The ECOWAS Court of Justice has ordered the Republic of Niger to pay the sum of 500,000 FCFA “in moral reparation” to each of the 260 of its citizens who were the victims of a local custom which breached the country’s international obligations.

The Court held that by tolerating the Djerma customs, under which the Applicants were required to pay homage with their fam produce to the owners of the land to whom they were previously enslaved, the government was in breach of its obligations under Articles 3 and 5 of the African Charter of People and Human’s Rights(ACPHR).

Delivering judgment no. ECW/CCJ/JUD/30/23, Justice Sengu Mohamed Koroma, who read the judgment of the Court, held the Republic of Niger in violation of its obligation to ensure non-discrimination among its citizens as provided in Article 3 of the ACPHPR after its national courts endorsed the application of local customs synonymous with discrimination.

Moreover, the Court said that fundamental rights like the right to life, protection from slavery and torture and liberty were consequences of the application of the Articles cited above and that having breached them, the country was in breach of the right to development of the applicants, who are residents of Danki villagers.

In suit ECW/CCJ/APP/21/19, Mr Hassane Abdou Nouhou, acting on behalf of the 260 families living in Danki village sued the country for the inaction of its officials in perpetuating these ancient customs.

Mr Nouhou said that the grandfather of the applicants was captured and enslaved by the landowners, the Kourmo family and that following the abolition of slavery in 1899 by the French, his grandfather created the Danki village and has since then being paying tribute in form of bundles of millet annually to the Kourmo’s as a gesture of gratitude for allowing them to settle in the land.

However, the Applicants said they were not allowed to own the land, which only belonged to the masters with the right of ownership transmitted by way of succession based on local custom which they found discriminatory  and inconsistent with the country’s international obligations after it had signed and ratified international instruments against discrimination and rights to development.

Furthermore, the Applicants contended that the Republic of Niger was in violation of its obligation under Articles 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 8 and 4(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibit slavery and serfdom  without derogation.

Moreover, the applicants alleged that in 2007 , when the settlers of Danki stopped the tributes, following the designation of the area as an administrative entity, the Kourmo family sued them before various national courts and was able to secure favourable judgments based on the provisions of customary law.

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.

In its response, the Republic of Niger argued that by paying the tribute, the Danski villagers had acknowledged the ownership of the land by the Kourmo family and that while slavery had been abolished, the payment by the villagers’ ancestors should not be construed as a gift to a master but payment of rent.

The Respondent State noted that in accordance with article 14 of the country’s 25 November 2010 Constitution, slavery was banned and sanctions spelt out but that  customary law was not discriminatory as the applicant could acquire a land at will.

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

On the violation of the applicant’s right to fair hearing, the Respondent State noted that the procedure in its courts allowed for fair hearing and consequently asked the Court to dismiss the suit as it has not violated any of the rights cited by the applicants.

Also on the panel are Justices Gberi-bè Ouattara (presiding) and  Ricardo Cláudio Monteiro Gonçalves.