ECOWAS’ albatross

Criticisms of President Bola Tinubu’s option for a military action to restore democracy in Niger Republic came fast and furious. Some elements in the north try to cast a possible war with Niger Republic as a war against northern Nigeria, as if the president ever contemplated it. Such misplaced emotional reactions are sterile indulgences that contribute nothing helpful to the resolution of the crisis we face as a country and as fellow Africans.

This is not about Nigeria and Niger Republic. Nor is it about Tinubu and Niger Republic. It is about Niger Republic and ECOWAS. It is about Tinubu asserting himself as the chairman of the community. His reaction should be put in context. I am sure no one expected the president to either welcome the military or simply keep his upper and lower lips together. The final decision on what to do will be taken by ECOWAS leaders and not by the president in a solo act. Still, it seems to me that the president’s critics and the president himself miss some fundamental points about his reaction, the dynamics of international politics and where Nigeria, once the undisputable giant of Africa, stands today in the continent.

Tinubu is a new Nigerian president. To use a hackneyed expression, that speaks volumes. At his first meeting of ECOWAS last month, he was elected chairman of the community, signalling perhaps the esteem with which leaders of the sub-regional body holds our country and its leader. Tinubu, with or without hearing the rumours of military restlessness in the sub-region, made it clear that the community would not tolerate coups anymore.

Democracy has been locked out in four member nations of the community since Malian soldiers struck in 2020. I thought we should be charitable enough to understand why he chose to talk tough with the military option, at least as his initial reaction to the Nigerien soldiers who poked their fingers in his eyes, as if daring him to meet them at the battlefield.

The president is right to believe that as the chairman of the community he should be the champion of democracy in the sub-region; his tough talk is not unreasonable in the circumstances. Let’s face it, military interventions in the sub-region are beyond irritation. There have been more coups in the sub-region since the 1963 coup in Togo than in any other sub-region on the continent. To continue to live under the threat of the gun going off in an eerie early morning broadcast cannot but give democratically elected presidents a quickening of the heart, awake or asleep.

I do not think that Tinubu ever thought the military option is the only viable one; or that he could go it alone and unleash the might of our military forces to frighten off the Nigerien military and force them to scamper back to the barracks. War is both dangerous and destructive. No one need telling. Going to war with another country, no matter its relative military weakness, is not a decision a president can take lightly or in a fit of anger. We cannot send our young men in uniform in harm’s way in order that another country might know peace.

As ECOWAS chairman, he appreciates his role in getting the military off the back of our neighbours to the north. He has no easy options. It is his duty to lead the community in exploring the various options open to the member nations who share his concern that military interventions ought to have become history in the sub-region by now. That this is still not the case cannot be of a little worry to the member nations.

Most of the nine countries in the Sahel region are not just poor; they are wretched. Military rule has not changed their economic and social circumstances and the attraction for it ought to have waned below remembrance. The sentiment that military rule is a magic wand has repeatedly proved itself a sickening fiction. The Nigeriens need no one to tell them that the khaki uniform carries no magic in political, economic, and social management and development. Their new strong man, Abdourahamane Tichani, and his newly formed National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, can hardly make a difference in their economic difficulties. The Nigeriens have been on this road many times in the history of their country.

They ought to know the truth by now. Their first president, Hamani Diori, was toppled in a military coup in April 1974. Since then, of the eleven men who have ruled the country since independence in 1960, more of them wore khaki, than agbada. Nigeria has always had a soft spot for Niger and the Nigeriens. Buhari, playing the big brother, once sent money to the ousted President Bazoun to buy SUV vehicles. He is a building a railway there because “they are out brothers.” See?

Those who suggested the diplomatic option cannot be faulted. It is the right option. The power of the tongue in crisis resolution has quite often trumped force or the threat of force. Ironically, diplomacy itself benefits from military and economic muscle otherwise it becomes a sterile talk shop. The military strong men in Niger Republic need to see what they can possibly face from ECOWAS if they refuse to play ball. The idea is to combine the diplomatic option with a military option to increase pressure on the coup men and force them to see reason as a better option to intransigence.

The diplomatic axiom is, speak softly but wield the big stick. How do you open negotiations with the new strong men in Niger Republic without showing them that ECOWAS has the military, economic and diplomatic muscle to bend them to its will? They have so far rebuffed every attempt to talk to them. They too must bluff with a bit of macho. After all, they are armed. No one would be naïve enough to think that the Nigerien problem can be easily resolved. No soldier risks his life to stage a coup only to readily hand government to someone else, unless he is either persuaded to do so or he his survival confronts him with dire consequences.

From whichever angle you look at it, ECOWAS leaders must be prepared for the long haul in their dealing with the Nigerien military leaders. To complicate matters, too many interests have suddenly surfaced in it, each pulling in a different direction. The superpowers, ever the vultures that circle carrion, are flapping their wings. This makes the job of the ECOWAS leader harder.

What should be of more concern to us as Nigerians is the waning influence of our country not only in the sub-region but also on the continent as a whole. Our country once spoke and everyone listened because it was not just the giant of Africa in name, it was also the giant of Africa in fact. It once played its role as a military and economic giant to the hilt. It fought apartheid in South Africa and was recognised as a frontline state; it helped to resolve the Chadian political crisis. The conference hall at Bagauda Lake Hotel in Kano was named Chad Hall because all the negotiations at the instance of Nigeria were held there. It remains a monument to our big brother role and our leadership in Africa.

Our country has never waited to be invited to trouble spots in Africa. Not in Liberia, not in Sierra Leone, not in Namibia and not in Niger. In and outside the continent Nigeria has left records of the giant you could trust. But things have changed, and not particularly positively for our country. Today, as I often point out, the African giant has been reduced to a giant with the size of King Pago, the vertically challenged musician who featured on Sir Victor Uwaifo’s band. The fact that the Nigerien army refused to receive Tinubu’s high-powered emissary led by the former head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, points to our waning political influence in the sub-region and on the continent. Our country does not deserve such contempt from Niger Republic.

Smaller, weaker, and poorer African countries now tend to treat our country with barely concealed contempt. Let us put our house in order and reclaim our position as the African leader who must be heard and must be taken seriously by all Africans and the rest of the world.

Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]
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