Weep not more than the bereaved

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President Bola Ahmed Tinubu

The military coup in Niger Republic that took place on 26 July 2023, barely two months after Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn in as the incumbent President and Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria Armed Forces, has attracted global concern ever since. Many African countries, with Nigeria at the forefront, have determined to re-install the democratically elected government of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. But the coupists are not bulging. They are not yielding an inch. Former President Bazoum remains under house arrest.

Within these few months, the civilian population that supports the coup plotters has taken part in two different demonstrations in Niamey, the county’s national capital. And to a reasonable extent, these demonstrations have already given the world the impression that the people of Niger Republic were delighted with the coup.

Niger’s ousted President Mohamed Bazoum was elected in April 2021 in the first peaceful, democratic election since Niger acquired self rule in 1960. But on that fateful day of 26 July, he was ousted from office by members of his own presidential guard. It was to be the third coup to topple leaders in the Sahel region in recent times. They detained former President Mohamed Bazoum at his official residence in Niamey and announced that they seized power in the coup because of the country’s deteriorating economic and security situation.

In a national television broadcast, the chief coupist, Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane told his country men and women: “The defence and security forces have decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with. This follows the continuous deterioration of the security situation, the bad social and economic management.” The coup leaders closed the country’s borders. A statement posted by the Nigerien Army Command confirmed that it would back the coup to avoid a “murderous confrontation” that could lead to bloodbath.

Commander of the Presidential Guards, General Abdourahmane “Omar” Tchiani, appointed himself head of the country’s new military government. In the unrest that instantly broke out, thousands of supporters of the coup ransacked and set fire to the headquarters of the former governing party in Niamey.  In a telegram voice message, Wagner Group mercenary boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, hailed the coup and offered his fighters’ services to stabilize it. Bazoum defiantly declared that democracy would prevail in the country. But while he was on that, coup leader Tchiani dissolved the country’s constitution.

Mohamed Bazoum

So far, the European Union has cut off financial support to Niger. The African Union (AU) has called on the coup leaders to return to their barracks. The French foreign ministry has confirmed that France suspended all development aid and budget support with immediate effect, demanding a prompt return to constitutional order with Bazoum back in charge. French development aid for Niger was approximately 120 million Euros ($130m) in 2022, and was expected to be slightly higher this year.

At an emergency summit in Nigeria, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc demanded that Bazoum be promptly reinstated. Otherwise, the bloc said, it would take “all necessary measures” to restore constitutional order emphasizing that such measures could include the use of force, if it became necessary. The bloc slammed financial sanctions on coup leaders and the country, freezing all commercial and financial transactions between member-states and Niger, which by the way is one of the world’s poorest countries.

A German foreign ministry spokesperson also said at a news briefing that all direct support payments to the central government of Niger had been suspended until further notice. A planned 30 billion CFA franc ($50m) bond issuance by Niger in the West African regional debt market was cancelled by the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). Nigeria cut its electricity supply to Niger, according to state utility documents. Niger depended on Nigeria for 70% of its electricity supply. Everyone, including Russia said the situation in Niger was “cause for serious concern”.

ECOWAS sent a delegation to Niger, led by former Nigerian military leader, Abdulsalami Abubakar, to negotiate with the military government. Despite that move, regional defence chiefs had a two-day meeting in Nigeria concerning the situation in Niger. In a televised address, General Tchiani criticized sanctions imposed on his country by West African leaders, describing them as “illegal” and “inhumane” and urged his countrymen to get ready to defend their nation.

Despite his position, ECOWAS military chiefs agreed to a plan for a possible military intervention to respond to the crisis, with the armies of countries including Senegal and Ivory Coast saying they were ready to participate.

General Tchiani

Then, Rhissa Boula, a former rebel leader and politician in Niger, said his new Council of Resistance for the Republic (CRR) had launched a movement that aimed to reinstate Bazoum. It was the first sign of internal resistance to army rule. The coup leaders accused French forces of confronting them, freeing captured “terrorists” and breaching a ban on the country’s airspace in an attempt to destabilize Niger. But France promptly denied the allegations. And then the coupists shut down the French embassy and got the ambassador and his staffs packing.

At an emergency summit in Abuja on Thursday, 10 August, ECOWAS heads of state said all options including the “use of force” remained on the table to restore constitutional order in Niger. Although the Nigerian President and Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Authority of Heads of State and Government, Bola Tinubu, said he was interested in peaceful resolution of the Nigerien crisis, but still open to exploring other options, the bloc went ahead and ordered the activation of its standby force as media reports emerged that Bazoum and his family were allegedly surviving on rice and pasta and living without electricity. ECOWAS members again met in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, to discuss how to tackle the Niger crisis after they approved the deployment of a stand-by force, but the meeting was indefinitely suspended for “technical reasons.”

When a group of Nigerian Islamic scholars met Niger’s coup leader, it was announced that they generally agreed to hold direct talks and resolve a standoff with West African leaders. But hours after the announcement, Niger’s military command said it would prosecute Bazoum for “high treason and undermining the internal and external security” of the country.

After defence chiefs from the regional bloc met again in Accra, Ghana, ECOWAS member-states, except those under military rule and Cape Verde, said they were ready to participate in the standby force as a last resort to restore democracy, according to the organization’s Commissioner Abdel-Fatau Musah. ECOWAS agreed on a “D-day” for possible military intervention to restore democracy in Niger, as military chiefs held a second day of talks in Ghana. Eleven of the bloc’s 15 member-states agreed to commit troops to the operation.

On Saturday, 19 August, an ECOWAS delegation held talks with military government leader Tchiani and met with Bazoum, the first time foreign officials had seen the toppled leader in weeks. Niger’s governing military council confirmed the arrival of the ECOWAS representatives, headed by former Nigerian leader Abdulsalami Abubakar. After meeting the delegation, Tchiani proposed a three-year transition of power and warned that any attack on the country would “not be a walk in the park” for those involved. Speaking on national television, he gave no details on the potential transition, saying only that the principles for the move would be decided within 30 days at a dialogue to be hosted by the ruling military council.

As the current Head of ECOWAS, Nigeria’s President Tinubu needs to assess the situation from many strategic angles before deciding on the appropriate action to take. Already, the junta has made it clear that any military incursion by the Nigeria-led ECOWAS army into Niger territory will put the lives of 12 million Nigerians living in that country in absolute danger. That would be an insane price to pay, just to remain the President of Nigeria. This is the first step to thoroughly understand the nature and scope of the situation that challenges a military option.

A more meaningful option would be to engage the junta diplomatically. It would be crucial to engage with relevant stakeholders, both within Niger Republic and in neighboring West African countries, as well as international organizations. There is no doubt that diplomatic efforts can help de-escalate tensions and find peaceful resolutions. There would also be need to coordinate with local authorities, if possible. Collaborating with local authorities and government agencies in Niger Republic would be essential if the military junta would allow that to happen. Understanding their perspective and involving them in decision-making can enhance the effectiveness of the response. If, as they have already indicated in their protests, they are happy with the coup, then ECOWAS just has to let go. There will be no justification for ECOWAS to weep more than the bereaved.

On the other hand, for President Tinubu as Head of ECOWAS to involve Nigeria economically in the Niger coup settlement would be suicidal. With an astronomical inflation rate, nearly 35% unemployment, unpaid salaries of workers across board, problematic economic situations in colleges, universities and in the medical profession, inability to service debts, the embarrassing value of the naira, and all of that, Nigeria is still struggling to find its space, especially after the withdrawal of petroleum subsidy on the very day Tinubu was sworn in and all the excruciating pains it has caused Nigerians.

President Tinubu should listen to the advice those who mean well for Nigeria are giving to him. He should opt for dialogue and a diplomatic or political solution to the conflict in Niger. That coup should not be Nigeria’s problem, either now or in the foreseeable future. Nigeria has too many problems on its hands at the moment. President Tinubu must not sacrifice the desires and aspirations of the people of Nigeria on the altar of political egocentricism or even jingoism. Our people will have no justification weeping more than the bereaved.

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