• Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

Niger’s nightmare threatens democracy in West Africa

Closing the ugly chapter: A rejoinder!

The recent violent change of government in Niger Republic is presenting its neighbours with a troubling dilemma: how to restore the democratically elected government without going to war.

Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, commander of the presidential guard, declared himself the new head of state last week, said the “harsh reality of insecurity in Niger” had led soldiers to overthrow the president and accused the elected government of not cooperating enough with neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso to combat insurgents.

Keen to send a strong message to the ruling junta that Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would no longer tolerate another military government in the sub-region, Nigeria’s president, Bola Tinubu, ostensibly under pressure from the United States and France, is sending disturbing signals about a potential for military intervention in his northern neighbour.

The leaders of the bloc issued a statement on July 30, condemning the continued detention of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. They warned that the group would take “all measures necessary to restore constitutional order” in Niger, including the use of force, and ordered the defence chiefs of member nations to “meet immediately”.

ECOWAS also imposed sanctions, including the suspension of all commercial and financial transactions between Niger and other ECOWAS member states.

“The military option is the very last option on the table, the last resort, but we have to prepare for the eventuality,” Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, said.

“There is a need to demonstrate that we cannot only bark but can bite,” he told reporters on Wednesday as regional defence chiefs began a two-day meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Unanimity as a bloc for military action is absent as Mali, Niger, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso and Guinea did noy attend the ECOWAS defence chiefs meeting, highlighting the dissonance within the bloc for strong action against Niger.

Defence chiefs from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, The Gambia, Cote D’Ivoire, and Cape Verde were in attendance.

Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by juntas, have said that any military intervention in Niger would be considered a declaration of war against them too.

They said the “disastrous consequences of a military intervention in Niger… could destabilise the entire region”. The two also said they “refuse to apply” the “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane sanctions against the people and authorities of Niger”.

ECOWAS vows to restore democracy in Niger

ECOWAS vowed on Wednesday to do anything within its capacity to reinstate elected President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger.

Musah hinted that military action could be deployed to arrest what he termed as a hostage situation in Niger.

“We need to restore constitutional order; when the seven days elapse, anything can happen. Heads of state have said nothing is off the table,” he said. “We are not sure which country will be next; if we do not arrest this situation, West Africa is going to be a laughing stock of Africa and the world.”

“Nigeria is a regional leader; there is no way this region can overcome these challenges without the leadership role of Nigeria. We are at an inflection point now; it seems like President Bola Tinubu is being challenged,” he added.

He noted that some member states led by military leaders had said any declaration of war upon Niger “is also a declaration on them and even threatened to withdraw from ECOWAS”.

“We want to reassure that once they were signatory to the ECOWAS protocol, that is not going to be tolerated and we are going to do everything to ensure that the situation in Niger is resolved.”

In his address at the meeting, General Christopher Musa, chief of Defence Staff, said the coup in Niger called for collective attention and a united response.

He said: “ECOWAS’ strength lies in unity, shared values, and commitment to democracy, peace, and prosperity. In this regard, we are tasked with a mission to restore democracy in the Republic of Niger and preserve germane humanitarian principles across the region. Our decisions will inevitably shape the lives of millions of people around the sub-continent.

“The political instability in Niger is a source of grave concern for us all. It threatens our shared vision of a peaceful, secure, and prosperous West Africa, a vision that is impossible to achieve amidst political upheavals and disruptions to constitutional order. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to deliberate on this issue and chart a course towards resolution, in accordance with the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

The CDS said decisions taken will send a strong message about their commitment to democracy, intolerance for unconstitutional changes of government, and dedication to regional stability.

Stakeholders raise concerns

Niger is the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium, and the new military government has banned exports of the mineral as well as gold to France.

“Four countries that control some of the world’s largest natural resource reserves are in West Africa and they are now under very unstable military rule that is also very strongly anti-West,” said a former state attorney general and commissioner for justice in Nigeria.

He added: “These are Guinea (iron ore), Mali (gold), Burkina Faso (iron ore), and Niger (uranium). Add to these Sudan (gold), Chad (petroleum) and Central African Republic (cattle), and it will not be far-fetched to say that Africa, especially ECOWAS, has been very heavily destabilised and set back many decades.

“I do not believe these are coincidences. I also do not believe it is a coincidence that the Niger coup happened at a time both Nigeria’s government and its military are in a change of guard – militarily, always the best time to launch an attack…or a military coup.

“I am convinced foreign hands are at work seeking to use Africa once again, seemingly unexpectedly, as a battle ground between the West and Russia. It is almost certain that China will take sides in some way and make this a three-cornered fight. A glance at a map and a reading of our internal security situation in Nigeria will reveal very quickly that our country is endangered by these developments. It will have consequences for our economic recovery. What’s the prognosis? The answer implicates every element of national security – geopolitics, military, intelligence, foreign policy and domestic socio-economic management.”

The problem Nigeria and ECOWAS have on their hands, according to a retired Nigerian foreign intelligence officer, “is that they have been too loud and aggressive in engaging with Niger. A lot of the discourse and negotiations should have been diplomatically channelled in order to reduce the bellicose chatter coming from ECOWAS, and allow negotiations to take place in an atmosphere of trust”.

Nigeria, whose president is the chair of the economic group, has been talking tough. There are legitimate concerns about whether the Nigeria-dominated bloc can match its threat with action.

The sub-region’s largest economy and dominant military power would be expected to provide the bulk of the troops, funding and logistics for any military intervention into Niger.

Yet, the country’s capacity to undertake such a high risk, expensive venture is putting Nigerians on edge. Nigeria is currently facing a fiscal time bomb, with an economy running on massive deficit financing. High oil prices since 2021 has not boosted the performance of the country’s economy as has been the case in the past. Macroeconomic stability continues to weaken, with the World Bank saying the country is projected to grow by an average of 2.9 percent per year between 2023 and 2025, only slightly above the estimated population growth rate of 2.4 percent.

The deteriorating economic environment is leaving millions of Nigerians in poverty and most wary of any military expedition across the border. The dominant sentiments across the country is that Nigeria should focus more on negotiations and sanctions and less on war to save its ailing economy.

“I am very strongly in agreement. The one mistake we must not make under any circumstances whatsoever in my own view is to get the Nigerian military, which is struggling with the 70,000sq kilometres of Borno State and Niger State drawn in into the 1.2 million sq kilometres of Niger,” a senior corporate strategist told BusinessDay on condition of anonymity.

He said: “This thing is probably triggered by some weird international permutations of money and geopolitics and can therefore not be solved by bullets as the US found in Afghanistan with its wide and open borders. Other people’s problems have been brought to our neighbourhood and we need brains to figure this out, not bullets.

“I have this off-key concept that perhaps for once, we carefully play China as a card to resolve this. I believe China is a very self-centred country geopolitically, and supports Russia in Ukraine tacitly because it is neither in their interest to see US adversaries weakened too much, nor do they need food.

“China needs oil and natural resources and I believe they will seek their own interest before others. Perhaps a play would be for them to see that an unstable West Africa is bad for stable mineral supply long term? After all, they are the ones buying the majority of the things you listed above.”

Nigeria’s borders are porous and under-policed. Bashir Magashi, the immediate past minister of defence, warned in February that the military was overburdened because of inadequate manpower and numerous security challenges confronting the nation.

“Adequate manpower is paramount for any military force to perform effectively. As of 2022, Nigeria with an estimated population of about 220 million people has a total military strength of about 223,000 personnel. This gives a ratio of military personnel to the population of approximately 11,000. This is lower than those of Nigeria’s neighbours except Niger (Republic),” Magashi said at the time.

Shehu Sani, a former lawmaker, believes that an armed invasion of Niger Republic by ECOWAS is simply a war between Nigeria and Niger because of both countries’ proximity to each other. He is apprehensive that Russia and Wagner, a Russian private military company, may support Niger Republic, leaving Nigeria to use its own money to prosecute the operation.

Nigeria offsets 70 percent of the budget of ECOWAS.

A retired naval rear admiral agrees that Nigeria should not be drawn into a new cold war. “I can see a new ‘cold war’ this time. We should not be dragged into proxy war in any way,” he said.

He said Nigeria’s government should “concentrate our energy on our domestic problems, which is the first layer of our national interest. The West African sub-region should be our second layer of national interest followed by Africa and then the world in that order”.

He added: “We have also been fighting a ‘war’ in the last 13 years or thereabout. We were in Liberia and Sierra Leone, spent more than $10 billion and lost human lives. That was when $1 was N22. Of what strategic importance is our involvement in ECOMOG today? I was in Liberia recently. Global powers have taken over the country because there is relative peace there.

“So, yes, we need brains not brawn. I feel the new cabinet should be in place so that the Federal Executive Council can start deliberating on this matter of strategic importance. Perhaps, the foreign affairs minister will advise professionally. It should remain in the realm of posturing. We should avoid any action of which the cure could be worse than the problem. The coast is not clear. We should avoid shallow waters so that we don’t go aground.”