Out of Africa or Bust, With a Desert to Cross

January 4, 2001

DIRKOU, Niger — On the windswept outskirts of this desert outpost, where the Sahara unfolds to the end of the horizon, a big truck came to a dusty stop the other day. A couple dozen African men swarmed around the truck, trading sharp words and elbows, as they jostled one another to reach the driver's side.

Four of them struck a deal. They scrambled to perch on the truck's roof. With their legs dangling before the windshield, the truck rumbled away into the Sahara, heading north on tracks in the sand, to Libya.

Of those left behind, literally in a cloud of dust, most had come from neighboring Nigeria. They wore wool hats and heavy jackets, carried blankets and water bottles — all necessary for a long journey into the Sahara, where nighttime temperatures drop to near-freezing this time of the year. They did not want to talk. They did not want to say the obvious — where they were going.

"No, nowhere," one said angrily. "I'm going nowhere."

So what were a bunch of Nigerians doing here in a foreign country, hundreds of miles from the nearest city and from their own border, standing in the middle of the world's greatest desert, waiting for a ride in Dirkou, on the edge of oblivion?

The answer was clear to all, including the soldiers, policemen and customs officers who had been watching all this. It was clear in Niamey, the capital of this West African country, and perhaps all over West and Central Africa.

Dirkou is the last sub-Saharan stop on one of the continent's greatest, and possibly most dangerous, smuggling routes: Africans travel hundreds of miles through desert to arrive here and board Libyan trucks that take them across the remaining expanses of the Sahara into North Africa. There the migrants stay to work, or they save up the money to jump to Europe and even America, where some may end up in New York City's restaurants and grocery stores.

The smuggling route could not be ignored after recent events in Libya, whose oil-rich economy and pan-African policies espoused by its leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, have made it the migrants' favorite destination. In October, after rumors swirled near Tripoli that a Nigerian had raped a Libyan girl, Libyans killed or hurt thousands of African expatriates, lynching a Chadian diplomat and burning down the Niger Embassy. In a sudden reversal of the exodus, tens of thousands of Africans were herded into buses and trucks, and then dumped in the desert south of Libya. Thousands more were expelled by the planeload to Nigeria and Ghana.

And yet after a two-month lull, Africans are flocking again to Dirkou on their way to Libya. The surprisingly quick resumption in the exodus is perhaps a reflection of Africa's steep and general decline in recent years. It is a continent hobbled by wars, disease and rapacious leaders — where onetime regional magnets like the Ivory Coast and South Africa have been breaking down politically or economically. Ordinary Africans are now finding it hard to survive, much less to have hope of improving their condition.

The decline has caused, in Africa's thin upper reaches, a brain drain to the West. But here in the desert of Dirkou, a world away from the airports that ferry visa-holding physicians from Nigeria and Ghana to London and New York, it is the exodus of the lowest rung — young African men with little or no education. Some of them border on criminality; others are engaged outright in smuggling products like heroin, or just ordinary people looking for a chance to improve their lives.

Dirkou is booming, though it is constantly on edge because of its combustible mix of soldiers, smugglers, migrants, rebels from neighboring Chad and other shadowy desert dwellers. In the last year, the number of mud-brick houses has doubled; more are under construction. Cars are now sold here. The pockets of Jerome the Libyan fuel dealer, a fixture, are fuller; Mama Nigeria has just opened her restaurant. Dirkou has even begun to draw young Nigerois like Idrissa Ismail, 19, from Tahoua, 500 miles away.

"There's a lot of money to be made here in Dirkou because a lot of people are coming and a lot of people are going," said Mr. Ismail, who was changing local francs for Libyan dinars on the town's outskirts. Since coming here last month, he said, he has averaged $3 a day in profit — a huge sum in a country where petty merchants might clear $7 a month.

Before making it here, migrants entering Niger pass through Agadez, about 350 miles southwest, which, like Timbuktu in neighboring Mali, has served for centuries as a gateway between black Africa to the south and Arab Africa to the north.

In Agadez, in a highly organized smuggling system, middlemen from the subregion direct their countrymen to one of the dealers in the Agadez-Dirkou route. At the bus station, the biggest dealer is Dodo Aboubé, who hands the middlemen $3 for each passenger he receives.

Mr. Aboubé charges travelers with passports $15 for a one-way ticket to Dirkou. Since he estimated that 80 percent of the passengers lacked papers, most also paid what could be called a corruption surcharge of $7. Four security checkpoints dot the desert between Agadez and Dirkou, Mr. Aboubé explained, and the authorities have to be bribed at each point to let the travelers through without documents.

"The surcharge they pay at the beginning makes it easier for everyone along the way," Mr. Aboubé said, inside a straw shack that served as his office. "Our drivers handle everything at the checkpoints."

He added, "In every case, this is done with the complicity of the authorities."

Outside, a single open-air truck charged with goods was being overloaded, cattlelike, with a hundred or so passengers. With countless bottles, tires, jerrycans and sacks hanging from the sides, the truck looked less like a vehicle than a moving mountain. At night, in the dead stillness of the Sahara, when camel caravans and other travelers have set up camp to sleep, aging trucks like this one thunder through the desert, the roar of their engines and the beams of their headlights discernible from miles away.

"Our trucks don't even meet the conditions for safe travel, but we manage somehow," Mr. Aboubé said. "If they break down, the desert is the desert. People can die after a couple of days in the desert."

Over the course of three days, Guineans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Congolese, as well as Nigerois, passed through the bus station. One afternoon, a Ghanaian and a Nigerian waited for the next bus. Both had been deported from Libya in October but were returning.

Joe Mensah, 29, had come from Accra, Ghana's capital, where he had given his family $500 he had managed to save during four years as a painter in Libya. He had saved more, he said, but Libyans had destroyed his luggage. Now he was going to cross the Sahara again.

"It is a long journey, a very tiresome journey," Mr. Mensah said. "But we have no option. We must survive. Africa has a lot of problems."

Abdul Wasia, 25, from Ilorin in southwest Nigeria, had lived in Libya for three years, making $200 a month as a domestic. Although Mr. Mensah was content to stay in Libya once he got back there again, Mr. Wasia's ultimate goal was to make it to another continent, where he could work in printing, as he had done in his early 20's in Nigeria.

"I couldn't make it to Europe last time — that's why I want to go back to Libya," Mr. Wasia said. "I want to go maybe to Canada, London or Germany. They know a lot about printing in Germany." Both migrants said ordinary Libyans sometimes mistreated other Africans, but they were confident that the government would protect them. "Qaddafi is a good man," Mr. Mensah said.

"He likes Africans — especially he likes blacks," Mr. Wasia said.

"He wants us to be together, to unite," Mr. Mensah said. "And even what happened in Libya, I don't think he knew anything about it."

Colonel Qaddafi has gained many admirers, as well as skeptics, in the last year or so with his talk of pan- African unity, open borders and a common currency. Next March, the United States of Africa was supposed to be declared in Sirte, his hometown.

Whether African leaders really believed in his vision, they indulged him because, as one Western diplomat in Niamey put it, they regularly go to Tripoli to collect money. Half a year ago Colonel Qaddafi visited Niger, promising many things, including a paved trans-Saharan road from Libya to Agadez.

Colonel Qaddafi's words are believed to have increased the flow of migrants, so that more than one million African expatriates are now estimated to live in Libya, which has an indigenous population of five million. Most come from countries on its borders: Niger, Chad and Sudan, whose migrants typically stay to work in Libya. Migrants from other African nations usually use Libya as a springboard to Europe.

Because of Colonel Qaddafi's influence, officials of African countries whose people were attacked or killed in Libya did not dare criticize Libyans. They were embarrassed that so many of their citizens were being used as cheap labor but conscious that their earnings played a crucial role in their home economies. So instead many officials seemed to blame the victims. Nigeria's minister for African cooperation, Dapo Sarumi, described the deported as "criminals or prostitutes who have become an embarrassment."

In Agadez, Yandaka Yahaya, the top government official, said: "I have not heard one African head of state criticize Qaddafi. But you must understand the Libyans' reaction. The migrants from Niger, from elsewhere in West and Central Africa, all want to go to Europe through Libya. It's the resulting traffic that the Libyans don't like, the traffic in drugs, counterfeit money, false papers, prostitution. They are afraid that their own population will be corrupted."

Mr. Yahaya acknowledged that the smuggling was continuing and that the authorities were looking the other way.

Indeed, the smuggling was impossible to deny, since Agadez included several ghettos for migrants waiting to go to Dirkou. Anne Williams, 29, better known as Mama Nigeria, left Nigeria four years ago for Agadez, where she now owns hair salons, a restaurant and a place to stay.

"All Nigerians come to me," Ms. Williams said. "The ones that have money continue their way. If no money, they will wash dishes, sweep my floors, until they save enough money to go to Libya."

Business was so good that last year she opened a restaurant in Dirkou, Anne's Restaurant.

One evening, a dozen Nigerians milled around her place in Agadez, all of them wanting to go to Europe through Libya, for various reasons. There was Helen Christopher-Meregwa, 41, a quiet woman who arrived in Agadez a month ago, who said she could no longer endure life in Africa.

"I'm sick and tired of Africa," she said. "I just want to be there in Europe. I will not come back."

Gloria Emmanuel, 27, had arrived a year ago from Lagos, where she had worked as a nurse. Nigeria's schools, like those in the rest of Africa, have collapsed in recent decades, with African leaders investing little in education even as they send their own children to schools in Europe and the United States. And so Ms. Emmanuel said she did not believe that she could further her education in Nigeria; in Europe perhaps she could.

"When I go to Europe, I just want to become a doctor," she said. "I know I will learn it."

In the Cameroonian ghetto, Calvin Tatchum Bekina, 24, spoke of joining his older brother, who was working for a shoe company in Spain. The brother, he said, had taken this route to go to Europe five years ago, only to be deported from Italy. But on his second try, he had made it to Europe, eventually landing in Spain, where he now lived with a Spanish girlfriend.

Mr. Bekina had little knowledge of Niger's geography; taking a bus from southern Niger to Agadez, he saw sandy stretches and thought he had crossed the Sahara his brother had warned him about.

"It was in Agadez that I was told that the great desert was still ahead of me," Mr. Bekina said. "I was shattered — all the money that I've spent to come to Agadez and I still haven't made it out of Africa."

Indeed, after 350 miles of desert to Dirkou, he would have to cross several hundred more miles north into the Sahara in Libya, probably sitting on top of a truck packed with Marlboros and other products being smuggled. Along the way, some would get lost, some would die, some would get arrested.

Bilma, a small oasis about 20 miles south of here, held nine African prisoners. Most had been convicted for dealing drugs in Dirkou or Agadez, said Silly Aba Roufay, a town administrator.

Two Nigerian prisoners, Benson Unemhin, 19, and John Ejulu, 50, said they were serving five years each on drug convictions. Both claimed innocence, but they had no contact with the outside. Town officials let the prisoners roam freely during the day. Where would they escape in the Sahara, unless to their deaths?

Still, in the bus station at Agadez or on the outskirts of Dirkou, crowds of Africans were fighting to board trucks bound for an uncertain journey into the Sahara.

"We are like running water," said Yusuf Marwan, 27, a Ghanaian. "We know our source, but we don't know where we are running to."