By Babatunde Ayedoju
Since July 26 this year, Nigeria’s northern neighbour known as Niger Republic has featured prominently in the news, having joined the league of West African nations such as Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso that have experienced military takeover of government.
Presidential guards led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, arrested the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, his wife and son whom they were constitutionally mandated to protect. Having placed them under house arrest, the Tchiani-led junta dissolved the constitution.
Responding swiftly to the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) convened an emergency meeting where it imposed harsh economic sanctions on Niger, including a seven-day ultimatum to the putschists to reinstate the ousted president. The putschists defied ECOWAS and formed a new government on the eve of the second emergency meeting convened by the bloc.
Opinions were divided among neighbouring and western countries on the coup. While countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea which had been affected by coups supported the junta, others opposed it. Beyond Africa, countries such as France and the United States condemned the coup and asked for a reversal of that action immediately.
Just like the ECOWAS, the western countries imposed sanctions on Niger over the coup. Earlier, France and the US had stationed troops in Niger to help fight a surge of Islamist attacks across the region. That military cooperation was suspended. Financial aid to the country was also cut.
Alongside the sanctions, ECOWAS threatened to take a military action against Niger if the junta led by General Tchiani failed to release President Bazoum and restore democracy to the country. In response, the Nigerien coup plotters expressed their defiance to the regional bloc and their readiness to defend themselves if attacked. Mali and Burkina Faso equally warned that they would treat any military intervention in Niger as an act of war against them. They even went ahead to dispatch warplanes to Niger, as reported by the Nigerien state television, in a show of solidarity.
While talks were going on about a possible invasion of Niger by ECOWAS, a lot of analysts and keen observers warned that a war against Niger would have a counterproductive effect on the region, especially on Nigeria where several states share boundary with the embattled West African country. To toe the path of diplomacy, a delegation led by Nigeria’s former head of state, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, went to Niger but was not granted an audience by the junta, though the junta later apologised, stating that they were angry at ECOWAS for not listening to their own side of the story before issuing an ultimatum. The coupists had also denied entry to a joint delegation of African Union (AU), United Nations (UN) and ECOWAS, citing security reasons.
However, it is worthy of note that the Nigerien junta suddenly seemed to soft pedal, as few days ago the country’s governing military council confirmed the arrival of ECOWAS representatives led by Nigeria’s General Abubakar who came to engage them in a dialogue. The UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simao, was also involved in some talks with the coupists. Meanwhile, earlier, former President of the Central Bank of Nigeria who is also the former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was in Niger to meet with the junta.
At the end of it all, Tchiani said that his country does not want war, but he added that they would be ready to defend themselves if necessary. While noting that the member countries of ECOWAS did not realise that Niger had become the key to containing the region from destabilisation against the backdrop of increased terrorist activity, Tchiani added that sanctions imposed on the country were aimed at putting pressure on the rebels and not at finding a solution to the current situation. He also said that the aim of the rebels was not to seize power but to come to a solution that would meet the interest of the people.
The former head of presidential guards also disclosed that the junta would embark on a three-year transition programme that would produce another civilian administration, a move which seems to suggest that the junta does not want to hold on to power perpetually.
However, ECOWAS has rejected this three-year transition plan, insisting that the junta restore democracy immediately, even as the ECOWAS heads of state have ordered the activation and deployment of a standby force, in case the junta fails to restore the president. This was confirmed when the ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said that the bloc could still resort to force if negotiation failed.
At this point, the junta seems to be lowering its tone, as seen in the statement that they do not want war. What could be the meaning of that disposition? Could it be that they are ready to bow to international pressure? Are the economic sanctions and threats of invasion beginning to humble them? Will they really be ready to withstand an invasion, going by the show of solidarity from Burkina Faso and Mali, and the latent support from Russia?
Dr Kunle Akinola from the Department of Political Science, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko described the statement of the Tchiani-led junta that they do not want war but are ready to defend themselves if attacked as a subtle threat to ECOWAS, saying that it does not show that they are afraid of invasion.
The university don, while blaming the coup in Niger on unemployment, high inflation and the fact that the people had lost faith in democracy said, “When you have a democracy that has failed and military takes over, the people will now be boxed into a corner to start supporting the military.”
However, Akinola who stated that military government is regarded as illegitimate all over the world added that if there is war in Niger, even with backing from Russia’s Wagner group, the citizens will still be the ones to suffer for it. He, therefore, advised that if the junta in that country do not want war, they should relinquish power immediately, saying, “You can’t acquire power through the gun and sustain it through the gun.”
Another political scientist from the same institution, Mr Sola Isijola, while noting that the junta were beginning to bow to international pressure, questioned their level of preparedness and cooperation with other military and paramilitary bodies in the country before embarking on the coup. While saying that the military can take over government alone but cannot rule alone, Isijola added that even when external gladiators come to support Tchiani and his cohorts, they will need synergy with other government agencies within the country, “and we don’t know if that synergy was there before they took over.
“To me, they don’t have the capacity, competency and resources to go to war. You cannot pursue a war depending solely on international support,” he added, even as he expressed hope that with time the coupists would cooperate with ECOWAS.
In the words of another political scientist also from Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Dr Harrison Idowu, the junta’s standpoint at the moment shows that they have become weak. Moreso, he opined that they are not sure of what exactly ECOWAS is up to, making them wary of the regional body, because ECOWAS leaders have been holding a series of meetings without making the details of their discussions known.
He equally denounced the junta’s three-year transition programme, saying that it would just be an avenue for them to enrich themselves.
His words: “Niger is going through fear of the unknown, not knowing what is going to happen next. That is why the junta are now accepting negotiations which they did not do previously.”
Dr Adedayo Afe from the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, said that the Nigerien coupists are aware of the consequences of war – death of the citizens and a slump in the nation’s economy.
Moreso, he noted that Tchiani and others are not as popular as they appear to be, saying “The support they seem to enjoy may just be because the people were suffering and needed a change, because these coup plotters are not really in charge of the military but mere palace guards.”
Expressing hope that the junta and ECOWAS might reach an agreement soon, Afe suggested that General Abubakar should go back to Niger for a follow-up on his negotiations with the parties involved in the crisis within the next one week. He also said that the junta’s three-year transition programme is not realistic, adding that there should be a return to civilian rule in less than a year from now.