In West Africa, trafficking brings human suffering. But removing it can set off instability.

Earlier this year, police in Niger broke up a complex trafficking and forced-labor ring involved in exploiting dozens of children and hundreds of Ghanaian workers. A catchall term for illicit movement of goods and people, “trafficking” evokes images of drugs, guns, kidnapping, abuse and even slavery — and is often associated with organized crime and human suffering.

Controlling the profits from this type of activity is one driver of violent conflict in many parts of Africa, including West Africa’s Sahel region. In northern Mali, for instance, competing militias battle to control routes used to traffic shipments of illegal drugs.

But my research suggests that ordinary people elsewhere in the Sahel region may experience trafficking quite differently. Much of the “contraband” crossing the region consists of everyday commodities necessary for survival in remote desert zones — things like spaghetti or gasoline. While some traffickers exploit vulnerable people for the sex trade or other forced labor, the migration hub at Agadez in northern Niger also has a history of helping migrants head north of their own volition to seek jobs and a better life in North Africa and Europe.

Trafficking may also boost regional stability

In northern Niger, migrant smuggling and other types of trafficking actually played a stabilizing role, as I discovered during the course of dozens of interviews in Niamey, Agadez and Iferouane in 2018 and 2019. Individual traffickers and trafficking interest groups in this region have created mutually beneficial agreements with political elites that protect their markets.

These informal agreements can bring a wide range of side effects, including employment for young men who might otherwise join anti-government rebellions or be recruited by regional affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as livelihoods for former insurgents. Dialogue between Nigerien government officials and traffickers has also created avenues to mediate local conflicts and contain trafficking-related violence.

Arguably, trafficking may have rescued northern Niger from economic collapse. As global demand for Niger’s uranium dwindled after 2011, and Islamist insurgencies elsewhere in the Sahel depressed the tourist trade — including in Niger’s fabled city of Agadez — the north was in dire straits. The migrant transportation boom helped offset losses.

At the 2016 migration peak, roughly 50 Agadez-based migrant travel agencies transported migrants from central and West Africa into North Africa, their activities often licensed by state offices and their groups escorted by soldiers. These agencies employed some 7,000 people. Tens of thousands more, including small-business owners, bankers, city officials and security personnel, profited from the migrant trade. In 2016, as many as 333,000 migrants transited north through Agadez, contributing as much as $100 million to the regional economy.

That same year, Niger’s parliament criminalized migrant transport. Europe committed $1.16 billion in aid to Niger, much of it earmarked for curbing migration. Many Nigeriens saw this aid as linked to the law’s passage. After this law came into effect, migrant smuggling tapered off, putting thousands out of work and drying up the north’s main revenue source.

Niger’s gold rush was the next source of cash

Around this time, another semi-legal industry delivered a much-needed cash injection. In 2014, prospectors struck gold in Djado and other sites. As artisanal gold-mining boomed over the following years, it helped absorb unemployed workers and funnel cash into the regional economy.

But Niger’s gold rush has been a mixed blessing. Clashes among armed groups taking gold from Djado forced the Nigerien state to close the mine there. The government struggles to capture revenue from the precious metal — as billions of dollars’ worth of gold is smuggled abroad without being taxed.

Elsewhere, government officials, security forces and regional politicians have been able to manage risks, providing a degree of regulation to gold production that keeps fighting in check. Tchibarakaten, the site of a major gold deposit near the Algerian border, employs some 10,000 chiefly Nigerien miners — many of them laid off by uranium mines or migrant transport agencies — and has spawned a sub-economy of services and other activities. Miners there pay taxes; in return, the Nigerien government supplies military escorts for the convoys.

The trafficking picture remains complicated

To be sure, the effects of trafficking in many cases are negative — and few would disagree about the importance of protecting vulnerable individuals, or the dangers of organized crime, for instance. But in Niger, where stopping the illegal drug trade seems an insurmountable task, some Nigerien government officials opted to instead develop informal mechanisms to work with traffickers to manage the trade and limit associated violence.

So long as transit is relatively unobstructed, traffickers have been persuaded to make compromises to avoid escalating violence. Mediation groups that include former rebels and political elites have worked to soothe tensions between rival traffickers and ensure that disputes do not escalate into gang wars or inter-communal fighting.

This approach has downsides, of course. Some drug traffickers engage in formal politics; they finance electoral campaigns and receive political appointments and favors. This raises concerns, as the growing interdependence between traffickers and politicians could put traffickers’ interests above the public interest. And there could be new violence, for instance if rival political factions ally with rival traffickers.

But for those within government mediation groups who work with traffickers, keeping an eye on networks from the inside may prove a practical approach. So long as drug runners do not cooperate with Islamist militants, many officials seem content to maintain the status quo.

Western policymakers don’t always agree

Many Western policymakers believe trafficking fuels terrorism and destabilizes regional governments. France and the United States, for instance, have pursued joint counterterrorism efforts in West Africa — and tend to see fighting trafficking as a prong of counterterrorism.

Niger’s experience in the north suggests that the picture is more complicated — as trafficking has helped reduce tensions between rebel-prone populations and the government while helping stabilize a collapsing economy. Officials and traffickers have limited violent competition over drug smuggling and helped deter militancy.

Western governments are unlikely to ignore migrant and narcotics trafficking. The problem, in Niger’s case, is that policies aimed at disrupting trafficking in the north could inadvertently end up fueling instability. And attempts to eliminate these illicit markets may cut off an economic lifeline for remote peoples, risking leaving them at the mercy of militants.

Overall, the collapse of the fragile equilibrium that Niger maintains with traffickers and revenue generated from illicit trade seems to risk upending an area that for now is reasonably stable. It could lead to what the West wants least: new opportunities for militants, and more northward migration.