13 March 2017

Niger: Opposition Leader in Court Probe Over Baby Trafficking

Niger's opposition leader Hama Amadou, who was forced to run his campaign for the presidency from a prison cell, is being investigated for baby trafficking. Some suspect political intrigue.

It is a criminal case loaded with political dynamite. Thirty people from Niger's political establishment, its business community and the military were set to appear in court on Monday on charges related to baby trafficking. The investigative proceedings will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to send the defendants to trial.

A few years ago, Niger's elite went through a baby boom. Women who had been childless for years were suddenly celebrating the birth of their first child. There is a stigma attached to childlessness in Niger. "Couples in which the woman couldn't conceive would look for a baby to buy in Nigeria. The babies were then transported to Niger or Benin," Klaas van Walraven from the Center for Africa Studies at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, told DW.

In Nigeria, Africa's mostly densely populated country, the authorities regularly expose the existence of "baby farms." These are private clinics of dubious repute in which women give birth and then exchange their newly-born infant for cash. Often poverty is the reason why they abandon their children. Some, however, are also forced into handing them over - under threat of physical violence - by criminal baby trafficking rings. It is a lucrative market and the culprits are difficult to catch.

Arrest on arrival

The allegations against Amadou first surfaced in 2014 when he was parliamentary president. After preliminary investigations, his parliamentary immunity was suspended and he fled the country. In France, the opposition politician subsequently announced that he would be running against President Mahamadou Issoufou in the upcoming elections.

Amadaou was arrested on arrival when he returned to Niger in 2015. But he was allowed to run for president and managed his campaign from his prison cell. In the first round of the elections in February 2016, Issoufou garnered 48 percent of the vote falling short of an absolute majority. Amadou came second with 18 percent. In the March 2016 run-off, Issoufou polled 92 percent of the vote. Turnout was low in the second round and the opposition called for a boycott.

Amadou believes that the charges brought against himself and his wife are politically motivated. Van Walraven shares this view. "It is probable that the government is exploiting this case for own its ends. After all, it's the government that decides whether somebody gets prosecuted or not," he said.

Van Walraven said that the opposition has been severely weakened by Issoufou's landslide victory in March 2016 and he considers it unlikely that the government will be unseated in the near future. The ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) is determined to stay in office. "Politics is game and the current administration is already displaying authoritarian tendencies," he said.

Amadou's lawyer Bobacar Mossi believes that his client is a victim of persecution."It is clear that they want to destroy him," Mossi told DW. On his return to Niger, Amadou was arrested without a warrant and detained for months. He never appeared before a judge. "It was arbitrary arrest," Mossi said.

Mossi also urged the court to dismiss the charges against Amadou. "If the judiciary is independent, then my client will be acquitted. The decision is in the hands of the judge," he said.

The judiciary is largely independent in Niger and does not allow itself to be dictated to by the political class, Van Walraven said. If Amadou is convicted, then Niger would have to apply for his extradition from France. That is where he is currently residing. During the trial in Niger, he will be conspicuous by his absence.

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