RISING DOUBTS ON ITALY’S MISSION IN NIGER
January 17, 2018, the Italian Parliament approved the deployment
of a military contingent to Niger. Units that are presently in
Afghanistan and Iraq will be redeployed on other scenarios, from
Tunisia to Misrata, from the Central African Republic to Morocco.
The list includes Niger.
The official scope of the mission is to fight illegal immigration by training the Nigerien army. Other tasks include the stepping up of border checks with Libya and operations to tackle the organized crime groups that traffic human beings. The ultimate goal of the mission is to halt the transit of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and to prevent them from reaching the coast and climbing on a boat headed to Italy.
During a November 2017 summit in Abdijan, the African Union and the European Union signed a deal to this effect. For the coming five years, European investments will reach Africa in exchange for a halt to illegal immigrants and for a quicker repatriation procedure for those that are not granted humanitarian asylum. The agreement has yet to be tested.
A difficult task
Italian soldiers are unlikely to be able to solve the problem on their own. The area is too vast; it’s a desert; the borders are just on paper and there is no way to prevent people from transiting. The number of units deployed is also somewhat inadequate to cover an area as big as France. We’re talking about 470 units, two airplanes, a few drones and 130 vehicles.
Furthermore, Niger is just another country on the path of the immigrants, although it does represent the entry point to Libya. For centuries, these trade routes benefited the local populations, especially in Agadez. Traffickers are based in Sudan, while their Libyan chapter is responsible for setting the immigrants on their way to Italy.
The presence of other countries
It is the first time that Italian soldiers set foot in Niger. Like other West African countries, the former French colony is accustomed to having French soldiers at home. Operation “Barkhane” can count on roughly 4 thousand men scattered across Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. In 2014 it took over for Operation “Serval” in northern Mali and for Operation “Epervier” in Chad. Operation Barkhane will soon be replaced by a multi-nation African contingent that goes by the name of G5 Sahel.
Barkhane’s HQ is in N’Djamena, Chad, while the drone base is in Niamey, Niger. Warplanes, helicopter and armored vehicles are all part of a rapid reaction force whose main target is not illegal immigration, but Islamic terrorism. At the same time, French troops help local regimes stay in power, or facilitate their demise if Paris decides they should. The military presence also defends economic interests. In the case of Niger, state-controlled French company AREVA owns uranium mines in Arlit that help fuel nuclear power plants at home. Put into the right perspective, the Italian deployment will have to tag along with the French and will be irrelevant, to say the least, in Niger.
There are, of course, also other foreign military contingents in Niger. The Germans are part of the MINUSMA, based in Niamey. The US has roughly 800 troops on the ground, mainly special forces, both along the border with Mali, where four Rangers were killed in October 2017, and in Agadez, where they are building a military base. Both Germans and Americans are in Niger to fight terrorism, not human traffickers.
Most of the countries that have sent troops in the Sahel have done so to counter the rise of radical jihadism. Italy is the only country fighting human traffickers, a task with a minor impact on security. But there is a link between organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups in the management of migrant flows to Libya and Algeria.
It is more likely that the Italian contingent be faced with Islamic terrorists in the near future rather than migrant smugglers. This is because the units will be deployed both in Niamey and in Madama, a remote fortified French outpost 100 km away from the Libyan border, where the old trade routes passed. And terrorist groups are also present in the area. An isolated outpost in the middle of the desert is an easy target. And there are a good number of ideological reasons for an attack.
To stop the influx of migrants from Agadez to Libya means depriving the local population of a relevant source of income. On the other hand, the 120 million euros spent by the EU in 2017 never reach the local population. Out of money and out of a job, the local people in Agadez will soon turn their anger against the authorities. And the Italians will be seen as being a part of the problem. The first result could be a merger between local tribal groups and terrorists. Secondly, this could lead to a lack of collaboration with local authorities. Only local tribesmen know the desert routes, while most soldiers come from other areas of Niger.
Back in 2009, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi contacted several countries, including Italy, to launch a joint anti-terrorism center in Bamako, Mali, aimed at eradicating extremism in the Sahel. The late Libyan dictator had also proposed the constitution of a rapid intervention force, which would also supply weapons and training to local armed forces.
At the time of Gaddafi’s proposal, Islamic terrorism in the region was not widespread. However, the supreme guide had foreseen the dangers born out of endemic poverty and social conflict. The proposal was channeled to the different intelligence agencies, but was not welcomed. Although they had reopened their embassies in Libya, the US and UK did not trust the Libyan dictator, the French viewed the move as an intrusion in their sphere of influence, while the Italians and the Germans were willing.
Gaddafi often came up with great ideas that he could not develop into a project. Once a proposal was launched, he would immediately demand supplies and funding. This type of approach ended up arousing a good dose of suspicion.
The limit of the Italian initiative
The Italian deployment in Niger is dictated by a renewed national strategic interest in an area that has long been neglected. The opening of an Italian embassy in Niamey cannot make up for a small and scarcely operational contingent. Especially in a context where everyone else is fighting terror and where there are approximately 600 square km of desert to monitor. Human traffickers, known as passeurs, have started to adopt new, farther and more dangerous, routes than the traditionally beaten tracks. While this makes the controls more difficult, it also puts the passengers in greater peril. And more and more people are dying while crossing the Sahara.
Secondly, the Italians depend on the French. The Italy-France agreement postulates that the French will guarantee the security of the Italian contingent. This will prejudice their autonomy on the ground. At the same time, it is hard to find a credible counterpart in the Nigerien government. The Agadez region is in the hands of cross-border tribes like the Tebou and the Tuareg, that have been profiting from the trade routes for centuries.
The Italian idea of replicating the naval blockade enacted off the Libyan coasts with a similar initiative in Niger has a high risk of being unsuccessful. The transportation of migrants was and is a crucial source of income for Niger. In Libya, it is now one of the country’s major businesses. There are dedicated armed groups that either traffic or abuse migrants. The human traffickers earn millions and move thousand of individuals. Money and corruption are crucial, making Libya into the ideal working environment.