At the weekend, Niger’s military government abrogated the controversial Law 36-2015, which criminalised transportation of migrants north from Agadez to Libya and Algeria for onward transition to Europe.
The government also expunged convictions handed out as a result of the law. The announcement effectively ended an eight-year security partnership between the European Union and Niger and adds another layer to the increasingly constrained diplomatic standoff between the government and its Western partners since the former seized power in July.
Described as the “year of Europe’s refugee crisis”, 2015 saw Europe receive one million migrants and asylum seekers. In the same year, under the presidency of Mohammadou Issofou, the Nigerien parliament passed the law in an effort aimed at slowing the flow of migrants via Agadez, Niger’s fifth-largest city and capital of its ancient Agadez region.
Over the years, experts and analysts criticised the law, among other things, as an overbearing influence of the West on Africa, and civil society organisations pushed for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court to declare it illegal.
That criticism has continued today.
“It was a law that was forced on the Nigerien government by the European Union when the migration to Europe started to get a level that the European Union considered to be unacceptably high,” Chris Ogunmodede, a foreign affairs analyst with years of experience working in African diplomatic circles, told Al Jazeera.
Upon the law, the EU, whom experts have said heavily influenced its passage, established a five-billion-euro Trust Fund for Africa, and more than one billion euros went to Niger between 2014 and 2020.
“The EU dangled billions of euros in the front of one of the poorest governments in the world, then what do you think they would do?” Ogunmodede said.
‘Deaths and disappearances’
After the law went into effect following the country’s election in 2016, the ripple effects were felt across the region as a risky but relatively safer and voluntary migration route suddenly disappeared. The crackdown on migrants and smugglers forced Agadez into unfamiliar territory, and livelihoods relying on the centuries-old migration business were destroyed as a result of prohibition.
Shops, restaurants, and other operators in the hospitality business that depended on migration, had no one to cater to and became deserted.
“It was an economic catastrophe for northern Niger at a time of extreme regional vulnerability, decimating a migrant transport industry that sustained much of the remote, neglected region and that was generally well-regulated for migrants to do the dangerous desert crossing, with security escorts and state-licensed drivers,” Hannah Rae Armstrong, a former Sahel analyst for the International Crisis Group told Al Jazeera.
Niger’s allies and proponents of the law have long insisted that the law has been effective in keeping traffickers at bay.
In September, Brussels said it had dismantled 273 smuggling networks, arrested 938 people suspected to be involved in trafficking rings and prosecuted 876 suspected smugglers since 2017.
But while diplomats in Brussels bandy around reduced figures in migration to Europe through the Sahel, experts have said it is not a reflection of reality.
“To avoid the traps of the police at checkpoints and military patrols on the field, smugglers devised new and more dangerous routes elsewhere across the border … and the consequences are deaths and disappearances across the desert with hundreds of arrests among drivers and smugglers,” Azizou Chehou, the coordinator of Alarm Phone Sahara, an Agadez-based NGO helping migrants in the Sahel and Sahara, argued.
These more dangerous and underground routes remain concealed from the public eye. These routes have kept migrants out of sight of security agents usually stationed to help those in trouble.
Extrajudicial abuses have also thrived.
“[The law] turned Nigerien army and security forces against these migrants basically, and you see them being dumped in the desert,” Nathaniel Powell, Africa Analyst at geopolitical advisory Oxford Analytica, said.
The new sheriff
Last week, Abdourahamane Tchiani, head of the military government met his counterparts in Burkina Faso and Mali – both countries also under military rule – under the aegis of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), which was formed in September.
There, Niger committed to a multilateral security pact that experts have said, could also be a broader plan for Tchiani to assert himself and garner some legitimacy for his regime.
Abroad, the abrogation could signal who the new sheriff is, they said.
“Having that law in place undermined the legitimacy of the government [under Bazoum]; ending it restores that to some extent,” Powell said. “Abrogating that law which is seen as a colonial fetter on Niger’s freedom is reasserting Niger’s sovereignty. For the government, it falls within their ideological way of presenting themselves to the public.”
While this was probably expected, it will be a major disappointment to Brussels, which had been very tempered in its response to the July coup.
In the wake of global denouncement of the coup and the announcement of sanctions from regional and international entities, the union condemned the takeover and suspended its budget aid to Niger. However, its diplomatic pressure paled in comparison with France’s individual response in what experts believe was a cautious approach to not jeopardise its migration agreement with the West African country.
However, that seems to have done little to placate Niamey.
“At this point, the government has shown that it is not willing to play ball with Europe broadly,” Ogunmodede said. “The EU went to heaven and earth to make sure that the law passed with the incentives. So, the repeal of that law blows everything in the air.”
At home, the repeal could help the government consolidate its hold on power by being seen as distanced from France and, more broadly, European interests.
Ethnic Tuareg militia have already reignited their rebellion in northern Mali following the breakdown of the landmark peace deal they had with the then-Malian government. A similar declaration in northern Niger after the coup by some pro-Bazoum groups has raised fears about a resurgence of violence there even though there is a 2009 peace deal in place.
This repeal of the anti-migration law could help calibrate the temperature of the already precarious security situation in Niger.
“Although they have yet to strike, the repealing of this law could be managed in a way to calm northern factions and align with economic actors who may feel disadvantaged by recent [political] events,” Armstrong said.
In July, when Bazoum was deposed and Nigeriens poured into the streets in support of the military’s action, corruption, cost of living crisis and what the people saw as an unacceptable outsized influence by France were cited for the wave of endorsement.
In the vast Northern region, these sentiments were acutely felt by the people. And at the top of the list of their grievances was the anti-migration law which had made an already-poor region even poorer.
They have since welcomed the repeal and see it as another process in weaning Niger from Western entanglements. Some experts have agreed, as well.
“This decision is to be applauded since freedom of movement has been recovered through the order,” Chehou said.
“We wanted to point out the injustice imposed on sub-Saharan citizens not only in their desire to reach destinations but also in damaging the circular migration in ECOWAS space for the sake of another geographic space of the European Union.”