Peter Tinti

For the connection between illicit drug trafficking and Niger, look no further than the state.

Flows of cocaine and cannabis resin in the Sahel and Sahara have attracted much international attention in recent years overconcerns of a possible narco-jihadist nexus and collaboration between drug cartels in South America and jihadist groups in Africa. Recent fieldwork carried out by the Global Initiative in Niger, however, suggests that these flows are actually controlled by a very closed network of actors, and claims of a narco-jihadist connection are still widely exaggerated.

Moving large amounts of high-value drugs through territory rife with banditry, and where a host of armed groups control the networks and territory, requires high-level connections across several governments and non-state actors, considerable financing, logistical expertise and the ability to use force against potential rivals. These networks may operate in similar spaces to jihadist groups, but this proximity cannot credibly be interpreted as an alliance.

Despite the lack of evidence, claims of a narco-jihadist connection persist, and with certain policymakers in Europe eager to add migrant smuggling and human trafficking as a third node in this alleged nexus, delineating the separate phenomena of violent extremism, drug trafficking, and migrant smuggling is as important as ever from both an analytical and a policy perspective.  

A more important link, and one that constantly undermines both the credibility of the Nigerien government in the eyes of its citizens and, by extension, the credibility of European governments so eager to funnel resources to it, is the one that exists between narco-traffickers and the Nigerien state. Perhaps the most instructive case in this regard is that of deceasedNigerien businessman cum political operative Cherif Ould Abidine, known locally in Agadez as Cherif Cocaine.

For years, it was an open secret that Abidine, who owns major transport companies, was protected by Nigerien government officials at the highest levels. Since Abidine’s death in 2016, local and international media have been strident about hisalleged drug trafficking and his ties to the ruling party. It has been said for quite some time that Abidine has poured money into financing political campaigns, most notably of the ruling PNDS party. Among activists and dissidents, the prevailing narrative is that Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, is propped up and supported by such Arab money. The outsize role of illicit cash within Nigerien electoral politics is almost certainly true although there is little in the way of concrete evidence but, more importantly, it is accepted as fact locally (as well is in Western intelligence circles), which has implications regarding people’s faith in the credibility of Niger’sinstitutions and Issoufou’s legitimacy.

Besides Abidine’s complicity with the government, activists in Niger are also quick to point out that he was reportedly awarded the contract by the French government to transport military materiel to Madama, a French military base near the Libyan border, which raises the question of how far the French government is willing to turn a blind eye to criminal activity in pursuit of its own security objectives.

Meanwhile, other prominent businessmen, such as Mohamed Rhissa Ali, who is also involved in the transport business and enjoys close ties to ruling elites, is also widely considered to be involved in illicit activities. Rhissa Ali, also known as ‘Rimbo,is a major donor and funder of PNDS, and was implicated in the Mossack Fonseca Panama Papers leak, which suggests – though does not necessarily prove – that he used offshore accounts to launder money.

Other individuals widely believed to be directly involved in drug trafficking as well as arms trafficking, including former rebels who never signed peace agreements, have managed to more recently parlay their nuisance power along certain trafficking routes into economic and political clout in ways that are unprecedented. These particular actors are blatantly involved in trafficking of a range of illicit goods, have invested heavily in the burgeoning gold-mining economy, and some have reportedly been involved in recent incidents of intercommunal score-settling as various actors vie for control of certain transport routes.

The ascendency of these actors within formal and informal political and security structures, despite the fact that they remain outside of electoral politics, has been widely cited as an example of how informal governance structures are increasingly taking on a criminal nature, undermining traditional balances of power and further eroding confidence in the Nigerien state.

Furthermore, as Europe firms up its partnerships with the Nigerien government – and European policymakers are either unaware of, or willing to tolerate, criminal activity among Nigerien elites it is hard for Nigerien citizens to take seriously Europe’s claims that it cares about good governance and accountability in Niger.

As one civilsociety activist in Agadez told me during a recent trip to northern Niger, it is not just the Nigerien government that tolerates crime and trafficking: Some of these guys have increased their power in ways that aren’t correct. The Nigerien government works with bandits and criminals but so does Europe,’ he said, in reference to attempts by the Italian government to work with Toubou and Tuareg tribes in southern Libya to curb migrant smuggling. They both use these types of actors to do dirty work.’


* This blog draws on interviews conducted by the author in Agadez and Niamey in December 2017.