December 27, 2007

Climate of Repression in Niger

Four innocent Tuareg civilians in a common grave, tortured and executed by Niger's Army in reprisal, after the army lost four of their men to the rebels in the North.
Two farmers, a herdsman, and a holy man.

Photo credit: MNJ

With local and international reporters incarcerated and awaiting death sentences for even interviewing the rebels for their news reports,
who would dare speak out for justice
-- except for rebels?

"There is no voice of the people
that would dare speak out
against the current dictatorship."

-- Ahmed Akoli, political secretary for MNJ. December 21, 2007

For Americans, it is difficult to imagine living in a country where freedom of speech and of the press is restricted by government. Our Bill of Rights guarantees it. We expect it. We feel that it's an important part of democracy. Americans are often shocked when they visit a country that doesn't permit it.

Niger is one such country that heavily restricts the media from publishing certain news or opinions that the government deems controversial. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have always been suppressed in Niger, but new levels of media repression have emerged during President Tandja's administration. Over the past few months, the president has had numerous news reporters arrested and deported or incarcerated who interview the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) or write stories about the conflict in the north that do not support his political viewpoints.

The Tuaregs and other Nigeriens live in a climate of repression, afraid to speak out on injustices in the country. Since Independence, Niger has gone from one military coup or presidential assassination to the next. Tandja was a participant in a coup d'etat in 1974, and came to power in 1999 after the country's president was assassinated. Some Nigeriens, including members of MNJ, believe that Tandja and his cronies were involved. Tandja absolved the perpetrators of the assassination in the new constitution, and whoever committed the assassination has gone unpunished, despite a year 2000 Amnesty International appeal for resolution of the murder, which has continued to affect the social and political climate in Niger.

July, 2007: The U.S. Embassy in Niger brought a noted media expert to Niger to "raise awareness among Nigerien journalists, media executives and government officials on the roles and responsibilities of the media in a democracy." U.S. News & World Report journalist Eduardo Cue took part in U.S. Embassy-sponsored activities over a five-day period, including "a two-day media training conference which included journalists from throughout the country." He also spoke to numerous social activist groups and NGO leaders about the media’s responsibility, and emphasized that "freedom of the press and responsible journalism are essential components of a democracy, since the public’s right to information is the cornerstone of a free society."

Following the U.S. Embassy's efforts to encourage freedom of the press in Niger, the government of Niger began to crack down even more harshly on reportage covering the ongoing conflict in the north. Since then, numerous Nigerien and foreign reporters have been intimidated, arrested, detained, and incarcerated, for news coverage on the current crisis in Tuareg areas of the North. (For highlights, see TCN's story on the human rights situation in Niger).

Reporters, humanitarian agencies, and NGOs in general are strictly controlled in travel to "the North," where they might directly observe the situation, collect first-hand interviews and obtain local news. The government of Niger is keeping foreigners out of the North who might report on the political, economic and social conditions affecting the Tuareg people, particularly the conflict. Foreign non-government organizations that serve the Tuareg people have been closely monitored or banned from the region, partly because of the dangers involved in the conflict zone, and partly because of the government's campaign to prevent any reportage that is sympathetic to the Tuareg rebels or the conditions of the rural Tuareg people.

Oct. 24: Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which is accustomed to working in dangerous conflict zones to provide emergency health care, was forced to leave the Agadez region on government orders. MSF had just opened a new health care program in early October at Dabaga, 50 km north of Agadez in the Air Mountains in the middle of the conflicted area. They had to leave the region after two attacks on their vehicles (Oct. 16 and 22), attributed to unidentified men who MSF says were members of the rebel group (MNJ has not accepted the blame). The MSF vehicles were traveling along roads that run out of Agadez into the Air Mountains, where the Niger army and Tuareg rebels have been fighting since Feb. 2007. It is a region where smugglers and occasional bandits also travel. Tuaregs in the Air Mountains have suffered from malnutrition and untreated illnesses because food supplies have been irregular or stemmed as a result of the conflict.

Nov. 14: Libya sent humanitarian food aid to help 500 displaced families in the Air region, specifically around Iferwan and Tabelot, but the government of Niger refused to allow an airlift of the emergency food from Tripoli to Agadez. These families have been victims of abuse by the Niger army and were forced to leave their home villages in early November. MNJ says that the power elites are holding the food in Niamey, which they will sell or use for their own profit. This claim is not unwarranted, since it has been standard practice in the past.

Nov. 28: Perhaps the last reporter to actually travel to the north and cover the conflict without complications was Phuong Tran, with Voice of America. In late November, she traveled with the Tuareg rebels for 11 days, and reported via satellite telephone from "an undisclosed location in Niger." Her reporting was guarded, and she avoided saying anything critical of the government of Niger, except to say that Tandja had recently held a meeting to discuss how to "finish off" the rebels, and that Tandja has "refused to negotiate with them."

Dec. 15: Humanitarian efforts to help the Tuaregs are hampered at nearly every turn by the Niger authorities. Air-Info reported on December 15 that a 63-year old French woman, Josette P., president of an NGO for economic development (Dev-France), was arrested in Agadez. Her organization had been supporting local initiatives and helping Tuaregs through grants and micro-credit projects. Two days before her arrest, the police had questioned her about suspected connections with the MNJ, which she categorically denied. Nevertheless, she has been detained for two weeks at the penal facility in Agadez.

Dec. 17: Two well-known French TV journalists, veterans of news coverage in African conflict zones, were arrested on December 17 for travel to the north without permission and conducting filmed interviews with the MNJ. Reporter Thomas Dandois and cameraman Pierre Creisson remain in jail in Niger facing a death penalty.

Dec. 19: The human-rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently went to Niger to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in the North, in the conflicted Tuareg regions, but apparently they were restricted to the capitol city, Niamey, to collect interviews and data. Based on their own accounts, it seems as though they were not permitted to travel beyond Niamey, which is almost 1,000 miles from the conflict region in the North, and were limited to trying to find people from Agadez who happened to be in Niamey at the time of their visit.

Amnesty International apparently relied on reports they had received, as well as one voice contact (mode not specified) with a Tuareg who had directly observed the body of his kinsman who was slaughtered, and described the evidence of torture from cigarette burns, whipping, and shots to the face and chest.

Human Rights Watch said they conducted interviews in Niamey and Dakar, the capitol of Senegal on the Atlantic coast, which does not even border Niger. It appears that their main evidence supporting allegations that MNJ had laid landmines came from the *opinions* of foreign military analysts and diplomats. They said they had interviewed "several rebels" who admitted placing landmines, but it is not clear how they were able to interview MNJ rebels operating in the Air Mountains, if the rights agencies were limited to interviews in Niamey and Dakar. Nor is it clear exactly who the people were that were interviewed, and in what way they are allegedly connected with the MNJ. The MNJ has been regularly documenting the use of Chinese landmines by the Armed Forces of Niger since July, and has continually emphasized that MNJ is not laying mines. As recently as Dec. 21, 2007, MNJ spokesman Ahmed Akoli stated: "The MNJ maintains the position that it always has, which is not to harm civilians or private interests. We know that the Government is prepared to do anything to try to discredit our movement because we take on the debate of the real issues that affect the country's future."

On the question of landmines, there is some contradiction in the reportage. A Niamey-based news source L'Union recently reported that two Tuareg men connected with MNJ were apprehended in Tanout, for allegedly laying landmines in front of the Prefet's home in Tahoua on Dec. 18. However, the independent newspaper Le Republicain asks why the Nigerien authorities are not being more diligent about pursuing the "real" perpetrators, and questions whether or not the men arrested at Tanout were actually the guilty ones. Given the government's campaign to demonize the Tuaregs on the national radio and television (see MNJ blog -Highlights in English) it is not clear whether or not the arrested men were framed, in order to support the government's policies.

It appears there has been some confusion among the various news agencies about whether MNJ is willing to negotiate peace. In an article titled, "Niger Rebels Attack Convoy, Refuse to Negotiate," VOA recently reported that MNJ refuses to negotiate with the government; in the same article, VOA states, "The government has refused to negotiate with them." The headline says that the rebels refuse to negotiate: but the fact appears to be, and VOA does affirm, Tandja is the one who refuses to negotiate. MNJ has repeatedly appealed for negotiations with the government for the past year, and has maintained a steady log that illustrates this on their website. MNJ has pointed out that the government of Niger is corrupt and unstable, a façade of democracy, dominated by clan-connected power elites, and that it would be difficult for them to negotiate with such a government; they do not feel the government would be willing to meet their demands (see Temoust's interview with Ahmed Akoli for the list of MNJ's demands). However, they have shown their willingness to negotiate numerous times over the past year in statements that are available to the public online (MNJ blog). What is clear is that President Tandja has consistently refused to acknowledge the MNJ movement and to take any step that would open up proper negotiations toward peace.


A French female, citizen of France, 63 years old, detained in the penal facility at Agadez.
Air-Info, No. 68, Dec. 15, 2007
(Reported in TamTamInfo, Google English translation)

Amnesty International
Niger: The Right To Justice. 2000 report.
Niger: Extrajudicial executions and population displacement in the north of the country.

December 19, 2007 report.

MSF forced out of northern Niger. October 24, 2007.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Doctors Without Borders Halts Activities in Niger. October 24, 2007.

Human Rights Watch (report)
Warring Sides Must End Abuses of Civilians.
Dec. 19, 2007.

International Herald Tribune (IHT) - Associated Press
Reporters Without Borders urges release of 2 French journalists detained in Niger
December 20, 2007.

Le Republicain - Oumarou Keita
Propagation de l'Insecurite: Les Mines et Blogs de la Desolation! December 20, 2007

Mouvement Nigerien pour la Justice (MNJ)
Food Aid Diverted by Niamey. November 14, 2007.

The Union (copied in TamTamInfo) - Ousmane Dambadji
Insecurity in the North: Mine-Layers Apprehended at Tanout.
L'UNION N° 17. December 26, 2007.

U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger
U.S Expert Explains Role of the Media in a Democratic Society. 2007 Press Release.

Voice of America - Joe De Capua
Tuareg rebels gathering strength in Niger. November 28, 2007.

Voice of America
Niger Rebels Attack Convoy, Refuse to Negotiate
. 05 December 2007