A crusading publisher pushes Niger's limits
Maman Abou's anti-corruption scoops are profitable, but dangerous to report.
"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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.