When they left, they were leaving behind famine and a military junta, seeking jobs and security in a wealthy, stable country. When they returned, they were fleeing a conflict where they faced persecution and violence as potential mercenaries, and entering a newly-awakening democracy about to begin capitalising on its oil reserves. The irony of the Libya conflict is that even as the victors celebrate the downfall of Gaddafi, the fallout could destabilise one of Africa’s newest and most promising democracies in neighbouring Niger.
Since the beginning of the Libyan uprising, tens of thousands of Nigeriens have fled back to their home country: aid agencies estimate over 80,000 since February while the government of Niger reports numbers closer to 200,000. Most had been working in construction and agriculture in Libya, where they had been able to earn several hundred dollars a month – far more than they could get in the same jobs in Niger.
But a small amount of others had been fighting as mercenaries, defending Gaddafi’s regime. Recruited from across the Sahel, they were joined by migrant workers who were reportedly offered $1,000 a week to leave their jobs and fight against rebels.
But after the fall of Gaddafi the existence of these mercenaries created a dangerous atmosphere of paranoia, where in the eyes of rebels black skin signified Gaddafi loyalism. Mass arrests of suspected mercenaries led Human Rights Watch to warn in September that “it’s a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli”. Many took refuge in fishing towns, hiding under boats, or in makeshift camps where men regularly faced harassment and women were allegedly raped. Those arrested faced beatings and incarceration in overcrowded conditions: in one prison there were reportedly 26 people to a cell.
With the jobs disappearing and the violence growing, migrant workers were left with no option but to make the arduous journey back to the Sahel.
But these refugees are returning to find themselves at the core of a brewing crisis: communities which were reliant on the money which they sent home are now facing destitution. Some 86% of the returning migrant workers support five family members or more, in a region where food security is precarious – in the last two years poor harvests have sparked humanitarian crises, and recovery has been slow. Many returnees are also heavily in debt, having paid inflated prices for the cross-border journey.
“We have no choice but to beg in the streets or to steal,” one returning worker told IRIN news agency.
Increasing desperation could destabilise a country seeking to consolidate its newfound stability. Banditry is already a serious issue in the country, with regular kidnappings damaging the tourist industry - in January this year several French tourists died in a botched rescue attempt after militants had seized them from a restaurant in the capital. And the returning mercenaries, along with an influx of arms flowing south from Libya, can only exacerbate the problem.
In June, government troops seized detonators and explosives which they claim were being smuggled into the country from Libya to be transferred to militant groups. In an interview with Reuters in September, Justice Minister Marou Amadou called for international assistance in securing the Libyan border and the country’s northern stretches of desert. He admitted that Niger’s budget could not cover even a fraction of the Sahel’s security needs and warned that “the situation is explosive, to say the least”.
The north is still recovering from a rebellion by Tuareg nomads which died down in 2009. Many Tuareg involved cited food insecurity and economic marginalisation as the reason for their personal involvement with the uprising.
After the uprising, some moved north to join Gaddafi; a significant number of his mercenaries and security services were Tuareg. Among these were several rebel leaders, whose return to Niger has sparked speculation about another wave of violence from northern nomads.
All this is threatening to undermine a new-found optimism which had been emerging in Niger. Free elections last spring brought in a new administration which seems committed to tackling corruption, setting up a “green line” for victims of corruption to report incidents anonymously, and arresting members of the old military junta for embezzlement of around $4 million. The government has taken steps to prevent another food crisis, and restrictions on the press have been lifted. International relations are warming after years of pariah status. Democratic transition appears to be succeeding, although building upon this is set to be a challenge.
Economically, too, Niger’s situation is looking stronger than ever. Deals with a Chinese oil giant to begin exploiting oil reserves could reawaken the country’s economy, and new initiatives against corruption – as well as a strengthening civil society – have the potential to ensure that at least some of the profits will benefit the country. A new uranium project also looks set to make the country the world’s second biggest exporter.
But the instability spreading south from Libya could stand in the way of Niger’s newfound confidence. "This is a completely unexpected, uncontrollable situation, which runs up against our vision for the future,” Amadou told Reuters, adding that peace in Niger cannot come about without peace in Libya, and that projects for oil and uranium could be in jeopardy if violence continues.
As Libya looks to an uncertain future, its southern neighbours are struggling to hold on to their own gains in the wake of the conflict. Across the Sahel, families are struggling to survive without the income from Libya-based workers, and bandits and militants are cashing in on the crisis. The West’s mission was to secure freedom and security for the Libyan people – but it could ultimately cost freedom and security for the people of Niger.
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