Niger observers link coup to president’s support for EU migration policies
Experts say army received bribes from people smuggling until 2015 law associated with Mohamed Bazoum
Observers have linked Mohamed Bazoum’s support for European Union policies aimed at stifling migration routes through north Africa to his ousting as president of Niger last month.
Army officers toppled Bazoum on 26 July, as Niger became the fourth west African country since 2020 to have a coup, following Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.
Domestically, Bazoum had been closely associated with a law against people smuggling that was brought in by Niger’s government with the support of EU authorities in 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis.
Under the terms of a deal struck with EU leaders, Niger – one of the poorest countries in the world and a transit point for people heading for Libya and then southern Europe – received aid money in return for blocking routes north.
Bazoum became interior minister in 2016, the same year the law was implemented. The legislation became known as the “Bazoum law”. In 2021, he was feted by the international community including the former colonial power France after winning elections that ushered in Niger’s first peaceful transition of power.
The legislation was opposed by figures in the Nigerien military who had previously benefitted financially from bribes paid by people smugglers and those being smuggled.
Alkontchy Mohamed, a community leader in Agadez – a desert city through which thousands of people used to pass – said everyone related to the people-smuggling industry had been affected by the law. “The army officers who used to stand on the checkpoints, the people who drove the migrants, the people who would take migrants into Libya – the whole population used to depend on this business,” he said.
On Sunday, people from the Tuareg and Toubou communities protested in front of the offices of the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR to call for the law to be repealed.
The reasons the army launched a coup were many, according to a university professor in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, who did not want to be identified. “Among them was the impact of their loss of revenues from illegal migration, but also the fact that Bazoum comes from a minority group in Niger.”
Jérôme Tubiana, a French researcher and journalist who has covered conflict and displacement issues across the Sahel region and Horn of Africa, said the EU had ignored warnings that its Niger policy could undermine democratic progress in the country.
“Much like in Sudan, EU countries like Italy and Germany were not listening to warnings of the destabilising effects of the migration policy, they were just obsessed with [reducing] migration,” Tubiana said.
“Now, I’m afraid that within the French establishment voices who believe Africa is not ripe for civilian democracy will rise again, since they see that armies are turning against France only when France supports civilian democracies.”
The coup has heightened international worries over instability in the Sahel region, which faces growing jihadist insurgencies linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
On Monday, a representative of the west Africa bloc Ecowas described a call by the coup leaders for a three-year transition back to democracy as unacceptable.
Ecowas has agreed to activate a “standby force” as a last resort to restore democracy in Niger and has said it is ready to act, though it is still pursuing diplomacy. But the regional bloc has given no date for or details about any potential military intervention.
Editor, Guardian US