Niamey, Niger – On a breezy Sunday night, Sergeant Kamaye rides a Land Rover pickup through the sleepy streets of Niamey, Niger‘s capital city.
Silence and darkness are suddenly interrupted by neon lights, exposing people walking through a large metal gate.
As Kamaye steps down from his car, employees from 3STV, one of the country’s main bus companies, rush to greet him.
The policeman then scans the area, finding two of his colleagues, their gloved hands searching a woman’s belongings.
“They should do it for all the passengers descending here tonight”, explains Kamaye, who overlooks search operations at a dozen private bus stations along Niamey’s main road axes.
There are piles of bags and boxes, of every possible size and shape, to get through – emphasising the scale of the task.
Hours later, Kamaye drives back to the headquarters of Ocrtis, the Office Central pour la Repression du Trafic Illicite des Stupefiants, Niger’s anti-drug agency.
When I was stabbed in the street by a gang member, people in a neighbourhood celebrated: from hunters, we've become prey.
In his back seat is a young man who travelled from Burkina Faso by bus, carrying a box of “natural pills” that lack appropriate labels and waybills.
“Probably nothing relevant, but we need to check,” the agent says.
Kamaye’s night shifts are a small part of Nigerien authorities’ growing efforts to intercept drugs transiting through Niger from West Africa to reach the Maghreb, Europe and the Middle East.
It is a flourishing business that, according to government officials, fuels insecurity along the country’s perilous borders with northern Mali, where multiple armed groups compete for territory since Tuareg-led militias declared a unilateral independence in 2012.
The illicit trade risks deepening local divides.
Ibrahim Yacouba, the president of major opposition party MPN, told Al Jazeera that “drug trafficking is what worries me the most: cartels are settling down in Niger, and if we don’t intervene shortly, it might be too late”.
The role of trafficking rings in shaping dynamics in the Sahel is nothing new.
In the early days of November 2009, the skeleton of a Boeing 727 – soon branded as “air cocaine” – was found in the desert in northern Mali, 200km from the city of Gao.
Flying multiple times from Venezuela, the plane had unloaded tons of cocaine before becoming unserviceable. From Mali, the cargo was then transported to Niger, and further on to Libya and Algeria.
But according to an internal document from Niger’s security forces, seen by Al Jazeera, the hub of drug trafficking has recently shifted from northern Mali to Niger, under the pressure of multiple military campaigns in Mali, including France’s Operation Barkhane which launched in 2014.
“The main business actors have increasingly opted for Niger as a stable territory … for the transit and processing of drugs”, reports the leak, suggesting that an airstrip built in 2006 with Emirati funds in remote drylands of the Nigerien region of Tahoua, could be used for another “air cocaine” case.
Sitting in his dark office in central Niamey, Ocrtis chief Boubacar Issaka Oumarou depicts a country crossed by multiple drug corridors, linking actors in Mauritania and Morocco with Malian armed groups, Nigerien handlers, Libyan and Chadian buyers.
On one hand, he explains, Nigeriens continue escorting convoys carrying cocaine and hashish through Saharan expanses.
On the other, he adds: “Some cartels moved away from these growingly insecure routes to the main transportation axes, using sophisticated techniques to disguise drugs inside common merchandise.”
The office’s biggest success was a 2018 operation leading to the arrest of 12 people, some of whom are connected to Cherif Ould Taher, a Malian dubbed the “Sahel’s El Chapo”, whose money seemed to influence political decisions in both Mali and Niger.
Two-and-a-half tons of hashish were found in a garage in Niamey, inside secret compartments of pallets transporting fruit.
Oumarou wants more support from Niger’s international partners, namely Europe, whose recent efforts focused instead on containing migration.
“Niger stopped migrants heading from West Africa to Italian shores: we could do the same with drugs that transit here but are mostly directed to Europe,” he argues.
Despite donations by Eucap Sahel Niger, the EU security mission in the country, and France, Ocrtis’ 187 agents and 18 cars, are viewed as largely insufficient.
“The DST [Niger’s immigration police, ndr] is building a new siege, while we’re forced in this bunker,” complains one agent.
Nine hundred kilometres to the northeast in Agadez city, the office’s lack of resources seems glaringly obvious.
In a small room inside the local police station, inspector Ali Akilou is surrounded by cartons of recently seized counterfeit drugs.
In 2016, police and custom services seized a record seven tons of cannabis nationwide, a number that fell to 3.2 tons in 2017 and 5.2 in 2018.
Cocaine seizures remain low, barely 6 kilos in 2018, as “the business is in the hands of untouchables, who continue travelling through the desert”, explains Akilou.
Figures grow significantly with Tramadol, a psychotic drug produced mostly in India and occasionally counterfeit in Nigeria.
Demand in the North African market has exploded in the span of a few years – 16 million pills were seized in Niger in 2018 alone.
“Today, it’s more rentable than cocaine,” says Akilou, adding bitterly that “we gave up intercepting drug convoys in the Sahara after we’ve been shot at with heavy guns, so we concentrate on road checks and investigations in Agadez and Dirkou”.
But the eight-men unit have a hard time even in town.
“When I was stabbed in the street by a gang member, people in a neighbourhood celebrated: from hunters, we’ve become prey,” complains Akilou.
According to a middleman who loads Tramadol in Agadez, “these pills are like diamonds now, prices have increased tenfold in a short while and even Arab traffickers from Tahoua, who used to prefer cocaine and cannabis, smelled the business”.
Journalist Moussa Aksar, who manages the weekly L’Evenement and has reported on drug trafficking for years, denounces its huge impact on local communities. “We got used to drugs transiting through Niger, but recently internal consommation boomed, with dramatic effects,” he told Al Jazeera. Traffickers, he adds, “are subsituting the state, building clinics and digging wells in remote areas”.
While the country prepares to hold crucial elections in December 2020 that should mark the end of Mahamadou Issoufou’s 10-year presidency, drug trafficking stains its reputation as a reliable partner.
A top Nigerien security official claims that “the US have crossed off Niger’s government over its reluctance to fight drug traffickers”.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration, whose regional office in Dakar incorporated Niger in August 2019, declined to comment.
Episodes such as the March 2019 arrest in Guinea-Bissau of adviser to the president of the Nigerien Parliament, Mohamed Sidi Ahmed, who was found with 789 kilos of cocaine and a special adviser’s badge, considered false by some Nigerien officials, have harmed the government’s reputation.
Ocrtis director Boubacar Issaka Oumarou said Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum “told us to call him day and night for emergencies, and even gave us money out of his pockets when needed”.
Critics say that Bazoum’s concern stems from his position as the designated presidential candidate for the ruling party, rather than out of real interest.