When German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured three African nations this week for talks on curbing migration to Europe, the leader of the world’s poorest country, Niger, suggested it would take a “Marshall Plan” of massive aid to stop people coming.
Merkel politely declined the request, expressing concern about how well the aid would be spent and noting that, at a summit in Malta last year, the EU had already earmarked 1.8 billion euros (US$1.97 billion) for a trust fund to train and resettle refugees and migrants.
However, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou also proposed something perhaps more significant, in the long run, than a development package — bringing Niger’s population growth down from 3.9 percent, the highest in the world.
Although he gave no details on how this could be achieved, demography clearly holds the key both to Europe’s refugee crisis and to the African poverty feeding it. As long as population growth in African countries outstrips their ability to educate, house and employ their citizens, large numbers of people will continue to brave the deserts and seas to escape.
“You can’t resolve this by just paying money,” said Owoeye Olumide, a demographer at Bowen University in southwest Nigeria, one of the world’s most densely populated regions.
“There are going to be too many people... The development you need will not be possible. You have to lower fertility rates and bring down population [by educating and empowering women],” Olumide said.
Niger, a vast, largely desert nation to the north of Nigeria, presents the starkest example of Africa’s challenges.
With an average of 7.6 children born to each woman, its population is projected to more than triple to 72 million by 2050, from about 20 million now, according to the latest UN figures.
By then, Africa will have more than doubled its population to 2.4 billion, the UN said.
Frequent droughts in Niger cause hunger, and low investment in education means a dearth of skills. Yet somehow it must hugely increase food production just to stay where it is.
Ironically, Niger’s location in the largely unpoliced sands of the Sahara also makes it a draw for refugees and migrants. They travel from across Africa hoping to be smuggled to a better life in Libya or Algeria — or over the Mediterranean to Europe.
In doing so, the refugees transport cash to Niger, a country that has repeatedly proved unable to feed itself.
Ousmane Diallo, 38, traveled for 10 days by bus from Sierra Leone on the Atlantic coast to Agadez, a Saharan town in Niger at the crossroads of the people-smuggling business. He spent US$700 on police and military checkpoints along the way.
His is precisely the kind of ambition the German chancellor would like to discourage.
“I want to work in a car factory in Germany,” he said in a dimly lit restaurant in Agadez, his few possessions — spare trousers, shoes, water and a Bible — crammed into a small bag.
The International Organization for Migration expects migration through the Agadez region this year to reach 300,000 people, more than twice the 120,000 it estimates came through last year.
EU officials hope to deter migrants like Diallo by making clear that life as an illegal immigrant in Europe is hardly better than staying in Africa. However, that message has yet to filter down.
Diallo was swindled out of 150,000 CFA francs (US$251) he paid smugglers in Agadez to reach central Libya. Desperate, he has given his last 50,000 CFA francs to a gang he hopes will come through.
“[In] Europe ... I can save and earn money. I cannot return back. I have nothing there,” he said of his native Sierra Leone.
In 2013, Niger’s corruption investigators did a study on smuggling that was never published, but which Reuters has seen.
It said Niger’s security forces make almost 500,000 CFA francs from every round trip by a smuggling truck — just from refugees and migrants alone, not including payoffs from gangs.
The government did not respond to a request for comment.
Agadez, a desolate town of sandy streets and mud houses, is booming. Touts flock to fresh migrants and refugees at the bus station. For US$10, they offer space in padlocked courtyards where arrivals sleep on dirt floors. Landlords might squeeze 40 refugees into one yard, making hundreds of dollars per night.
Money changers and motor oil vendors throng the streets.
“Pretty much the whole population of Agadez now lives off providing services to migrants in transit,” said Richard Danziger, International Organization of Migration regional director for west and central Africa.
“What we can’t do right now is offer real alternatives,” he said, adding that “a mixture of development aid and job creation is the only way forward.”
According to a theory popular with investment bankers and management consultants, Africa’s population woes will solve themselves. Africa, they say, will reap a “demographic dividend” as its bulging youth population drives innovation and consumer markets — as happened to Asia in decades past.
The latest commodity crash highlighted reasons for being less optimistic: Africa remains overdependent on raw materials and has failed to create the manufacturing or service jobs that helped drive Asia forward.
And, despite predictions, economic growth has not significantly cut birth rates in most African countries.
Yet even if Africa is “rising,” migration will remain “pretty unstoppable,” says Renaissance Capital’s Charles Robertson, himself an optimist.
Any bright youth who chooses to stay in most African countries has a good chance of doubling his wealth over 10 years, but that still presents a dilemma, he said.
“You can stay where you are and go back to where Germany was in 1920 or you can leapfrog 90 years of development and have a better standard of living now,” he said. “That isn’t going to change for half a century.”
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