Civilians in northern Niger are being arrested without charge after the government declared a state of emergency there last month, according to the governor of Agadez.
“We are in a situation of insecurity,” said Malam Boukar Abba, who confirmed 10 people had been arrested there since a state of alert was declared by the president on 24 August. “We have to ensure public security. This isn’t exceptional. It’s not unique to Niger.”
Activists in Niger said the government is targeting dissenters who criticise its refusal to negotiate with a rebel group, the Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ), which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks on the army in northern Niger this year - and the killing of at least 45 Nigerien soldiers.
“Asking for dialogue is to go against what the government wants,” said one member of the Association of Youth for Sustainable Development (AJDD), whose president, Agali Aboubacar, has been held in a military camp since 26 August when his association organised a peace march in Agadez.
Niger’s media has been complaining of harassment when it reports on the region.
“They can arrest anyone at any time,” warned Oumarou Keïta, editor-in-chief of Le Républicain newspaper and secretary-general of the Union of Private Nigerien Journalists (UJPN), who compared the current state of affairs to pre-1991, when Niger was run by the military. “Giving your opinion on the conflict is enough to get you arrested.”
Northern Niger has been in an official state of alert since 24 August which gives the army powers to arrest people indefinitely without charge for the duration of the three month state of alert.
The Nigerien Association for the Defence of Human Rights (ANDDH) said over 100 people were arrested without charge in the Agadez region in the weeks leading up to the state of alert, but were released within 48 hours, as the law requires.
Agadez governor Abba told IRIN that 10 other civilians had since been arrested since the state of alert and were still being held. Some of the detainees appeared briefly in court in Agadez on 17 September but it was not clear if they have been charged and if so with what.
Mano Aghali, member of parliament for the Agadez region representing the ruling party, the National Movement for a Developing Society, told IRIN: “These people who are being held without trial in a situation which is not normal - that’s my fundamental worry in the north today.”
He said people in northern Niger are “caught between the rebellion on one side and the army on the other”, and “many people are scared sick when they go out.”
Those arrested - from the northern towns of Agadez and Arlit - are accused of complicity with the rebels, but “their arrests aren’t based on real facts,” Aghali said. “The majority are innocent.”
Media rights group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CDJ) said press freedom in Niger had deteriorated as the conflict with the MNJ had intensified in the last few months.
Niger’s High Council on Communications in July suspended Radio France Internationale (RFI) for one month for broadcasting “false information”. In June, the Council suspended the bi-monthly Agadez-based newspaper Aïr Info for three months for “undermining troop morale” and “apologising” for the rebels, according to the Council’s president, Daouda Diallo.
“You cannot apologise for violence. We cannot permit newspapers to say it’s OK to take up arms and shoot people,” Diallo told IRIN. “It affects the security of the country.”
Tom Rhodes, Africa program director for the New-York based CPJ, accused the government of “trying to sweep [the existence of a true rebellion] under the rug”.
“The rebels were getting a lot more airtime than anyone expected… [The government] panicked,” Rhodes said.
Foreign journalists have been refused access to the northern region of Agadez and local journalists have been pressured not to cover the rebellion. Last month, the High Council also banned the broadcast of any live debates on the rebellion.
“We will not be intimidated,” said Le Républicain’s Keïta, who was arrested for four months in 2006 for an article exposing a scam about government ministers stealing millions of dollars from donor-funded education projects.
“We are convinced of what we are saying. We know we live in a fragile country that does not have the means, and does not need, to continue this war.”