The Bleak Life in Captivity of Niger’s Deposed President, Mohamed Bazoum

The Bleak Life in Captivity of Niger’s Deposed President, Mohamed Bazoum

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Held captive by his former security guards in an isolated wing of his house, the deposed president of Niger paces a bedroom with no direct daylight, cut off from the world and unable to talk to his lawyers, according to people with direct knowledge of the conditions of his detention.

Nine months since he was toppled in one of the coups that have recently wracked West Africa, Mohamed Bazoum is lingering in detention with no end in sight. The military junta that deposed him is seeking to strip him of presidential immunity, paving the way for him to be prosecuted on charges such as treason, for which the penalty could be life imprisonment, his lawyers said.

Trapped with his wife, Hadiza, and two domestic workers, he has no access to a phone and is not allowed to see his lawyers, other family members or friends, according to members of his inner circle who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the precariousness of the situation. His only visitor is a doctor, who brings him food once a week.

The once-loud calls for his release have grown quiet. Many of Mr. Bazoum’s closest allies — his cabinet members and advisers — have been thrown into jail or forced to flee Niger.

And some of Mr. Bazoum’s closest international partners are backing away. At the demand of the governing junta, the United States is preparing to withdraw about 1,000 troops stationed at an air base in the country’s desert. France, a longtime partner in the fight against extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, departed in December.

Instead, about 100 Russian military instructors arrived in the capital, Niamey, in April as Niger’s new leaders turned to Moscow for security assistance.

“Little by little, this man is forgotten in all of these geopolitical moves,” said Reed Brody, a prominent human rights lawyer representing Mr. Bazoum.

The military leaders who took over in Niger accused him of failing to secure the country from the Islamist insurgents, but most analysts say political rivalries were the real cause and that Niger was doing better than its neighbors at keeping armed insurgents at bay.

As soldiers have seized power in several West and Central African countries in the past four years, they have curtailed individual freedoms, delayed a return to civilian rule and persecuted opponents, including the presidents they once served and then ousted.

But Mr. Bazoum’s ordeal stands out. He has been removed from power but remains at the heart of it, as Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the senior military official who toppled him and now governs Niger, keeps him detained only a few hundred feet from his office, in the presidential compound.

“Tchiani’s power lies in part on Bazoum’s detention,” said Amadou Ange Chekaraou Barou, a close adviser to Mr. Bazoum. “Bazoum is like a shield to him.”

The military government in Niger did not respond to several requests for comment.

Mr. Bazoum, 64, has refused to resign, but international partners now speak of him as a former leader. A spokesman for the State Department said in April, “We continue to call for the release of former President Bazoum and those unjustly detained as part of the military coup in July 2023.”

On May 10, he is scheduled for a hearing that could strip his presidential immunity, his lawyers say. This could lead to his prosecution on charges like treason, over an accusation that he tried to escape in October; supporting terrorism, for saying in an interview while president that the Islamist militants had better knowledge of the battlefield than the military; and plotting against the state’s safety, as he is accused of asking foreign powers to free him shortly after the coup.

Moussa Coulibaly, a lawyer representing Mr. Bazoum in hearings in Niamey, refused to say whether the former president had tried to escape, and he accused the junta of trying to make an illegal detention appear legitimate.

During his first months of captivity, Mr. Bazoum was held with his wife; their 22-year-old son, Salem; and two domestic workers in the presidential residence. They had no electricity but were able to roam inside the house as guards and others perched on armed pickup trucks surrounded it.

Yet the house soon became a gigantic oven, a member of Mr. Bazoum’s close circle said. Temperatures that reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) outside made the captives’ skin peel, the person said. Ms. Bazoum also suffered from a serious episode of malaria.

After the junta accused Mr. Bazoum of trying to escape in October, it curtailed his movement even further, trapping him, his family and his domestic workers into a wing of the residence. Soldiers are now stationed inside and have removed keys from the doors inside the residence, so that Mr. Bazoum cannot lock them for privacy. There is electricity, but soldiers confiscated all telephones, according to those interviewed in his inner circle.

Mr. Bazoum spends his days exercising on an indoor bike and reading Marxist theory, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” His relatives and closest advisers had hoped that he would be released for Christmas or for Eid al-Fitr in April. His son was released this year.

But, as the former president remains stranded in a bedroom once used by one of his children, they say that his next move might be to jail.

“Prison has always been something he has taken into account in his political career,” a member of Mr. Bazoum’s close circle said.

A onetime high school philosophy teacher, Mr. Bazoum was elected president of Niger in 2021 and quickly made the country one of the most favored recipients of foreign assistance in West Africa. He tackled corruption and vowed to send more girls to school, in part to limit early pregnancies in a country with the world’s highest birthrate. He worked closely with China to build an oil pipeline that is Africa’s longest, which the junta inaugurated this year.

He sought help from the United States and European countries in fighting off extremist groups and bought drones from Turkey, but also negotiated with the militants in semisecrecy.

He welcomed to the capital the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres. European emissaries like the Prince of Denmark and Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, also visited.

“Bazoum was seen as the best of all partners, and Western leaders were attached to him,” said Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, the International Crisis Group’s project director for the Sahel region, which includes Niger. But “so far, that popularity hasn’t borne fruit” in securing Mr. Bazoum’s release, he said.

For months, the United States and European countries remained divided over the best approach to obtain his release from Niger’s junta and to encourage a return to civilian rule, according to three senior Western officials working on Niger. France pushed for a military intervention; the United States resisted the idea.

Now, Niger has kicked out both countries and brought Russia in.

Mr. Barou, the senior adviser to Mr. Bazoum, said there was little to hope for his freedom from the current junta. “In the history of Niger,” he said, “detained presidents were never released until the soldiers who deposed them got evicted.”

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