Last year in Dakar, running an errand near Sandaga market in the centre of town, I came across an armoured personnel carrier belonging to the police, parked on avenue Emile Badiane. Street vendors were lounging against the flanks of the vehicle; their trinkets were spread on the charcoal grey metal. The police sat around, helmets off, eating peanuts and trading pleasantries with passers-by. For someone like me from Niamey in Niger, this resembled a scene from a fairy-tale.
The young men of Agadez in central Niger have been many things: armed rebels in the Touareg rebellion (2007-9), soldiers in Gaddafi’s army, uranium miners, desert tour guides and, most recently, migrant smugglers and informal gold miners. But last September, the Nigerien government began to enforce a law, passed at the behest of the European Union, that criminalizes the transport and housing of migrants. In March, it closed the region’s largest informal gold mine, leaving hundreds of young men in Agadez suddenly out of a job. Since September more than 100 drivers and ‘ghetto’ owners who once housed migrants have been arrested and over 100 vehicles confiscated.