The Speaker of the National Assembly in Niger, Hama Amadou, has left the country after the legislature authorized his arrest for involvement in a baby trafficking case, despite his parliamentary immunity. After first traveling to Burkina Faso, Hama Amadou has left the continent for France, transiting via Belgium. Prior to leaving, he contested the right of the bureau of the National Assembly to authorize his arrest by the police and appealed to the Constitutional Court to interpret article 88 of the Constitution. Feeling ‘threatened by the state,’ Hama left Niger before the Court could render its decision. A former ally of President Mahamadou Issofou, Hama has become the president’s likely chief opponent in the 2016 presidential poll.
The Speaker’s legal push-back is the latest example of a political tradition in Niger established since the first transition to democracy in 1993 – to request the Constitutional Court to clarify and interpret gray areas in the constitution; to serve, in a sense, as arbiter between contending political forces in their reading of the constitution (see earlier posting here, on a dispute regarding elections to the National Assembly bureau). In the present case, the Prime Minister requested authorization by the National Assembly bureau for the Speaker’s arrest and questioning by the police. The bureau obliged, with a sufficient quorum despite the walk-out by 6 opposition representatives. However, while article 88 of the 2010 Constitution enables the bureau of the National Assembly to authorize the arrest of a deputy while the legislature is out of session (as is currently the case), it is silent on the procedure for lifting a deputy’s immunity during an inter-session. The bureau of the National Assembly cannot authorize the arrest of a deputy before the immunity has been lifted.
This whole affair started with a series of newspaper articles appearing in the local press in January 2014, alleging the existence of a baby trafficking ring in which prominent Nigeriens were implicated. Interpol got involved and in June of this year, 17 people (of which 12 women) were arrested on suspicion of buying babies from ‘baby factories’ in Nigeria and claiming them as their own biological children. The trafficking network allegedly involves middlemen in Burkina and Benin. In Niger and other countries in the region, there is social stigma associated with being childless and limited options for fertility treatment. The people arrested included Hama Amadou’s second wife, as well as the wife of the Minister of Agriculture, Abdou Labo. Minister Labo was himself arrested on August 23. Labo is a dissident from the opposition party CDS of former President Mahamane Ousmane. His arrest is an embarrassment for the government and appears to undercut claims that the baby trafficking scandal is a political maneuver to eliminate Hama Amadou as a challenger in the 2016 presidential poll.
The affair happens in the context of persisting tensions between former ally turned opposition leader, Hama Amadou and the parliamentary majority, backing incumbent President Issofou. The majority has tried for months to impeach Hama, without having the sufficient two thirds majority votes among the deputies required to replace him as Speaker. By leaving the country, Hama has in effect removed himself from the position.
What are the legal and political implications of the Speaker vacating his position? A preliminary reading of the Constitution (article 89) would indicate that the National Assembly must hold an extraordinary session to elect a new Speaker. The opposition will, however, likely contest the extent to which the Speaker position is actually vacant, given the pending case in front of the Constitutional Court. The country could thus be in a legal limbo until the Court renders its decision, with the vice-president of the Assembly serving as Interim Speaker. Meanwhile, the opposition has rallied behind Hama Amadou, accusing the government of witch-hunt. It remains to be seen whether Hama Amadou will succeed in clearing his name ahead of the 2016 presidential race. The government of Mamadou Issoufou seemingly has the best cards in hand. The government can stand back and let justice run its course. In contrast, even if Hama is found innocent, leaving the country while his wife remains imprisoned could hurt his image as a statesman.