Civil society is playing the role of firefighter in Niger – literally and metaphorically – after violent demonstrations against the cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo last Friday, the 15 January.
In effect, everything started in Niger’s second city, Zinder, which is around 900 kilometres from the capital Niamey. Activists had spread messages urging people to protest against Charlie Hebdo after Friday prayers, the holiest day of the week in Islam.
Instead of returning to their homes and work as usual, some people began to spread through the city towards several areas, including churches, areas with Christians living in them, bars and restaurants, and the Franco-Nigerien cultural centre.
Using the slogan ‘Allahou Akbar’, or ‘God is Great,’ protesters set fire to a school in a Catholic mission and several churches. At one of them, they flew the flag of Boko Haram, as well as burning the French flag.
Five people were killed.
Continuing violence, multiple targets
In the wake of this violence, the authorities in Niamey banned a sermon planned for the day after at Niamey’s grand mosque. However, several groups of young people still came together, and began burning tyres and setting up road blocks.
The authorities responded with tear gas, but across the city other protesters began to appear. As in Zinder, they resisted the police.
Around two hours after the beginning of the riots, the protesters began attacking buildings. More than 45 churches and 30 bars were destroyed, as well as several hotels. A Christian school and an orphanage were also set on fire. It should be noted that other targets did not escape the violence, including national lottery kiosks and those of the telephone operator Orange.
As in Zinder, several protesters were flying the flag of Boko Haram. According to reports, another five people were killed.
Calls for restraint: the complicated politics of the freedom of speech debate
Confronted with this increasing violence, civil and human rights organisations tried to calm the situation through the media and other channels. For example, the Nigerien Collectif Des Organisations de Défense Des Droits de l’homme et de la Démocratie (Nigerian Collective of Organisation for the Defence of Human Rights and Democracy, the CODDH) criticised the cartoons while condemning the Church attacks, but highlighted the Nigerien constitution’s guarantee of the right to protest and freedom of worship.
While the CODDH invoked the constitution to call a halt to the violence, the Coalition Nationale des Organisations de la Society Civile pour la Democratie et le Developpement (National Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for Democracy and Development in Niger, the CNDDN) drew on Islam, underlining that the prophet Mohammed said that ‘lost are those who call for violence against the children of God, be they Muslim or not.’
For the CNDDN, France must take action against Charlie Hebdo. Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the Islamic Association of Niger said that life is sacred and that in the name of freedom of expression, journalists should avoid addressing sacred texts including the bible and the Koran, as well as the prophets, in order to ensure social harmony.
The last message of reconciliation was two days ago, on Wednesday 21 January. It came from the bishops of Niamey, who said that “we salute those who work on the ground and in daily life to promote the unity of minds, the reconciliation of hearts, respect for cultural, political and religious difference and the public good.” They have previously made the same call in response to violence in Niger, appealing for calm and forgiveness from the Christians whose property has been destroyed.