One of the Poorest Countries Can Be the Most Innovative

Not many of my friends knew much about Niger. Most assumed I mispronounced. “You mean Nigeria?”. Those that had heard of it had wondered why I was going to a place full of jihadis, weapon smugglers, and human traffickers. They had not seen the nation’s capital Niamey’s Diori Hamani airport. It is brand new and reflects determination. The first customers were the African Union heads of state at their summit in July.

Now it served me. Liman, the protocol officer, stood behind the customs with a sign bearing my name. “Welcome to Niger!”, he smiled, and talked me through customs. Oumar was waiting for us in a car as we walked out of the building. The only place I had been welcomed so well was Dubai, at a summit of the World Economic Forum. Niger’s GDP is $8 billion per year; Dubai’s is $102 billion.

Minister of Justice Marou Amadou of Niger invited me to get to know his justice system. Together with Mamadou, our Mali and Sahel lead, I was offered four intense days of open and enriching conversations with justice leaders from all over the system.

Niamey is quite a nice place. A relatively small town of around 1 million people. Clean and well organised. Not the rubbish infested traffic jam I know from many other African cities. It has air you can breathe, safe streets you can walk on, and traffic lights that work.

Now, the thing about jihadis, weapon smugglers, and human traffickers does not entirely come out of nowhere. Niger is a place where brave people are fighting one of the Big Battles of our time: the one against violent Islamic terrorism. It’s a battle about how to organise living together and how to develop and fairly share resources, both in Niger and for us in the rich West. Niger is part of a critical frontline of a fight to keep us in the West relatively safe. If the soldiers, health providers, state builders, peacemakers, and justice providers there lose, we in Europe will have a serious problem. The dragon they are facing has at least three heads: Boko Haram, IS, and Al Queida. In the South, along the border with Nigeria, Boko militants move in and out like Niger was their home. To the South-East violence is erupting on the border with Burkina Faso. To the East Mali is sliding back into instability which means trouble for Niger. To top it all up, the North of the country borders with Libya, which the West bombed and left to disintegrate. These threats united the three countries, together with Chad and Mauritania, to set up a joint coordination mechanism in 2014 called the G5 Sahel. Its goal is to regionally coordinate in the areas of security and economic development (seen as a root cause). France and Germany are contributing a large counter-terrorism military force, the EU and others provide funding, and the Security Council has sanctioned it. Remarkably, there is very little mention of justice in the G5 documents and efforts, even though I keep hearing that a lack of justice is one of the core challenges in the region. That is a serious oversight. The recent justice needs survey HiiL did in Mali shows that at any given time a little more than 50% of the people who have a justice problem are unable to resolve it. The main justice problems are connected with land, crime and family. People report very few highly-used and highly-helpful justice mechanisms. For a little under half of the people the impact of the justice problems was in the category ‘serious’. We don’t have data for Niger, but these figures may be indicative.

The Nigeriens I spoke to started working on strengthening the justice system anyway. The challenges they shared with me are huge. Tremendous pressure is being put on the system by terrorism and migration, creating a bias (also by donors) to focus the limited resources on criminal justice and security at the expense of civil and administrative matters. However, if Niger is like any other country, the most frequent justice people have will be in the latter areas. Niger is vast: how to get justice delivered to the sparsely populated areas, which are also the areas closest to conflict? There is the lack of budget: 0,6% of the limited national budget is spent on justice. Of it, around 70% goes to the salaries of the judges, prosecutors, prison staff, and civil servants that work for the ministry of justice. There is a lack of infrastructure: court houses, computers, and integrated IT systems. But also in terms of human software, there are serious gaps: lack of magistrates, limited ability to recruit and train. Lawyers and notaries are almost exclusively present in Niamey. For many Nigeriens, we were told, the French-based legal system is like law from outer space. A good friend in Mali once called the need to deal with this Western heritage ‘la deuxieme décolonisation’. How to make the law known, understood, something that is trusted?

Sitting in a court hearing, many of these challenges became visible. At first we thought it was a family matter. We did not notice any special security measures. Then we slowly realised it was a terrorism case. We looked at a bench of three black-robed judges, sitting authoritatively behind a high desk. Facing them two elderly gentlemen stood, brought in from a remote village many hundreds of kilometres away. I could not tell whether they were witnesses or accused. To the right sat the registrar. She had a notepad and a Bic pen and was fully focussed on taking notes. There was no IT in the room. To the right sat the advocate-general. It was hot outside; the courtroom was battling it with propeller fans. The president of the court was questioning the men in French, the official language. An interpreter was ensuring that a conversation could take place because the two old men did not speak that language. Both men had lawyers – a man and a woman, dressed in black robes as well . They hovered around the two, at close hand. The men were being questioned about whether they knew of a terrorist that had allegedly been in and out of their village. It was obvious that the environment they were in – a city, surrounded by lawyers in black robes, before judges in black robes, in a courtroom, a Roman law procedure – was far from anything they knew.

What do you do if you are poor, facing a terrible dragon? You know you won’t win with money. You know that losing the fight is not an option. So you look for another currency: creativity. In other words: you buckle up, supercharge your motivation, and innovate. That’s what’s we saw in Niger. Here is some of the creativity we saw.

What most impressed us was the États Généraux de la Justice : a periodic gathering of the key justice actors (around 500 people), enshrined in law. It brings together the judiciary, the bar, notaries, the police, the prison service, the ministry, academics, and NGOs. They get together to talk about ways to strengthen and improve the justice system. The constituent 2012 gathering was the basis for the national justice strategy. The États Généraux also has an independent monitoring committee that meets regularly to assess progress. We met its chair, the formidable Professor Tidjani (also great: not a lawyer). The committee commissions periodic surveys and research and is now working on a dashboard, with indicators. I have not heard about such a body elsewhere.

One of the outcomes of the États Généraux process was the decision to set up a special school for the training of magistrates (judges and prosecutors), registrars, court administrators, and prison officials. Until recently they were all trained in the École National d’Administration, together with most other civil servants. The new Ècole de Formation Judiciare is working on a curriculum for a better kind of justice provider.

Niger has a national agency for the modernization of the state, whose remarkable head, Amadou Oumarou, has the rank of a minister. He prods, pushes, questions, collects data and brings people together across government, to slowly add to the effectiveness of the state. “I push where it moves”, he said. When we met him he was about to go into a series of workshops with the government and the meat industry. Justice was more difficult, he smiled. He told us about the Service Publique Ambulante: ‘mobile government units’ that drive into the remote regions and can do legal things like marriage and birth registration, and issuing legal identity. He pulled out his mobile phone and showed us the newest video that explained an administrative procedure to citizens in normal language. “We are developing even more!”.

Imagine a prison full of alleged terrorists. Young and old. “Prisons were never part of our culture”, the director of cabinet of the minister explained. “We are looking for ways in which at least some of them can be pardoned, if they repent.” Putting them all in jail for long periods is expensive and not always a solution to the problem. The young are a particular challenge: what is the best process for a minor caught up in terrorism? He went on to explain that getting a consensus on how best to do this was not easy but that solutions were emerging.

An important foundation for all this is good people. We saw a lot of that. Inquisitive. On the ball. Open. Confident. Here too, Niger is an example: the country’s leaders have clearly been able to put in place a critical mass of good people and create an atmosphere in which they can do creative things. What is also important is how the terms for partnerships are set. Minister Amadou is a man of my heart. He made it very clear: “We don’t accept vertical help. We don’t deal with partners that come with pre-fixed ideas and recipes. We only work with those who listen.”

That we should. Justice innovation is happening in Niger. At many levels. More than I have seen in many rich countries. Niger is determined. The important of a good justice system is recognized. It is embracing the notion that justice innovation is a needed on many levels. The government has taken some daring steps to make that happen. More daring than I’ve seen in many rich countries.


  1. kirigwajjo Anatoli

    Quite insightful. Thank you for sharing!!