Dossier: Fragile Borders

A Borders Academy in Niger

15 June 2023
By Simon Izac, French Customs and Aboubacar Maifada, Niger Customs

The French and Nigerien authorities have been working on setting up a region-specific national training centre on coordinated border management. Its purpose is to train the internal security services of the countries of West Africa that have seen security in their border areas deteriorating. At this training centre, these services will gain a core body of knowledge and common techniques that they need to ensure their interoperability and counter violent extremism without hindering economic development.

Managing flows of goods and people in the Sahel: background

For more than 10 years, counter-terrorist units have been witnessing the establishment of caliphates by jihadist groups in the Sahel.[1] These jihadist groups are extending their area of influence, leading to increasing numbers of victims – it is claimed that, in 2021, the violence associated with their activities increased by 70% compared with 2020.[2] Targeting civilians appears to be a deliberate tactic to intimidate local communities, forcing them to cooperate or flee.

More than half (55%) of the violent events in the region take place in three areas (see annexed map): central Mali, which plays a key role in the preparation of attacks perpetrated in the neighbouring areas; the “Three Borders” area straddling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; and Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region. Incidents involving the same jihadist groups have also been reported on the northern borders of the coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea (Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin).

The Sahelian border areas, where trade is the main economic resource, were subject to 65% of the violent incidents in 2022. These areas have become sources of financial revenue and influence, for which the armed groups are jostling with the states. In the past, there was little investment in these areas by these states. They focused their border flow management modernization efforts mainly on the transit points channelling economic activity and generating the greatest fiscal revenue (ports, airports and regional transit corridors).

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In addition to the movements of goods, there are movements of people, which have increased as a result of the migratory developments fuelled by insecurity. These movements are increasingly attracting the attention of the authorities and donors. What is more, bearing in mind that jihadist groups circulate in the border areas, control of persons has become a major security challenge there.

Formerly carried out on the roads, the controls are now carried out at the entry points to towns, with extensive searches, unloading of goods, a ban on using certain means of transport, closure of some roads to goods transport, paid escort services and transhipment at the border.

Apart from being a burden on some of the population and on trade, these policies and measures have weakened the economies of the border areas, and armed groups have found a perfect theatre of operations there. There is a normalization of informality, a trivialization of tax avoidance, a reduction in the role of tax, a concentration of wealth by local trading elites, a dependence of local officials on these elites, a development of patronage relationships and inequality of access to cross-border trade as an economic resource for the “cadets sociaux[3] (young people, women, members of social groups low down in the traditional hierarchies).

There is therefore a need to ensure that there is a presence, not just of security services, but of civil authorities in these areas, in order to offer border communities a response in both security and economic terms, bringing together police forces and bodies with an economic remit, such as Customs.

Mobilizing and training the internal security forces

The representatives of the armed civilian services, such as Customs officials, more familiar with socio-economic considerations, have proved to be inadequately prepared for the surveillance and control of movements of people and goods. While the donors (United Nations, European Union, G5 Sahel, France, United States and Germany) provide huge support for the training of defence and internal security forces in the Sahel (police, national guard, gendarmerie), the technical workshops offered to the other bodies (Customs, water and forestry services) are relatively short and succeed only in forging a minimal common culture. The mobilization and training of all state bodies seeking to implement coordinated border management should lie at the heart of the security framework.

In their Joint Statement, the Heads of State of the member countries of the G5 Sahel, meeting in January 2020 in Pau, France, also pledged “to take all measures aimed at speeding up the return of administrations and public services across all the territories concerned by the issue”. The Statement also notes that France and Germany, as part of the Partnership for Stability and Security in the Sahel (P3S) initiative, will provide their support, focusing their “involvement on the training and deployment of staff, including at local level, in the areas of civil administration, internal security (police, gendarmerie, Customs) and justice”.[4]

A region-specific national training centre in Niger

Niger has a 5,690-kilometre-long border with seven countries: Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west. Five of the seven borders are marked by growing insecurity as a result of the activities of terrorist or extremist groups, armed bandits and politico-military groups.

A few months ago, Nigerien and French Customs proposed to their governments that a region-specific national training centre on coordinated border management, named the Borders Academy, should be set up. Region-specific national training centres, a concept devised in 1997, “are in line with the French diplomatic strategy of support for state building and the stabilization of crisis regions”.[5] They are “centres for the training of managers, dedicated to improving the expertise of the defence and security forces”[6] of the country that hosts them and countries of the region, or indeed the continent.

© Borders Academy
© Borders Academy

The purpose of the new Academy is to train the armed services – gendarme, police, national guard, officials of the forestry and Customs services – to enable them to act in a coordinated manner to counter the various armed groups without hindering economic development. It is about fostering the interoperability of the various services, drawing on the expertise and added value of each individual involved, encouraging the conduct of joint operations at national and regional level and balancing enforcement with support for economic activity. The training offered therefore revolves as much around joint control techniques designed to ensure the safety of the services taking action together, as it does around awareness-raising among the police forces on the stresses experienced by economic operators on the border and, more generally, the strategies to adopt against violent extremism that balance economic and enforcement action.

There are several reasons behind the choice of Niger as the location for setting up a region-specific training centre:

  • the security situation on Niger’s borders is not a matter of military emergency;
  • the country has only one other region-specific national training centre, dedicated to military health training;
  • the various security agencies (police, gendarmerie, national guard, water and forestry services, Customs) are present at all the borders.

The Italian Government, which has been supporting Niger in its commitment to combat terrorism for several years as part of the Bilateral Support Mission in the Republic of Niger (MISIN), has also joined the project. Under the agreement entered into by all the partners, France and Italy are responsible for the financial arrangement and will share the task of steering the project and content creation with Niger. The two European countries will contribute financially to the operation of the centre and provide support for teaching. The Nigerien Government, for its part, will provide the site, the teaching experts and the managerial staff.

© Borders Academy
© Borders Academy

Types of training delivered

The focus of the activities, the “fragile” border, lies at the heart of the training, which is adapted according to the targeted audience:

  • senior managers and/or senior officers study state strategy at the border;
  • supervisory staff and middle managers follow common theoretical and practical core training on the role of the state at the border and coordinated border management in a situation of insecurity;
  • officials of the units of each service are trained to be interoperable in the field. This is about building the capacities of Customs and the water and forestry services in security techniques, and the capacities of the police, the gendarmerie and the national guard to take account of the economic environment at the border and to adapt their actions in the field.

The merit of a region-specific national training centre is not to train all armed units in the same techniques as those of the police or the army, but to provide each service with the knowledge and techniques it needs so that it can be integrated into a comprehensive border security and economic management system.

Managing the space remains the most demanding aspect for the governance of border regions. The training will, therefore, also cover the collection, management and dissemination of geographical information, including in the form of maps, and the use of spatial analysis tools. Geographical information is associated with many different operational aspects, including the deployment of patrols and the planning of controls, and also the simultaneous analysis of security, fiscal and economic risks. It also facilitates intelligence fusion among departments and, by adding a visual dimension, makes dialogue possible between agents who have different training backgrounds and professional cultures (analysts, statisticians, field agents and decision-makers).

© Borders Academy
© Borders Academy

Project progress and prospects

The call for tenders for the construction of the buildings to house the training centre is expected to be published in the next few months. They will be built on a five-hectare site donated by the Nigerien Government and will form a proper campus with a lecture hall, an IT room, classrooms, a canteen and student rooms.

In 2021, experimental training sessions were given by French Customs, in order to identify the needs of the various departments and to understand the limitations. In 2022, the Security and Defence Cooperation Directorate (DCSD) of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE) funded and held two educational and module creation workshops with managers from Niger’s five internal security forces. There was also a study trip to Côte d’Ivoire in order to understand how the country’s International Counterterrorism Academy worked.

Since September 2021, 18 training workshops have already been held for the benefit of more than 350 field officers and managers of Niger’s five internal security forces and of other countries in the region. They were delivered in lecture rooms and locations provided to Customs.

Specifically, they covered:

  • coordinated border management;
  • awareness-raising on Customs’ functions in economic and tax matters;
  • the managerial function (leadership, ethics);
  • searches and the detection of caches on land transport;
  • the fight against fraud (cross-border crime, wildlife, drugs, weapons and various prohibitions);
  • shooting techniques and the safeguarding of weapons;
  • security techniques in border controls;
  • first aid;
  • communication;
  • analysis and use of georeferenced data and cartography;
  • counter-improvised explosive device (IED) measures.

The Nigerien internal security forces have a pool of Nigerien trainers who, of course, conducted the training, backed up by trainers from countries in the region and French experts.

In 2023, training will be open to other countries of West Africa.

More information

[1] In geographical terms, the Sahel is the African semi-desert area that lies between the desert climate and the humid tropical climate. The number of states included under the designation “Sahel” fluctuates. The EU Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel involves the five states of the G5 Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.


[3] This term denotes all of the disadvantaged social categories (young people and women), in contrast to their “social elders”, who have the authority associated with their age, their position in the lineage and the possession of symbolic and material resources.



[6] Idem.

Further reading

Some of this article is based on information from Cantens, T. (2021). “Border security in Africa: the paradigmatic case of the Sahel as the embodiment of security and economy in borderlands”.

Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 59(4), 497-520.