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Agadez: Former Desert Jewel Becomes ‘Wild West

Its stunning ancient mosque and atmospheric streets once earned Agadez a reputation as a jewel of the Sahara desert, thronging with tourists. These days, it’s Niger’s answer to the Wild West. There was a time when tourists wandered happily around the ochre walls of northern Niger’s main town, snapping the mosque’s towering 15th century minaret, gazing out at the Sahara’s vast expanse. Now it’s a hotbed of human trafficking, smuggling and crime. The holidaymakers have long packed up. “

We used to watch the full moon over the dunes. There was freedom,” says former tour guide El-Hadj Mohamed Sale. “Now we’re always afraid, even when we’re home.” A white turban wrapped around his head and a photo album in his hand, he leafs through old snaps of the spots where he used to take foreign travellers: prehistoric rock paintings, the breathtaking Sahara. There are shots of him with Swiss tourists, French visitors, and “a Canadian friend”.

Sierra Leone’s president imposed new restrictions Friday preventing people from entering or leaving two chiefdoms in the northern part of the country that are experiencing a resurgence of Ebola. While neighboring Liberia has defeated Ebola, Sierra Leone and Guinea have continued to battle new cases, particularly along the border where those two countries meet. Sierra Leone had 15 news cases in the week ending June 7, according to the World Health Organization, the highest weekly total since late March. On Friday, President Ernest Bai Koroma said people would be barred from entering or leaving the affected parts of Kambia and Port Loko districts in northern Sierra Leone.

A 21-day curfew also will be in effect from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., government officials said, though the public health benefit of such a limited measure was not immediately clear. Eleven of the country’s 14 districts have gone more than 42 days without an Ebola case — the benchmark for declaring an epidemic over. Another has gone nearly two weeks without a new case. “I do not believe it is fair for most districts to have gone for more than 42 days without recording a single case of Ebola, and these two districts are holding us to ransom,” Koroma said. Authorities say the disease continues to spread because sick people are escaping quarantine homes and spreading it to others.

The new cases in Port Loko have been linked to an Ebola victim whose body was washed by relatives. “We are going into those districts with a sledgehammer,” retired Maj. Alfred Palo Conteh, who heads Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Center, said in a radio interview. “Sometimes there were hundreds of people in the desert,” he remembers. From the 1980s until 2000, thousands of foreigners came to soak up the history and beauty. But the emergence of armed jihadists and rebellions by ethnic Tuaregs in the early 1990s and again in 2007-09 all but wiped out local tourism.

The Tuaregs, making up about 10 percent of Niger’s population, wanted more autonomy. Those tensions have largely died down, though troublemakers can slip across from neighbouring Mali, with 24 soldiers killed in a Malian Islamist attack in Agadez in 2013 and seven foreign workers kidnapped in 2010 by a pro-Al-Qaeda group. The foreigners were later freed but the kidnap “signalled the death of tourism in Niger,” says Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, an Agadez media proprietor. “We’ve lost hope,” he adds. The last straw came after the 2011 ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi as instability rippled across the vast arid region now peopled by criminal groups and jihadists.

Gone are the gushing travel articles, despite the UNESCO World Heritage listing that Agadez won in 2013. A return to the good old days seems impossible. “All kinds of trafficking, gold prospecting, stolen goods from Libya, illegal immigration, cocaine -all of it centres on Agadez,” says Rhissa Ag Boula, an Agadez native who is an advisor to President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Hundreds of years ago the town was a key crossroads on desert caravan routes. Now the last major transit hub before Libya and Europe, it is best known for migrant “ghettoes”, criminals of all varieties, and general insecurity. In recent years its population has exploded to over 120,000. The migrants are mainly from West Africa — Senegal, Gambia or Mali. Some are hoping to find work in Libya, others to set sail from there to Europe — a perilous journey that has seen some 1,800 migrants die at sea this year.

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