VIEW FROM THE GALLERY By MAHMUD JEGA
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Yusuf Tuggar was heard on the BBC Hausa service recently saying that Nigeria has been applying quiet pressure on Niger Republic’s military rulers to release former President Mohamed Bazoum and his family members and allow them to leave the country and resume normal lives abroad. Bazoum, his wife and son have been detained for five months now. Tuggar seemed to imply that Nigeria no longer insists that the soldiers who seized power in Niger Republic last July must restore Bazoum to power. The Federal Government’s new line of pressure is important because Nigerien soldiers have a sorry record of detaining toppled rulers. When Colonel Seyni Kountche toppled President Diori Hamani in 1974, he was detained until he went blind and died in Morocco in 1989.
Despite that apparent softening of stance, the junta led by General Abdurrahmane Tchiani has so far refused to accede to this watered-down demand. I can only speculate as to the reasons why. Could be that Tchiani fears what Bazoum could do from abroad. This ruggedly good-looking Nigerien Arab is charismatic, friendly, easy-going, and in his two years in power, earned respect in West Africa, all over Africa and beyond. He was, variously, his country’s Foreign and Interior Minister, so he must have a large network of contacts all over the place. In exile, he could foment trouble, if he is so inclined.
But this needs not be so. Tuggar made it clear in his interview that Bazoum is not necessarily expected to settle down in Nigeria, which Tchiani could view as preparatory to returning him to power in Niamey by military force. Nor will it be the first time that a former Nigerien ruler will settle down in Nigeria. In 1999 when Colonel Daouda Malam Wanke handed over power to civilians in Niamey, he said he was coming to live in Argungu, Kebbi State, because he traced his family’s ancestry to the town. He later returned home to Niger and died in Niamey in 2004. Besides, Tchiani could negotiate some conditions for releasing Bazoum.
It is true that most of present-day Argungu Emirate in Kebbi State and large swathes of south-western Niger Republic once belonged to the same old West African empires going back to Songhay. In 1996 when Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainasara seized power in Niger Republic, I at first thought “Bare” was some kind of French name. I soon learnt that it is the Hausa word Ba’are, i.e. person from the North. In two local governments of Argungu Emirate today, the people are known as Arawa, i.e. people of the North, plural of Ba’are. So, the ethnic affiliations are well established.
Which is why, when this Niger Republic coup exploded on our hands four months ago, many people in Northern Nigeria felt that our Presidency and ECOWAS should have treaded softly and, in particular, should not have threatened military action before diplomacy and economic sanctions are exhausted. It is noticeable that ECOWAS leaders have since become rather silent on the military option, even though they never officially took it off the table.
Instead, it is Tchiani and his colleagues who have been daring the regional leaders and making moves that could make military action of some sort inevitable. Forging an alliance with other military-ruled entities in Mali and Burkina Faso was open provocation to ECOWAS. Courting the late Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was another provocation. Even if ECOWAS does not move soldiers into Niger, the French, who Tchiani threw out from military bases in Niamey and northern Niger, certainly have the capacity and, historically, the inclination to do so. In any case, after pushing out the French and Americans, the Nigerien coupists have no realistic alternative plans to stop terrorists and Jihadists from southern Libya and the Maghreb from having free reign in the northern and south eastern parts of their territory. Never mind that French and American bombing of Libya that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 created the terrorist situation in the first place.
Right now, the security situation in Niger Republic has deteriorated, with armed tribal and political factions posting threats of breaking away and carving their own niches. Reports recently were that Tchiani withdrew troops from the Joint Multinational Force in the Chad Basin that is fighting Boko Haram, ISWAP and other terrorist groups. Although the action was attributed to “financial difficulties due to sanctions” imposed by Nigeria and ECOWAS, the real reason seemed to be regime safety, i.e. redeploying all the troops into and around Niamey in order to safeguard against possible counter-coups.
It was not clear if Tuggar and Nigerian government’s emphasis on the release of Bazoum, which appears to be a softening of position from insistence on the full restoration of democratic governance, is also the stance of ECOWAS. A Summit Meeting of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS is billed to take place in Abuja next Sunday. Since President Bola Tinubu is its chairman as well as host of the meeting, his stance on the issue could carry much weight, but other regional leaders must have their own views. Continued military rule in Niger, with no target date for a return to democratic rule, poses a threat to constitutional rule in the entire region, and in Africa as a whole.
Some Africans are likely to say that democratic rule across the continent has not produced stellar results. Maybe so, but dictatorship did not produce stellar results either. From the 1960s to 1990s, most African countries were under one form of dictatorship or another, but not one of them proved to be a Lee Kuan-Yew, Suharto or Park Chung-hee. What is certain is that military rule in Africa promises instability. Probably a majority of African coups since 1960 have been soldiers toppling soldiers, not soldiers toppling civilian regimes. One good psychological thing about a civilian ruler is that, however much you dislike him, you can see an end date to his tenure. Soldiers in power in Africa, Asia, South America and, not too long ago, in parts of Europe as well, tended to rule interminably, thereby attracting another coup.
So, the Federal Government of Nigeria has every reason to keep this Niger Republic matter on the front burner. If that country were to slide into chaos, we would be among the first to feel the heat. When a terrible drought enveloped the entire Sahel region in 1973-74, millions of Niger Republic citizens poured into Nigeria and many of them never went back. Political chaos could easily bring the same results.
The strangest aspect of this matter is that the concern shown by President Bola Tinubu for the situation in Niger Republic is being misinterpreted by many people in the North, led by some fiery clerics. Only last week, Senator Abdul Ningi of Bauchi, allegedly on behalf of Northern senators, took the same line by urging our government to tread softly, restore electricity supply to Niger and not wreck the old historical ties between Northern Nigeria and Niger Republic. He however called for a transition to civil rule program in the country.
The assumption being made is that President Tinubu does not appreciate the depth of “historical ties” because he is a southern Nigerian. This assumption is both erroneous and dangerous. Anyone who ever gets to become president of Nigeria must come from somewhere, and his part of the country would have immediate neighbours, which he could be more familiar with than our other neighbours.
Now, Nigeria has land borders with four countries, namely Benin Republic, Niger Republic, Chad and Cameroun, plus maritime boundaries with Sao Tome and Principe. In the matter of deep historical ties, we can also count Ghana, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, probably also Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among our neighbours. Should we therefore accuse any Nigerian, much less the president, of appreciating some neighbours less than others? It is a double-edged sword. Only recently, former President Buhari was accused of embarking on the Kano to Maradi rail line because he had a soft spot for Niger Republic.
Allegations about leaders’ soft spots reminds me. In 1993, when General Babangida annulled the June 12 election, one of the allegations he made against Chief M.K.O. Abiola was that, if he was allowed to become president, he was a businessman with soft spots for some sectors such as telecoms, being the former head of ITT Nigeria. I was a young man then, but I wrote in Citizen magazine that it was a strange allegation because “anyone who ever gets to become President of Nigeria must have lived some kind of life before and must have developed a soft spot for something. We cannot stop a president from having soft spots, but we must rely on institutional checks to ensure that he does not unduly confer it with favours.”
It is a great disservice to national peace and cohesion for some elements in Northern Nigeria to seek to torpedo our government’s foreign policy goals by whipping up sentiment about historical, economic and cultural ties with the people of Niger Republic. Certainly these exist and we cherish them, but that is precisely why we wish good for Niger Republic and do not want a political order to persist in the country that could lead to instability.
General Tchiani will not even commit himself to a quick transition to constitutional rule program. Even if, like IBB, he will later amend it 92 times, according to late Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s count. A member of the first three-man Nigerian delegation that met Tchiani the day after the coup said when they asked him why he overthrew Bazoum, he said he and his men had been diligently guarding the president but that he did not take good care of their welfare.
Was that it? While it is good to take care of the welfare of the people who guard you, it is also necessary to take good care of the welfare of all Nigeriens and the security of all Africans, first of all by ensuring peaceful constitutional rule. When ECOWAS leaders meet in Abuja on Sunday, they should maintain the pressure on Tchiani to restore constitutional rule in Niger Republic.