They call Agadez the gateway to the Sahara. At the entrance to the city, the largest in central Niger, a huge concrete arch straddles the road. Except you can’t drive through it because the road has long since disintegrated. Instead, drivers have to skirt past on a rutted piste. In the 1980s, tourists came to Agadez to see the old town and the 16th-century mud-brick mosque, with its sharply triangular minaret-cum-lookout tower, before heading into the desert to visit some of the most beautiful regions of the Sahara. Going north, one road leads to Libya and the other to Algeria.
Agadez’s tourist trade was killed off by the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s. In recent years it has been a stopping-off point for hundreds of thousands of west-African migrants. They would stay here, spending money, until they had organised their trip to Libya, from where they would go onto Europe. The number of migrants passing through Niger – most of whom would have travelled through Agadez – peaked at 333,891 in 2016. Now there are far fewer. The Nigerien authorities have been applying anti-trafficking laws enthusiastically, no doubt encouraged by the €1bn the European Union is offering them to stop the flow of migrants. Now the migrant business is all but over and Agadez is on the hunt for a new role.
Could it become a tourist destination once again? The mayor of Agadez, Rhissa Feltou (above), thinks so. He is the nephew of Mano Dayak, a Tuareg leader during the rebellion and a legendary figure in Agadez (the city’s airport is named after him). In June, Feltou hosted a conference where ideas were exchanged about how to bring back tourists to Agadez. Feltou thinks there’s an untapped market among African, Muslim and non-western tourists. But, as one delegate from Cameroon said to me: “The problem with Africans is that once they have some money they want to go to Europe or somewhere else. They have no interest in visiting anywhere else in Africa!” That could change but it would help if Agadez was easier to get to. Flights are expensive and no ordinary tourist is going to do what I had to do to get here.
It takes 17 hours to drive the 950km to Agadez from Niamey, Niger’s capital. If you’re lucky, that is. My hire car, a four-wheel drive, broke down when we got to a town called Birnin Konni. I spent the night in a room above a garage, waiting for a spare part to arrive from Nigeria, over the border. Ibrahim, the manager, told me he used to work as a driver in the uranium mines of Arlit but quit because men who worked there “just died” soon after they retired. “Everyone knows this,” he said, “you just die little by little.” Every now and then a lorry carrying uranium would thunder by on the way to Benin and from there to France, where 77% of electricity comes from nuclear power.
By the time we left Birnin Konni it was too late to get to Agadez on the same day. It is too dangerous to travel after dark here – the night before, some people ahead of us had been stopped by bandits. At nightfall we pulled into the walled compound of the town hall in the village of Tamaya. We were not alone. There were a couple of pick-up trucks belonging to the police and the army, one with a large machine gun mounted on the back. The 15 or so soldiers and police who patrol the desert here had also pulled in for the night. They ate, prayed, drunk tea – served ceremoniously from tiny teapots heated on little coal braziers – and finally settled down to sleep on the soft sand next to their vehicles. I was amazed by how silent it was. There was no wind, no trees with rustling leaves, no humming generators, no music and not even a bleat from the odd goat. The next morning the soldiers and police returned to the desert to hunt for jihadists and traffickers moving migrants, drugs and guns through the desert. I could not believe my luck at having spent an evening with them. If I were a holidaymaker I might have thought differently.
I got to Agadez for the end of Ramadan. The Sultan of Aïr, the traditional leader of the Tuareg of Agadez, came out to pray in a great, open field, where he was joined by thousands of people. Afterwards, he was driven back to his palace in his open-top sultan-mobile, flanked by nobles on horseback. They were accompanied by orange-and-red-robed security guards, whom the Tuareg believe have supernatural powers to detect evil. At that point it was easy to imagine the Agadez of the past. Maybe at that very spot where everyone had prayed, camel trains would have assembled, slaves would have been whipped into line, gold and salt would have been bundled onto camels and pilgrims would be getting ready for the march across the desert.