Geopolitics

Niger: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home

Niger: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home
Patrick Randall

This week, we shine the spotlight on Niger:

FRENCH AMBASSADOR SENT HOME

The French ambassador in Niger Antoine Anfré was discreetly removed from his position and sent back to Paris last Thursday. His forced departure â€" a first for a French ambassador in Niger â€" was demanded by Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, according to Jeune Afrique. The French investigative website Mondafrique adds that the relations between Antoine Anfré and Nigerien authorities had recently deteriorated. Analysts say the 52-year-old, who became Niger’s ambassador in March 2014, was “inflexible” in his demand for free and open elections in 2016.

Ouestaf reports that about 7.5 million people (out of a population of 17 million) are expected to vote in general elections next year. In June, President Issoufou said he also wanted transparent elections, as Jeune Afrique reported. But the opposition also accused the Constitutional Court, in charge of validating candidacies, of supporting the government in power.

BATTLING BOKO HARAM

Like several of its neighbors, Niger is in the middle of a simmering war with Islamist terror army Boko Haram. Nigerien armed forces killed at least 30 Boko Haram fighters and captured three last week, including one senior leader, along the Yobe River that marks the border between Niger and Nigeria, according to the website Afrik. This comes after an attack by the Islamist sect on July 15 in the village of Gangara, near the Nigerian border, in which up to 15 locals were killed and four others injured, Radio France Internationale Afrique reports.

Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou encouraged the Nigerien army to “relentlessly pursue their noble mission for the defense of the integrity of the national territory and the protection of people and their goods.” Niger and its neighbors Nigeria, Cameroun and Chad have been facing a rise in violence by Boko Haram since the beginning of the year.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The humanitarian situation in the southeastern region of Diffa, an area that has been desperately poor for years, has significantly deteriorated these past few months as both floods and droughts are now combined with the threat of Boko Haram, StarAfrica reports. At least 150,000 people have currently been relocated in the region, according to RFI. The few NGOs onsite are starting to be overwhelmed and aid programs are crumbling due to the increasing number of refugees fleeing Boko Haram.



About 17,000 refugees have been established in two camps, in Bosso and Nguigmi districts, after the evacuation of Lake Chad in late April, MSF reports. The malnutrition crisis the Diffa region faces every year is expected to worsen and become critical as trade has been halted and many fields have not been planted in the area. The imminent start of the rainy season, combined with malnutrition and poor sanitary conditions, is also set to ring an increase of malaria cases, especially for children.

EID AL-FITR CELEBRATIONS

Like the majority of the global Islamic population, Muslims in Niger (between 80% and 94% of the country’s population) celebrated Eid al-Fitr last week â€" a celebration which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In the capital Niamey, thousands of people, including President Mahamadou Issoufou as well as several government and diplomatic officials, braved the rain on their way to the Great Mosque to attend the ceremony, Le Sahel reports.

Imams throughout the country delivered sermons marked by requests for solidarity, compassion, mutual aid and sharing, according to Actu Niger. The president of Niger’s Islamic Association Cheikh Jabir Omar Ismail, in addition to calling for peace and security, also encouraged the Nigerien security forces and military, wishing them “total victory” against terrorist forces.

POLITICIAN, WIFE ACCUSED OF BABY-TRAFFICKING

An appeal court in Niamey gave a green light to a criminal court to begin the trial of a baby-trafficking case involving the former head of the national assembly Hama Amadou, his wife and some 30 other members of the political and social elite, who could now face long jail terms, Jeune Afrique reports.

Hama Amadou, who, until the case appeared, was a potential opposition challenger for the 2016 presidential election, slipped out of the country before he could be questioned. He has since proclaimed his innocence. His wife and the other people involved in the scandal, however, have been charged with falsely claiming parenthood of about 30 babies born to women in Nigeria for the sole purpose of being sold to wealthy couples in Niger, Reuters reports.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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