NIAMEY, Niger — “We’re not going to let you into the embassy,” Willie told me. “We’re going to have to ask you to leave the premises.”
I watched Willie’s eyes dart about like they were following a mosquito. I had come for a simple background briefing, the type of service that U.S. diplomats have provided to journalists since time immemorial. The meeting at the U.S. Embassy had been confirmed, by phone and email, and the chief spokesperson had even promised to buy me a coffee. Now Willie, a member of the embassy’s security team, wanted me to disappear.
The head of Willie’s department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is a vocal advocate for press freedom. “The United States’ commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, is unwavering, and it’s unwavering because it’s the bedrock of a healthy democracy,” Blinken said at a “freedom of expression roundtable” on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last fall. Here in Niger, the U.S. State Department portrays itself as a staunch defender of journalists, funding programs to teach the basics of the craft to aspiring reporters and bloggers, providing training for established journalists, and even handing out awards on World Press Freedom Day.
Willie’s commitment to press freedom seemed less than unwavering. So I told him that if he wanted to remove me — a U.S. citizen, taxpayer, and journalist — then he should have at it. But Willie demurred. It wouldn’t be him, he warned. “I’ll give you to the top of the hour — 10 minutes,” he said, referring to 10 a.m. “Then I’m going to come out again. And if you won’t leave, we’ll go to the host nation.”
I took it as a threat. I assumed Willie — a State Department security official — had also read his department’s latest human rights report on Niger. The assessment had certainly made an impression on me. So had a conversation with a local journalist just a week before. That reporter had written the wrong thing and wound up in a cell too small for him to stand up or lie down in. Was that what Willie, this tough-talking American with a receding hairline, wanted me to fear?
Niger and the United States have a very close relationship. The U.S. provides this Sahelian nation with bucketloads of humanitarian, economic development, and military aid. The U.S. sends trucks, armored vehicles, surveillance aircraft, and transport planes. It builds military bases here and flies drones from them. It trains, advises, equips, and arms local troops. The U.S. has even sent its own soldiers to fight and die in Niger. But the U.S. isn’t blind to the fact that Niger’s government harasses members of the press, activists, and human rights defenders. It jails the innocent. It lumps civilians in with terrorists and kills them both.
I came to this West African nation to report on the security situation and the U.S. military’s role in the country. Before I even arrived, I reached out to the embassy to hear the official U.S. perspective. During the first week of January, I began corresponding with Stephen Dreikorn, the embassy’s director of public diplomacy. By week three, we had exchanged numerous emails and WhatsApp messages, and I had the distinct feeling that Dreikorn was stringing me along until my trip was through. Day after day, from one week to the next, he was continually seeking “clearances” from Washington.
I’ve written extensively on U.S. military operations and security assistance across the continent, including an investigation of U.S. counterterrorism failures in neighboring Burkina Faso and coups by U.S.-trained officers in the Sahel. It hasn’t won me many fans in the U.S. government, and I assumed that was why I was getting a polite brush-off.
But Dreikorn came through toward the end of my trip. “We are good for 10:00 a.m.,” he wrote in an email the evening before, also affirming that Col. Nora Nelson-Richter, the defense attaché, would attend. I quickly confirmed the briefing in a phone call and thanked him for all his efforts.
But the next morning, three hours before the sit-down, Dreikorn called the meeting off. In a text and email, he blamed Washington. I replied that I expected him to keep his word and that I’d be at the embassy for the briefing. When I arrived at 9:30, walking onto the embassy grounds until I reached a hardened security entrance with locked doors, the local staff tried to shoo me away. When I made it clear that I wasn’t going, they said someone was coming to talk with me. I assumed Dreikorn would have the courage to give me the brush-off to my face. But I was wrong. Instead, Willie arrived with his threat of calling in the “host nation.”
The State Department doesn’t pull punches when it talks about Niger. “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by or on behalf of government,” reads their most recent assessment. In 2020, for instance, Niger’s National Commission on Human Rights investigated just a weeklong military operation in which 102 civilians had disappeared. They discovered no less than 71 bodies in six mass graves, which Abdoulaye Seydou, the president of the Pan-African Network for Peace, Democracy and Development, or shortened to REPPADD in French, said were the result of executions by Nigerien security forces.
To be fair, foreign journalists are not typically the targets of extrajudicial executions. Instead, noncombatants are generally killed in border areas where Niger’s military is waging a counterinsurgency campaign. But arbitrary and targeted killings are just one of the many abuses meted out by Niger’s security forces. You don’t need to look hard to find the stories. I’ve reported from many countries with abusive governments — Burkina Faso, the Congo, and South Sudan among them — but have rarely encountered so many sources who wished to remain anonymous. People wanted their stories told, but fear of the government’s wrath was pervasive and kept them from going on the record. “They can do anything,” one human rights defender told me.
In Niger, journalists are judicially harassed, brought up on charges, and jailed. Activists are arrested and do hard time. Ali Idrissa Nani, a prominent human rights activist and the head of a television and radio network, was imprisoned in 2018 for his involvement in a peaceful demonstration demanding budgetary transparency from the government. He says that the only reason he served just four months was the intervention of Oxfam and several U.S. senators who, in a letter he shared with The Intercept, called upon the State Department to pressure the government of Niger to reaffirm its commitment to human rights and halt the prosecution of those “exercising their democratic rights.”
In Niger, journalists are judicially harassed, brought upon charges, and jailed. Activists are arrested and do hard time.
Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, the publisher, owner, and editor of Aïr Info, a newspaper with an affiliated radio station in the northern town of Agadez, has been regularly harassed and abused by the government. “When I was starting out, they tried to buy me off. Then they threatened me with arrest, with prison, with torture,” he explained. As the only independent media outlet reporting on a rebellion in the region in the late 2000s, his newspaper was closed for four months over articles allegedly “undermining the morale of troops.” His radio station, he said, was shuttered for four years. Arrested by plainclothes police while attempting to board a flight to Paris for a professional seminar, he was held for months and transferred from one remote prison to another. “They accused me of being a rebel and locked me in a cell where I couldn’t stand but also couldn’t lie down,” he said, confirming that worse had occurred but that he would not go into details. “In our culture, we don’t talk about these things. But what I experienced should never be spoken about.”
In late January, after criticizing the bombing of a gold mine near the town of Tamou by the Nigerien military that killed civilians and traveling to the region to gather evidence, REPPADD’s Seydou was charged with “publishing information likely to disturb public order” and arrested. The charge was dropped, but as he tried to leave the courthouse, he was again arrested, this time on suspicion of complicity with the burning of miners’ sheds in Tamou. The public prosecutor claimed these fires were set to incriminate the Nigerien army and “back up the claims that there had been massacres.” Seydou was then transferred to a high-security prison.
“If they want to kill you,” Nani said of the government, “they put you in jail.”
In Niger, prison alone can be a death sentence. “If they want to kill you,” Nani said of the government, “they put you in jail.” The State Department says the same, specifically calling attention to the fact that conditions in Niger’s prisons are “harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.”
Back outside the embassy’s security entrance, the 10 a.m. deadline came and went without a reappearance by Willie. A Nigerien police vehicle appeared in a nearby parking lot; it eventually departed. Another arrived later but would also drive off without incident. All the while, I wrote WhatsApp messages to Dreikorn and emailed him, copying Nelson-Richter, the defense attaché, reminding them of our appointment and that I was waiting.
As my neck and forehead turned from pale to pink, I noticed a familiar face. Willie must have left through another exit, but now I saw him hugging the wall, making for the closest door to get back into the embassy.
“Hey,” I called to him, followed by a sarcastic comment that he pretended not to hear. As he tried to sneak through the entrance, I moved toward him and called out again.
With his hand already gripping the door handle, Willie made the mistake of looking up and mustered a “what’s that?”
“That’s the longest 10 minutes ever,” I said, referencing his earlier threat.
“Oh yeah,” he replied. “Well, if you’re gonna keep waiting then, uh — that’s, well, your prerogative right now, so —”
As I got closer to him, Willie slipped inside, pulling the door shut behind him, and disappeared into the embassy compound.
I called Dreikorn again and again over the next two days. He never answered or telephoned back. But as I buckled my seatbelt on the plane to fly home to the U.S., I checked my email to finally find a message from him. I had to give Dreikorn credit. He had executed one of the most egregious acts of official gaslighting I’ve ever experienced — and that’s saying a lot.
I saw you called. Off the record, DC’s response is for you to contact [email protected] Requests from non-Nigerien outlets generally go through colleagues back at the Department.
Thank you for understanding.
Stephen E. Dreikorn
Director of Public Diplomacy and Spokesperson
U.S. Embassy | Niamey, Niger
B.P. 11201 Rue Des Ambassades
(Note: Providing information “off the record” is subject to an agreement between a journalist and a source and does not occur with a unilateral decree from the source.)