A crusading publisher pushes Niger's limits

Maman Abou's anti-corruption scoops are profitable, but dangerous to report.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

"I have geese!" Maman Abou tells me when I ask if he sleeps with a gun under his pillow or takes any other security measures.

"Geese?" I ask Mr. Abou, one of the most successful and influential businessmen in this, one of the world's poorest countries.

"Geese!" he insists.

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It's only upon approaching his modest three-bedroom home here in Niger's capital city that I see what he means: Three plump geese honk deafeningly from a pen in his yard. They make a great alarm, if poor security personnel.

Abou – who owns Niger's biggest publishing house – has ample reason to be concerned about his safety. He's a free-speech crusader in a young African democracy where freedom of the press is not a guaranteed right.

Death threats are not uncommon for him, and visits to jail frequent. Government thugs once shaved his head after he questioned election results. And his press – which prints a dozen opposition publications in addition to his anticorruption-crusading Le Républicain newspaper – was set afire in 1998. Abou's latest jailing was last year when he was held for four months on charges that he defamed the government and spread false information by suggesting that Niger had turned away from the West and toward Iran. But it's generally believed that his arrest – along with Le Républicain's editor in chief – was because of an exposé of the theft of $8 million in European aid for education. Reporters uncovered details of how the minister of basic education and literacy stole the money by using counterfeit receipts for school supplies "purchased" but not delivered. The minister admitted he'd done it on orders from superiors, and he's now serving prison time for the crime.

"Many Nigerien leaders feel perfectly justified when they throw a journalist or human rights activist in jail for criticizing them or their regime," explains Thomas Kelley, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and recent Fulbright fellow in Niger. In an e-mail interview he questioned whether true freedom of the press is possible in a country where 85 percent of the population cannot read, and many government leaders are illiterate. "The government's not accustomed to stinging criticism and will continue to lash out when it can, limited only ... by fear of international condemnation."

It's not just the criticism that makes the government wary of Abou, it's the fact that Le Républicain is scrupulous about accuracy, says Jean-Dominique Petel, a former professor of philosophy at Niamey's Abdou Moumouni University. "His paper's very well informed. They don't attack people without cause."

But government spokesperson Omar Ben Mohamed disagrees. In an interview in his ministry of planning office, he criticizes Le Républicain for only printing articles that portray the government and its ministers in a negative light and insists that Abou has political aspirations. "He does what he calls 'investigative reporting' in quotation marks, but we know that Maman Abou's a politician," Mr. Ben Mohamed says. "He's an active member of the opposition party."

Indeed, Abou admits that he founded Le Républicain in 1991 "to take part in the political debate." But, he declares, "I have no political ambition. If, by chance, events drove me to play a role in leading the country, I wouldn't say no, but it's not my first motivation. My main motivation is the citizens of Niger."

***

The first time I met Abou was last November when he was in jail in the small town of Téra, four hours from Niamey along a bumpy one-lane highway and over the Niger River in a barge loaded with buses, people, and livestock.

He didn't look like a man taking imprisonment badly. Wearing khaki pants, a nicely ironed pinstriped shirt, and flip-flops, he juggled two constantly ringing cellphones and talked cheerfully, explaining that his wife had rented a house nearby and brought him food every day. Half a dozen visitors, among them a university professor, a government minister, and a businessman, sat with him under a makeshift lean-to outside the prison.

He said that the government had sent negotiators to offer an exchange: freedom, if he'd stop writing about the education ministry scandal.

Abou refused. "These are people who have absolutely no vision of the future of this country."

Niger's tribulations aren't linked only to a lack of natural resources, an unforgiving climate, or a high birthrate, Abou insisted. Instead, the devastating problems in Niger have been exacerbated by corrupt government officials who use public money for personal enrichment and by a general lack of political will to improve the country and raise people out of poverty, he said.

"Today we can't do the simplest things, like meet generally accepted accounting principles or prepare the beginning of the school year in May so that when school starts in October everything's ready. We don't even have clean hospitals," he offered. "People pay their taxes to keep up this country. With that money, however modest it is, the government has the responsibility to give the people public services that work."

Although a wealthy man today, Abou came from humble origins, and he partially credits childhood hardship for his interest in Niger's poor. He is a member of the Tuareg, a nomadic ethnic group that makes up 8 percent of the population; his first language is Tamajaq. He grew up in a village "behind the camels of my mother," as he puts it, "in the bush." His mother died when he was young, and Abou remembers his childhood as a chaotic time.

Nonetheless he excelled in school, went to France in 1968 to attend a two-year computer-training course, and became one of West Africa's first computer technicians. He returned to Niger to work at Honeywell Bull and later at the International Bank of West Africa.

In 1991, at a time when democratic values and independent newspapers were starting to appear here, he helped establish Niger's most prominent human rights organization, the Nigerien Association for the Defense of Human Rights. Not long after, he founded Le Républicain – and a tradition of crusading journalism that rubbed successive governments the wrong way. Among many investigative pieces on government corruption, the newspaper's signature scoop was the publication of purported government documents showing that President Hama Amadou paid his mistress from public funds. Abou was thrown in jail for those articles, too.

His state of the art printing plant – in this otherwise quite undeveloped nation – has been a very good business proposition. It's profits have allowed him to pursue his vision of creating hotels in isolated towns along the nation's very poor highway system – a plan he believes will help development come faster to undeveloped areas.

In addition to politics and business, he exercises regularly, reads avidly (in jail last year he read a biography of Napoleon, and now he's reading a book about the future of petroleum), and destresses by playing chess.

Despite – or perhaps because of – his success, optimism, and energy, Abou is often told to tread lightly.

"The world of the media must understand that we are a developing country," emphasizes the government's Ben Mohamed, who argues that newspapers have no business digging into the private life of politicians. "When I pick up my pen, I need to be extremely careful about what I'm going to write," says Ben Mohamed, a cautionary statement that hangs threateningly over the interview.

But it's all advice that Abou refuses to follow.

In mid-February, he jubilantly phoned to say that an appellate judge not only cleared him of charges of propagating false information and defamation, but further found that the government had misused the legal system to keep him in jail.

More crusading was ahead for Abou. And remembering the geese and his unlocked gate, I told him to be careful.

"I'm human like everyone else," he admitted. "We're always scared that something bad will happen to us, but I'm not scared enough to give up my struggle or my convictions."

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