With a 30-year career in education, a small family house in a suburb of the Nigerian city of Agadez, and a dusty Toyota Corolla that he has been driving for the past 11 years, Azizou Chehou’s life seems to be quite ordinary. However, every year, the 56-year-old man who comes to the aid of people stranded in the desert saves almost as many lives as a doctor.
Week after week, hundreds of people wander the sands, turned away by the Algerian authorities across the border with Niger. They are men from West Africa, thrown out of the backs of the trucks they were crammed into, men who have no choice but to walk to the village of Assamaka by traveling across 15 kilometers of desert. This is where Azizou Chehou’s organization Alarme Phone Sahara’s (APS) 3-wheelers go.
With these vehicles, volunteers come to the aid of those who can no longer walk, taking them to the village where a UN transit center will receive them. In this part of the desert, there are many enemies of the migrants, including bandits on the Niger side and military patrols on the Algerian side.
Expulsions by Algeria have never been so numerous as in recent weeks. While about 20,000 people were turned back in the whole of 2022, APS has already counted nearly 15,000 thrown back into the Sahara in the first four months of 2023.
Bilma, in the middle of the desert
Sometimes, when APS’s yellow vests find them, the migrants are already dead. ″What’s happening there is a shame,″ said Chehou. ″At least in the Mediterranean, the sea rejects the bodies, but the Sahara swallows them up. We will never know how many people died here in indifference.″
Born in a small Kanuri village in the region of Zinder (south of Niger), nothing predestined this son of a farmer to end up in the Sahara. Studious, he left to study at the University of Niamey at a time, the end of the 1980s, when political turbulence was brewing in West African universities.
It was the time of national conferences and of young people calling for democracy and a multiparty system after years of authoritarian rule. Within the Union des Scolaires Nigériens (USN, Nigerian Students’ Union), a central student union, the young Azizou was in charge of monitoring the force orders that came to the university campus.
But he quickly paid for his union commitment: When he was appointed as a teacher after finishing his degree, he was sent to Bilma, in the middle of the desert, not far from Libya. You have to imagine the place: A few hundred inhabitants, a seven-day trip on the roof of a truck that belongs to the local date cooperative to reach the regional capital of Agadez, and, sometimes, a military plane landing in the sand for military rotations. There is a resemblance to the Tartar Desert in this small village where a garrison stands guard against possible incursions from Libya or Chad.
‘A crossroads of migration’
The young joker reluctantly went, with his 150 cassettes (he was a deejay in his spare time), his two suitcases, and his portable stove to make tea. But when he arrived, he was in utter disbelief. ″You get a taste for it quickly. I took over the local bar: We got beer from the soldiers and the rest was brought in from Libya,″ he said. He stayed there for two years, made friends, and returned to Agadez for his next appointment. The young, single, laughing teacher in his shirt sleeves made the girls fall in love with him at first sight.
Learn French with Gymglish
Thanks to a daily lesson, an original story and a personalized correction, in 15 minutes per day.
Try for free
Thirty years passed, with different teaching assignments. He soon had four children and a house in Agadez. Azizou is a member of a middle class who does not seek the light of the wealthy but simply goes about its business. At the end of 2015, he met journalist Ibrahim Manzo Diallo when his students visited his Aïr info office, the main media in northern Niger. The hyperactive Azizou began writing for him. ″He has a definite passion for writing and a talent for entrepreneurship,″ said Manzo, who quickly appointed him editor-in-chief of his newspaper.
In the pages of the only paper in northern Niger, he has written about every possible topic, but migration returns time after time: It has always been a driving business in this place. ″Being at a crossroads of migration once brought a lot of work here. Being part of this trafficking was criminalized [in 2015]. Everything has changed,″ he pointed out.
So, in 2018, when Diallo let go of the reins of the small association APS that he had launched with German non-profit support, it was obvious: Chehou had to take over. He hesitated: He was writing his thesis and already had to manage his other organization for the unemployed youth of his neighborhood.
A few months later, the thesis was complete and the migration crisis was growing on the Algerian border. The APS 3-wheelers are still rolling across the sand and, as coordinator, Chehou’s telephone rings constantly. As for the village of Assamaka, it has become a spillway where thousands of migrants congregate while they wait for the attention of the UN and international NGOs.