Niger coup: increasing instability, forced displacement & irregular migration across the Sahel, amidst billions of EU Trust Fund for Stability investments
Niger Coup: the latest in a series of coups across the Sahel
On July 26, a military coup took place in Niger, when the democratically elected president was deposed and the commander of the presidential guard declared himself the leader. A nationwide curfew was announced and borders were closed. The military junta justified its actions claiming it was in response to the continuing deterioration of the security situation. On August 10, the leaders of the coup declared a new government, naming 21 ministers, including several generals, but with civilian economist Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as the new prime minister.
This was the latest in a series of seven military coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, including in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, a coup within a coup took place in May 2021, when the junta leader of the 2020 coup stripped the president and prime minister of their powers and declared himself president. Burkina Faso suffered two military coups in 2022; in September 2022, the head of an artillery unit of the armed forces ousted the previous junta leader who had led a coup in January 2022, and declared himself president of Burkina Faso.
To add to further potential instability and escalation in the region, the military governments of Burkina Faso and Mali quickly warned – in response to remarks by ECOWAS – that any military intervention against last week’s coup leaders in Niger would be considered a “declaration of war” against their nations. The coup leaders ignored an August 6 deadline by ECOWAS to relinquish power and release the detained elected president. At the August 10 ECOWAS emergency summit in Abuja, West African heads of state repeated that all options remain on the table to restore constitutional order in Niger and ordered the activation of its standby force.
Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso: military coups in the three major recipients of the EU Trust Fund for Stability and addressing the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in the Sahel
Interestingly, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have been prime target countries in the European Union’s efforts to increase stability in the region and address the root causes of irregular migration and displacement.
In 2015, the European Union established the “EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa”. Of a total fund of 5 billion EUR, the Sahel and Lake Chad is the biggest funding window, with 2.2 billion EUR committed between the start of the programme and the end of December 2022, across 214 projects.
The three biggest recipient countries in the Sahel and Lake Chad region are indeed Niger (294 million), Mali (288 million) and Burkina Faso (190 million), in addition to 600 million for regional projects. Among the four various strategic objectives, overall the largest share of the budget (34%) went to security and governance activities (the other strategic priorities are economic opportunities, strengthening resilience and improved migration management). The security and governance objective has been the main priority in Mali (49% of all EUTF funding), Niger (42%) and Burkina Faso (69%) (as well as in Nigeria and Mauritania).
However, the most recent EUTF monitoring report on the Sahel window offers a sobering read on the state of stability and security in these three countries. In summary:
“In Burkina Faso, 2022 was marked by political instability and deepening insecurity. Burkina Faso has suffered from attacks from armed groups. The conflict has sparked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Burkina Faso is facing the worst food crisis in a decade”.
In Mali, “the political process remains at risk considering the country’s worsening security situation and strained diplomatic relations. In an increasingly insecure environment, 8.8 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in January 2023. In 2022, 1,378 events of violence were reported, causing 4,862 fatalities, a 31% and 155% increase, respectively, compared to 2021”.
In Niger, it was estimated the country would “face an unprecedented food crisis during the 2022 lean season, resulting from conflict, drought, and high food prices. The humanitarian crisis is strongly driven by insecurity. The number of internal displacements and refugees in Niger kept rising.” These conclusions on Niger date from before the July 2023 coup.
The report also concluded that 2022 was the “most violent and deadliest year on record for the countries of the Sahel and Lake Chad window, driven by the profound and continuing security crises in Nigeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Fatalities recorded in the ACLED database in Mali (4,867) and Burkina Faso (4,266) were the highest ever recorded, more than doubling (144% and 119%, respectively) compared to the average for 2020-2021.” Meanwhile, UNICEF reported 11,100 schools are closed due to conflict or threats made against teachers and students. The number of attacks on schools in West and Central Africa more than doubled between 2019 and 2020.
In other words: despite billions of funding towards stability and addressing the root causes of irregular migration and displacement, we are seeing increasing instability, conditions in these countries actually driving more displacement and no lasting drop in irregular migration.
Increasing forced displacement and irregular migration
Indeed, as of July 2023, UNHCR reports a total of almost 3.2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Sahel, compared to just under 50,000 when the EUTF was established in 2015. Similarly, UNHCR reports almost 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers in the Sahel, compared to over 200,000 when the EUTF was established in 2015.
Irregular migration across the Mediterranean between North Africa and Europe is also on the rise again. According to ISPI, the latest surge in irregular arrivals that Italy is experiencing (136,000 migrants disembarked in Italy in the twelve-month period between June 2022 and May 2023) is almost comparable, in magnitude, to the period of high arrivals in 2014-2017, when on average 155,000 migrants landed each year, which was one of the major drivers for establishing the EUTF. Between 2014 and 2017 close to 80% of all irregular arrivals along the Central Mediterranean route were citizens from sub-Saharan Africa. While figures for 2020-2022 show that the share of arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa fell – suggesting that the efforts to reduce migration may have had an impact – the trend has now reversed again. In the first five months of 2023, sub-Saharan Africans make up more than half of all arrivals again.
Instability, displacement and irregular migration: because, despite, or regardless of billions of investments in stability and addressing root causes?
Of course, despite all of the above, we cannot simply conclude the EUTF actually contributed to instability, more displacement and more irregular migration. We cannot even conclude that it failed to have much positive effect, as it not possible to establish causality and we do not have a counterfactual. Perhaps the situation in the Sahel would have been even worse without these massive investments. Surely, the billions of euros the EUTF spend on the Sahel have contributed to successful projects with a positive impact on people’s lives. However, we can conclude that despite these massive investments, the region is more unstable and insecure and faces much more forced displacement than when the EUTF investments started.
As outlined in an earlier Op-Ed in 2020, the ‘root causes’ approach to migration is both dishonest and ineffective. One of the warnings referred to in that Op-Ed came from a 2019 report by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee concluding that the “EU’s migration work in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa risks exacerbating existing security problems, fuelling human rights abuses, and endorsing authoritarian regimes. Preventing local populations from crossing borders may help cut the numbers arriving in Europe in the short term, but in the long term it risks damaging economies and creating instability—which in itself can trigger displacement”. This warning seems to be more valid then ever when looking at the current situation across the Sahel.
In response to the latest coup in Niger, the EU announced immediate cessation of budget support and indefinite suspension of all cooperation actions in the domain of security. Similarly, France suspended all development aid and budget support with immediate effect. However, Niger has been a prime partner of the EU in fighting the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel and in curbing irregular migration to Europe. Niger’s new military leaders – when looking at the EU’s dealings with third countries to address irregular migration, most recently with Tunisia and Egypt, as well as earlier deals with Morocco and Turkey – are aware of the importance of migration cooperation with third countries for the EU. As such, they may use these issues as leverage in negotiations and to force acceptance of the new regime. It remains to be seen to what extent – and for how long – the EU will be able to maintain its current stance, and resist the pressure to engage with the new regime and resume cooperation, given the political importance that the EU and its member states accord to stemming irregular migration.
Changing course, or not?
The bigger question remains: it is becoming increasingly clear the current approach of addressing so-called root causes and trying to create stability to reduce migration and forced displacement is not really working. Now that we have seen military coups in all three major recipient countries of EUTF funding in the Sahel, will there be a significant change in the EU’s external migration policy approach in Africa and the Sahel going forward? Or will the current approach prevail, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? What is ultimately needed is a more humane, rational, coherent and comprehensive approach to migration governance, which not only takes into account all aspects of migration (including visa policies, returns, labour migration, etc.), but goes beyond migration and migration-related objectives, and takes into account other policy areas, including trade, agriculture, arms and commodities exports, peace building and conflict resolution. When we are discussing the root causes of migration, we need honest debate and actions that include the real and very serious causes of migration and displacement.