- In what may be a major setback for Niger's democratic transition, the ruling military junta today set out on a wave of arrests. Former ministers and high officials loyal to deposed President Mamadou Tandja were arrested for "subversive activities".
The arrested include five ministers serving under ex-President Tandja, including Finance Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine, Justice Minister Garba Lompo and two spokesmen of government. In addition, leaders of two main public enterprises, the electricity utility NIGELEC and the water utility SPEN, have been arrested.
The arrests were announced by the junta's transitional Minister of Security and the Interior, Ousmane Cissé. Mr Cissé said the high officials had engaged "in subversive activities," as far as the Nigerien police could establish. He however added that they would be released "if it is proven that there is nothing to incriminating them."
Minister Cissé further informed that the arrests had been carried out this morning by regular police troops. The detained official were hold in a detention centre in Niamey, the capital.
The detained are seen as key supporters of ex-President Tandja, who was deposed by the junta in February and still is held in detention. An earlier call for his release by Mr Tandja's former Communication Minister resulted in the latter's detention.
While the Nigerien junta has promised to make Niger a "model democracy" and started the democratisation transition process by engaging opposition parties and civil society, the question about Mr Tandja's future has developed into a taboo in Niamey. The Tandja taboo may harm the junta's aim of a democracy transformation as the ex-President still has many followers, especially within the political elite.
But the junta still insists it is determined to restore democracy in Niger. Transitional Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda, meeting the judiciary at the Niamey Bar on Friday, said that a key to democracy will be the respect of human rights. The junta would spare no efforts to implement rule of law and respect of human rights, he said.
Towards greater press freedom
In a more positive development, the junta has embarked on a process that is to lead to greater press freedom. It has already announced that libellous news reports no longer will lead to prison sentences for journalists, reducing maximum sentences to simple fines.
'La Voix du Sahel', Niger's national radio station, reported that the authorities would stage a three-day mass debate on the press this week, grouping legal experts, human rights defenders and representatives of the media and the government. Topics at the debate would include the status of journalists and rules on advertising.
But the junta's Security Minister Cissé also has indicated he wants Nigerien media to observe some limits. In a statement issued yesterday, Mr Cissé slammed individuals trying to use media and other communications platforms to express minority opinions "without any consideration of the deep aspirations of the overwhelming majority of people in Niger."
Press freedom had been deteriorating under the Tandja regime, although the situation for Niger's media was far from the worst in the region. The increasing number of libel sentences developed into the most serious threat to Nigerien media during the late Tandja period.
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