The Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS will, on May 30, 2023 give its judgment in a suit filed by a Nigerien, Mr Hassane Abdou Nouhou alleging the violation of his rights to freedom, property, development and fair hearing by the Republic of Niger for tolerating serfdom despite signing international instruments against the practice.

Justice Gberi-bè Ouattara, the presiding judge, reminded parties that the case had already been heard and that the adjournment is to enable the two new judges of the court on the panel, who replaced two others that retired last year, to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the case.

Having ensured that notification had been given to the lawyer of the Republic of Niger, absent, the Court gave permission to the counsel to the Applicant, Eric Bizimana and Abder Chaibou to present their submissions.

In suit ECW/CCJ/APP/21/19, Mr Nouhou, acting on behalf of 260 families living in the village of Danki, alleged that they have been suffering from the inaction of the Republic of Niger to stop an ancient custom in which land ownership is governed by customary rights while slaves and their descendants are excluded from owning land.

Mr Nouhou said his grandfather was captured and enslaved by the Kourmo family but that following the abolition of slavery by the French in 1899, his grandfather cleared a bush that later became the village of Danki. He said that the grandfather and his descendants have since then been giving bundles of millet annually to the Kourmo family as a gesture of gratitude for allowing them to settle in the land that became Danki village.

In Niger, Mr Nouhou said, land belonged to the masters and the rights of ownership transmitted by way of succession while former slaves and their descendants cannot own land. Consequently, he told the Court that the settlers in Danki village have neither the right to cultivate nor to build on the land.

The Applicant alleged that, by continuing to apply customary law to properties after the ratification of international instruments, Niger was violating international instruments against discrimination and rights to development.

In 2007 , Mr Nouhou said that the settlers of Danki stopped presenting the gifts after the area was designated an administrative entity but the Kourmo family sued them in various courts and was able to secure favourable judgments based on the provisions of customary law.

By tolerating serfdom, Mr Nouhou alleged that the Republic of Niger was in violation of its obligation to article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 8 and 4(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under those dispositions, slavery and serfdom are prohibited without derogation.

Moreover, he said that by continuing to apply customary law to properties after the ratification of international instruments, Niger was violating international instruments against discrimination and rights to development.

In conclusion, Mr Nouhou said that by relying on customary law on land, there was no possibility of the Danki settlers getting a fair trial from the judiciary.

The Applicant asked the Court to order the Republic of Niger to pay each of the families living in Danki compensation of 10,000,000 FCFA, or 2,600,000,000 FCFA for the 260 families.

In response, the Republic of Niger noted that Mr Nouhou did not adduce evidence of his administrative status as head of the village of Danki and neither gave evidence of procuration by the 260 families he claimed to represent, nor their identity.

The Republic of Niger therefore urged the Court to dismiss the case.

On the merits of the case, the Republic of Niger argued that giving bundles of millet to the Kourmo family was their proof of ownership of the land, noting that while slavery has been abolished, the payment by the villagers’ ancestors should not be construed as a gift to a master but payment of rent.

The defendant noted that in accordance with article 14 of the country’s 25 November 2010 Constitution, slavery was banned and sanctions spelt out, adding that the customary law was not discriminatory as the applicant cannot be prevented from acquiring one.

On the violation of right to development, the Republic of Niger said that the National Agency for the Fight against Human Trafficking (ANLTP) was created specifically to tackle such claims and that neither the Applicant nor his representatives have ever approached the agency with their complaint.

On the violation of their right to fair hearing, the Republic of Niger noted that the procedure in its courts allowed for fair hearing and therefore urged the Court to dismiss the suit.

Also on the panel were Justices Sengu Mohamed Koroma and  Ricardo Cláudio Monteiro Gonçalves.