly, the delegation of the UNVP uses the transitional government’s political line of soveriegntism and its take vis-à-vis the international community, particularly France. This way, they hope to push through changes that have been demanded by local politicians and the region’s population since this law was passed.

Do you believe that the lack of money plays a role in a possible liberalization of migration?

Absolutely! Migration could contribute a lot to the economy in Agadez in particular and in Niger in general. This is one of the arguments used by the UNVP. They say that lifting the restrictions on the transport of migrants was one of the instructions that Abdourahamane Tiani, president of the transitional government, gave to his prime minister to improve the difficult socio-economic situation. The decriminalization of transport would affect many people — before the law, it is estimated that more than 6,000 people lived from transit migration.

What do you demand from the German government?

The sanctions that were put in place after the coup are the biggest blow that could happen to Niger — it could even prove fatal. The suspension of budget aid as well as humanitarian and development projects has severe consequences. However, these sanctions do not affect the putschists. It is the people who suffer the most!

So you want development aid to be resumed?

Exactly. For example, in Agadez, there is a project to support farmers. At the moment, they don’t know whether this will continue. There are also many projects to build solar power systems, which have been stopped. Especially now, when most of the electricity we normally import from Nigeria is missing due to the sanctions, you can see how important such projects are. They must continue!

What about migration?

The regime change and the socio-political dynamics that followed are a good moment for Niger’s international partners, especially the EU and its member states including Germany in particular, to rethink their approaches to migration policy.

In short, the restrictions on mobility, the increase in border controls — this is not African integration, this is not improving the daily lives of Nigeriens. Households in Niger live from mobility. That has always been the case and will remain so. But the actors involved should take measures that defend the dignity and rights of migrants and that strengthen justice in the area of mobility, instead of clinging to the illusion that migration can be stopped at enormous human cost.

This interview was conducted in late October. The Nigerien transitional government revoked the migration law in question on 25 November 2023.