In the first peaceful democratic transition of power since the independence of Niger, Mohammed Bazoum was elected President by constitutional elections in 2021. Just two years later he was overthrown by a coup d’état spearheaded by the head of his presidential guard, General Abdourahmane Tchiani. The military junta presenting themselves as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) ousted the government, dissolved the Constitution, and declared themselves the new leaders of the nation. The unconstitutional change of government came at a time when Niger was progressing towards democratic governance. This progress now appears distant, with increasing threats to citizens’ rights to express their opinion or dissent.
Freedom of Expression
The right to freedom of expression, including criticism on government administration and policies, is a long-standing international principle protected by several human rights instruments, most prominently under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which extends to political discourse and discussion of human rights, and which forbids the government from punishing people for advocating a change of government. Article 19(3) allows for governments to limit this right, but only in order to safeguard a legitimate aim such as public order or national security.
In Niger, the junta suspended all international news outlets, such as France 24, in a bid to curb criticism and public outcry against the coup. The junta limited the presence of ‘Western’ media in Niger, citing putative concerns about national security and the negative influence of colonial and liberal ideologies. Importantly, a clampdown on civic freedoms, involving permanent bans on international media outlets, is not justified under Article 19(3) by the junta’s claims of protecting national security interests. Rather, it is suppressing voices that challenge the military rule, impeding efforts to criticise or counter the government’s actions.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (UNHRC) General Comment 27 on the ICCPR further observes that any such restrictions on Article 19 must conform with the principle of proportionality. Specifically, the Committee recognises the necessity of limitation of harmful misinformation for reaching a legitimate aim, though emphasising the need to employ the ‘least intrusive’ measure. Such measures should effectively serve their protective purpose while safeguarding the interests of the people. In the case of Niger’s newly self-appointed government, the suppression of news is restricting rather than upholding the public interest.
Arrests and Unlawful Detention
Article 6 of the ICCPR recognises the right to life and personal liberty of all people, including those in regions of armed conflicts. The detention of individuals without charge or bail represents an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty and thus constitutes a violation of Article 6. Since July 26, 2023 the President and his family – along with other top government officials – have been arrested and detained by the junta leaders. The junta has since announced its decision to prosecute the President on counts of ‘high treason’ and undermining state security. No evidence in support of these allegations has been offered by the junta, and no trial date has yet been set.
Article 9 of the ICCPR deems detention arbitrary if a detainee hasn’t been promptly brought before a judge, in contravention of their right to liberty. The African Charter echoes this principle in Liesbeth Zegveld & Mussie Ephrem v Eritrea, in which the African Court held that prolonged incommunicado detention may constitute cruel and inhuman treatment, as mandated by Article 5 of African Commission of Human and People’s Rights. The detention of Niger’s former President and government officials contravenes these principles, compounding the denial of their right to liberty. Moreover, requests from various rights groups in the region to provide legal representation to the detained persons have been largely ignored and unanswered. The absence of legal representation has the potential to lead to unfair trial and unjust conviction of the prisoners. Amidst these arrests, several international rights organisations have thus called for the authorities to protect and respect human rights in Niger under the new government order.
The international community has condemned the Niger coup, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposing severe sanctions and threats of military intervention if the coup persists. In response, Mali and Burkina Faso have warned that such intervention would be seen as a ‘declaration of war’ against their nations. Avoiding such intervention is of critical importance, as the threat has given the junta the opportunity to further mobilise the population by playing on patriotic sentiments. Regardless of these international implications, the promise of developing democracy in Niger has been severely affronted by the military coup. Having already witnessed the violation of core principles such as freedom of expression and the right to liberty, it is to be hoped that the new regime will curtail its assault on civil and political rights in Niger.