Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. The two sides promised to work closer on stemming illegal migration due to Niger's role as a migration hub in Western Africa, but Issoufou's own human rights record raises alarms.
On Wednesday, Angela Merkel spoke with Nigerien President Mahamdou Issoufou on how Germany and the European Union can best cooperate with the Western African nation on development and migration. Merkel has said that she believes migration from Niger can only be stemmed if there are "perspectives for its own economic development." Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been eager to receive EU aid and willing to fight migration in return for EU reimbursement.
Niger: relative stability in a chaotic region
Niger's well-organized security forces, along with its relative political stability in the region in contrast to other nations such as Post-Gaddafi Libya, make the country an ideal partner for the EU to negotiate with, as European governments continue to attempt to drive down the number of migrants who enter EU nations.
Many of the migrants from sub-Sahara Africa transiting through Niger eventually travel to Libya or Algeria, often in hopes of reaching Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.
Issoufou told DW that he thinks that other than foreign investment, jobs are the key to stemming migration. "We need proper jobs in the migrants’ countries of origin and in the transit countries. And that means that we need investment in those countries" he said. "That in turn requires the kind of large financial resources that those countries simply don’t have – neither the countries of origin, nor the transit countries. Of course, those countries themselves need to make every effort to activate internal resources and to invest in job creation, especially jobs for young people."
Difference in values
While the European Union espouses "respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law" as some of its core moral values, Issoufou's governing style seems to not reflect those tenets. This could possibly make him an ethically troublesome partner for the EU.
Issoufou, who was elected in 2011, often punishes his critics. In Niger's last elections in 2016, Niger's opposition leader Hama Amadou was arrested on charges of baby trafficking along with other members of the country's political elite. Amadou's lawyer told Deutsche Welle in 2016 that he feels that this was a set up, and the arbitrary arrest was clearly "politically motivated." Press Freedom in the country is only ranked "Partly Free" by the independent watchdog organization Freedom House and critics of Issofou are rarely seen on public media in the country.
Smuggling now economic driver in Agadez
Issoufou's criminalization of migration has made him less popular domestically. In Niger's northern part, the city of Agadez remains the key city for human smugglers willing to assist migrants to reach Northern African in exchange for money. This human trafficking has become an integral part of Agadez's economy. Previously, tourism was the main driver of the northern region, but due to a drastic decrease in security, the tourists have stopped including Niger in their safaris and the former tour guides decided to make a living through smuggling.
And as Issoufou continues to crack down on migrants in the northern, arid desert part of the country migrants are beginning to choose increasingly dangerous routes to get to Libya and Algeria via Niger, due to ramped up checks by the Nigerien security forces.
Those who make it to Algeria, for example, are sent back to Niger, left to be stranded with little food or water. Between May 2017 and late June 2018, Algeria has expelled 13,000 migrants back to the searing heat of the Nigerien desert, AP reports. The International Organization for Migration told French news agency AFP that the organization has conducted 18 rescue operations and retrieved 3,000 migrants stuck in the desert from January to July 2017 after being pushed back by Algerian authorities.
EU deals give consent to increasing authoritarianism in Niger, Jannik says
For Issoufou, deals with the European Union increase Issoufou's staying power, Jannik Schritt, a visiting fellow and Niger expert at the German Institute for Area studies said. "I think the problem is that on that the EU will in a way facilitate this authoritarian way of governing Niger," he told InfoMigrants. He also thinks it is wrong for the EU to partner with Issofou because of humanitarian reasons: "Migration is becoming more dangerous there and there are even more deaths."
Jannik Schritt believes the current method of partnering with African nations such as Niger fails to address the core root causes of migration. He proposes an alternative: "The EU should stop subsidizing the export of EU products to Africa which destroy African economies while African economies/entrepreneurs should be given preferential access to EU markets," he said. This sentiment was shared by German Development Minister Gerd Müller, who earlier this month told Hamburg-based newspaper Die Welt that the European Union should "open the market for all African goods." He also suggested that the EU work to lower interest rates in Africa so that entrepreneurs could take out loans to start their own businesses.