Coup in Niger: Nigeria must observe ‘C’ Caution

About 49 years ago, precisely on April 15, 1974, I was ordered out of my beat as Daily Times Correspondent in Kano by my Editor, Segun Osoba, as he then was, to proceed to Niamey in Niger Republic, to report the first military insurrection which had overthrown the first post-colonial government of the country.

Malam Haroun Adamu, the Political Editor of the Daily Times who was also in Kano by coincidence that morning, joined me in the exploratory assignment in a commandeered Daily Times Peugeot delivery van that had brought parcels of newspapers from Lagos. The journey took us through Kano-Gusau-Sokoto into Niamey.

We arrived Niamey at midnight into the hands of the Nigerien soldiers and gendarmerie who were superintending the imposed curfew. Our wits to display the picture of Nigeria’s Military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, and free copies of Daily Times Newspapers as gifts to the soldiers earned us the ‘laissez-passer’ that took us to the Nigerian Mission where we were received and hosted by the Ambassador, Alhaji Sani Kontagora.

For the record, Alhaji Sani Kontagora was a former broadcaster in the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) now known as Radio Nigeria. The envoy became a reservoir of first-hand information on the rumbles at the locus in quo (the Presidential Palace). His residence was within observatory distance.

Hamani Diori (June 6, 1916 – April 23, 1989) was the first President of the Republic of Niger. As a Pan Africanist and leader of the Rassemblement Democratique African (RDA), he was appointed President of the land-locked former French-colonised West African country on November 10, 1960 when the country gained independence.

For 14 years, President Hamani Diori held the reins of power with a one-party governance nomenclature, but extended his hands of friendship and solidarity to the big brother nation, Nigeria, without distancing himself from the colonial masters, France.

The coupists, led by Lieutenant Colonel Senyi Kountche, accused the ousted leader and his ministers of misappropriating stocks of food aid and consolidating power by making himself minister of foreign and defence affairs, among other allegations. Hadjia Aissa Diori, the country’s first lady, was specifically accused of wallowing in affluence beyond the economic capability of the country. 

While President Diori was arrested and detained, his wife, Aissa Diori, an epitome of beauty with poise of glamour, fell victim of the fire power of the military in the Presidential Palace when they struck in the wee hours of the day.  Aissa’s death was very emotional particularly as she was killed in the presence of her aged mother, Madame Aishat, who had come from their country home, Togon, on visitation to the President’s family.

This reporter with Sunday Olusola, Daily Times ace photographer, were the only privileged newsmen in the world, granted permission to visit Madame Aishat and the grave of the first lady in Togon village, about 100 kilometres south of Niamey.

The frontpage lead story of Daily Times edition of Thursday, April 25, 1974 headlined: “How Diori’s wife died in the coup – Bereaved mum speaks” with a kicker, On-the-spot account by Timesman Femi Ogunleye”, caught everyone’s attention.

The Nigerian government must be circumspect in her approach to the current situation in Niger Republic. Despite the friendliness of Nigeria at a time when money was not our problem but how to spend it (apology to our General Yakubu Gowon) and the foreign alignment policy of Niger Republic, no external intervention in the 1974 coup in the country took place. Hamani Diori was released from detention in 1980 but remained under house arrest until 1987. He died in exile in Morocco on April 23,1989 at 72.

One of the first exclusive stories that came to my knowledge while in Niamey was the refusal of Colonel Senyi Kountche to allow Libya, with whom Niger Republic had a defence pact, to invoke the spirit of the pact by coming to assist the country in its trying times. Diplomatic sources had hinted that Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister, Major Jalud, ostensibly misread the development in Niger and offered to assist in quelling the insurrection in order to reinstate the ousted leader in line with the terms of the defence pact between the two countries. However, Lt. Col. Senyi Kountche was said to have told Libya to stay off with an affirmation that “this is our internal affair that requires no external intervention”.

I hope Nigeria will learn a lesson or two from this. Nigeria and by extension the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as a regional bloc, should be circumspect in their action by observing the ‘C’ Caution. Instead of Nigeria spearheading or encouraging military intervention in Niger, it should engage in diplomatic mediation and find out from the Nigeriens what their reaction is to the change. It should also encourage the military boys to engage the political class to imbibe democratic principles for their governance.  

Oba Ogunleye is Towulade Akinale of Owu Kingdom and Member of Egba Traditional Council, Abeokuta,Ogun state.