Being a lawyer in… Niger
Mr Nabara Yacouba
Mr. Yacouba, how is the training of future lawyers organized in Niger?
The University of Niamey has a law curriculum, certified as a master’s degree. As for me, I got my university diplomas at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey, which has a very good quality of teaching. Up to 2006, this master’s degree in law gave young university students access to a legal traineeship. The traineeship, which lasted 6 months, was certified by an end of traineeship certificate issued by the President of the Bar. In 1994, when I was sworn in, there were fewer than 20 lawyers at the Bar and I was the only one to be sworn in that year. Since, the rules on access to the profession have been changed several times to facilitate access, sometimes to the detriment of quality. To correct this, a competitive exam to access the legal traineeship was put in place 3 years ago. Out of 3 competitive exams organized since then only 2 candidates have been received at the Bar. Today, we are 110 lawyers in Niger for a total population of 15 million! This is clearly insufficient, especially when the population understands quite well the importance of the lawyer as a counsellor and as the champion of the law in the face of arbitrary actions and abuses of all kinds. However increasing the number of lawyers will not be enough. In my opinion, it is also necessary to put a system of continuous professional education in place, because poorly equipped lawyers are a liability to their clients.
What about the Bar?
There should be 2 Bars, attached to the 2 appeal courts of Niamey and Zinder. The law requests a minimum of 6 lawyers to establish a Bar. This number has not yet been reached in Zinder and therefore does not allow a Bar to be formed before the appeal court. Therefore, only one Bar exists, that of the capital. But the Bar Council is making a real effort to create conditions that would persuade lawyers to move to the provinces. For your information, our two appeal courts are more than 900 km apart.
Do lawyers face difficulties when setting up their practice?
Certain lawyers have a decent standard of living, but others must fight to “survive”. This is difficult for me to put up with. This profession is so noble and so restrictive that it is unacceptable for a lawyer to live the life of a “tramp”! Besides, at the end of their traineeship, certain lawyers prefer to work in other, more lucrative, areas.
The banks frown at granting loans to lawyers who, for the most part, do not have real guarantees to offer in order to be credit-worthy. On top of that, the “elders” share among themselves the institutional clientele of the few rare viable companies in the country. That means that the young have nothing but their nerve to carry out their profession.
The Bar has just begun a very interesting programme creating “pilot firms” in the centre of the country, with the financial support of European partners. To offer incentives for young people to move to the provinces, the installation costs and a proportion of the management costs of the firm are provided for two years, during which time they are required, in exchange, to run free legal clinics limited to women and minors. But for the litigation files concerning minors, they receive a flat rate. Up to the present day, 3 young lawyers have in this way moved out of the capital – it remains to be seen whether they will stay there subsequently.
How would you describe the functioning of the legal system in your country?
Professionals working in the legal system are well trained, even if there are some deficiencies, like in most countries in the region. Some lawyers are not yet aware that their principal mission is to help the judge commit fewer legal errors. I have the impression that today, many lawyers are merely trying to win their case even if this requires “fooling” the judge. In other countries, this has led to those subject to trial losing confidence in Justice and opting instead for revenge, from which most major conflicts arise. In spite of the separation of powers, we observe that every regime tries to undermined the independence of Justice, often by “settling the score” with the opposition and with journalists with divergent opinions. And if a judge tries to show his independence, he can expect to be transferred to a less “strategic” role in the subsequent judicial Council.
Broadly, the value of the legal profession has been recognized in recent years – the Constitution foresees the presence of a representative of the Order at the heart of several important institutions like the Human Rights Commission, the Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Court, the Superior Court for Communication … But these dispositions were suppressed after the referendum organized in August 2009, which sanctioned “a dependency” of these institutions on the President. This justified the intervention of the army to – it must be hoped – restore democracy.
Does the population have confidence in the legal system?
More and more. I have participated in certain sensitive trials that our clients have won, sometimes without expecting to, given that the authorities had done everything to keep them quiet. We must recognize the courage and independence of our judges who, despite their youth and their difficult working conditions, dare confront the authorities when the latter try to ignore the fundamental rights of the citizen.
What attracted you to the legal profession?
As a child, I wanted to become a pilot but, in high school, there were too many students applying for the scientific stream. In order to correct this unbalance and give the teachers in the literature stream something to do, the administration decided to enrol us in the A stream. We had thought that in the upper class we would be allowed to change depending on the results we got at the end of the year but that wasn’t the case and I continued literary studies until my final exams. Then, it was decided that I should study to become a judge. After a period of time in a law firm where I did research into case law while waiting to join the judicial school, I learned to love the profession of lawyer and finally opted for it. My time in Rwanda definitively convinced me to get involved in the protection of human rights [Editor: Mr. Yacouba went to Rwanda in 2000 to take part in the ASF Justice for All programme that aimed at providing people accused of and victims of the 1994 genocide with a lawyer]. In spite of difficult periods and discouraging moments, I am determined to continue this battle: one single voice raised to say “no to injustice” can change a lot of things.
In the course of your career, have you ever felt threatened in the exercise of your work as a lawyer?
No, perhaps because I am carefree. Even during sensitive trials, I have decided to concentrate on my work without worrying about threats. To live in paranoia, we don’t dare to do anything and we risk abandoning those subject to trial to their fate. But some of my fellow lawyers, including my own Master, have been subjected to unjustified inspections and unjustifiably brought in for questioning when they have argued cases that worry the authorities. I am convinced that it is necessary to cultivate solidarity among lawyers. No Bar can last for any length of time without the support of others. Solidarity – national and international – has an important role to play in the protection of human rights.
- Capital: Niamey
- Official language: French
- Population: 15 306 252
- Life expectancy at birth: 50,8 years
- GDP per capita (PPP): 627 USD
- Adult literacy rate (ages 15 and above): 28, 7%
- Classification HDI*: 0,340 (182 nd of 182)
- Government: Republic
- Lawyers: 110
- Bars: 1 (Niamey)
- Courts of appeal: 2 (Niamey and Zinder)
* HDI = Human Development Index, used to rank countries, composed from three dimensions: health/long-lived (life expectancy at birth), knowledge and education (adult literacy rate), and standard of living (GDP per capita in PPP).