Watching an online video clip of the warm reception accorded in Damagaram, Niger Republic to the region’s new governor, recently posted there by coup leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani, I remembered some local Sokoto events following the December 31, 1983 coup in Nigeria that toppled the Second Republic.
My [now late] father was Head of Service of old Sokoto State on that day and had been so for only three months. When he heard the coup announcement on that Sunday morning, and the local announcement by the army that commissioners should surrender themselves, he was not sure whether it affected him, since he was a career civil servant but a member of Governor Garba Nadama’s State Executive Council. He remained indoors that day and for the next two days, probably waiting to be arrested.
On the third day, soon after Major General Muhammadu Buhari appointed new military governors for the states, a green Army vehicle arrived at our house and told our father that Commander of 7 Brigade in Sokoto, Brigadier Sani Sami, wanted to see him. I do not know if he took a small bag with him, expecting to go into detention. But when he got there, the Brigade Commander told him to go and mobilise senior civil servants and traditional rulers and, as Head of Service, lead them to the airport the next day to receive the new military governor.
The next day, it was a calm delegation that led Brigadier Garba Duba from the airport to VVIP lodge, where he temporarily stayed. There and then, he told our father that when Buhari swore them in the previous day, he told them that when they go to their states, if they find that the Head of Service is a career civil servant, they should confirm him as Secretary to the Military Government and Head of Service [SMG]. Duba then told him to draft a letter appointing himself as SMG, for the governor’s signature. I was not surprised this happened because years earlier, the toppled Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah wrote in his book that when African soldiers stage a coup, they find it comfortable to work with civil servants because both institutions are bureaucratic in nature and have the same hierarchical culture.
From the video clip I saw in Damagaram, the soldiers went beyond mobilising civil servants and chiefs to mobilise dancing troupes and youth groups, in a clear attempt to show that they are popular. While the December 1983 coup in Nigeria was welcomed by most people because of the economic collapse in the Second Republic’s final months and the near total disappearance of rice, sugar, milk and detergents from the shops, the soldiers made no to attempt to organise street demonstrations in their support. In fact, Nigerian soldiers often do not like even shows of support. On February 3, 1976 when General Murtala Mohammed created seven new states, he said in his broadcast that “[This government] will not tolerate provocative demonstrations or celebrations, by any individual or group, in support or against the creation of states in any part of the country.” Phew!
Which brings me to the issue of the demonstration held by some people in Kano at the weekend, against ECOWAS military intervention in Niger Republic. To be fair, a lot of people in Northern Nigeria are apprehensive about the threatened military action against the Niger coupists, which they fear could mar the centuries-old, extremely close cultural and commercial links with that country. Not only Northerners; I think people from many parts of Nigeria are dubious about the proposed military action, not the least because they believe this country has higher priorities. Northern Nigerians have however been in the forefront in this matter because different parts of Nigeria have different views of neighbours. South Westerners see Benin Republic as our essential neighbour; the people of Cross River and Adamawa see Cameroun as the main neighbour; Borno people are most closely affiliated to Chad, while the people of Jigawa, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi think of Niger Republic as Nigeria’s principal neighbour.
Trouble however is, those demonstrations in Kano could have the unintended effect of encouraging the Nigerien coupists to dig in and reject peaceful solutions, under the belief that Nigerian government will not be able to mount a military campaign because there is domestic hostility to it. I am saying this for a good reason. In January 1991 when American and their allied forces were massing in the Persian Gulf region to drive out Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the world desperately shopped around for anyone who had an influence on Saddam Hussein. African statesman and Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, a close friend of Saddam in the Non-Aligned Movement, was persuaded to go to Baghdad. Kaunda later explained that when he warned Saddam that he faced American attack, Saddam replied that the Americans were bluffing, and he pointed to anti-war protests in the streets of New York and other American cities and said President George Bush could not possibly launch Operation Desert Storm. Tchiani could easily come to the same conclusion and, unless he is lucky, the same fate as Saddam.
One of the most unfortunate twists I heard from Niger Republic last week was the coupists’ threat to kill President Mohammed Bazoum if ECOWAS’ Standby Force moves against them. Only the crudest and most callous person could say a thing like that. Having missed their chance to kill Bazoum during the coup, to do so now will inflame the situation and almost certainly guarantee their own downfall and death. If not in the hands of ECOWAS, then in a very likely counter-coup. Bloodshed in coups tends to unleash forces beyond the perpetrators’ control. How is anyone sure that there are no Bazoum sympathisers in the Nigerien security forces, given the country’s complex ethnic mix?
Nigerians from the Sokoto region, including me, are very familiar with the people of Niger Republic. All the major tribes of that country, including Zabarma, Arawa, Tuaregs and Azibinawa, not to mention Hausa, are present in Northern Nigeria. Though all of them are Hausa speaking, they often stand out because of a slight difference in dialect, which to us sounds coarse. Many Sokoto people will see the threat to kill Bazoum in that light.
Nigerians’ memory of our interventions abroad often ends with Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most Nigerians forget that in 1978, after Chadian President N’garta Tombalbaye’s overthrow, rivalry between General Felix Maloum and warlords Hissene Habre, Goukouni Oueddei and Wadal Abdulkader Kamougue threatened to degenerate into civil war. General Obasanjo sent Nigerian peace keeping troops to that country, led by General Magoro. My late brother-in-law Lt. [later Colonel] Abdurrahman Shamaki was the contingent’s medical officer, and he told me many stories about the mission. President Shagari withdrew those troops in 1981 when Hissene Habre sneaked in from the north, with Libyan support, and overthrew the Transitional Government of National Unity [GUNT] headed by Goukouni Oueddei.
It is a reminder that rather than promote unity and stability, coups in Africa most often do the opposite. Right now, Niger looks calm but there is no knowing what could happen down the road. One must not discount France and its ability to engineer a counter coup, when most Nigerien troops were trained by the French over several decades. One of the foolish aspects of this matter, as I see it, is the Nigerien coupists’ rush to switch alliances from France and USA to Russia, in the belief that Russia’s Wagner forces could protect them from ECOWAS or other intervention forces. In 1977 Somali President Siad Barre did such a switch, driving Russians out of a major Indian Ocean naval base and handing it over to Americans. It did not stop Somali clan lord General Mohamed Farah Aideed from driving Barre out of power, and Somalia’s descent into eternal disarray.
Russian Federation of today is not the old Soviet Union, a super power with the ability to reach any corner of the globe. Right now, the Russians have their own chestnuts burning in Ukraine and I doubt if they can spare a big force to protect new friends in Niamey. Putin is also hoping the Chinese could help retrieve his chestnuts from the Ukraine fire. As for Wagner forces, their position inside Russia itself is dicey since their attempted march on Moscow. Besides, if I were General Tchiani, I will read Eddie Iroh’s novel Forty-Eight Guns for the General, about Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu’s experience with mercenaries, before I jump into bed with Wagner forces.
Nor is it clear, apart from reasons of opportunistic personal survival, why anyone should switch allies from the West to Russia. Where natural resources are involved, Russian oligarchs are no less greedy than Western corporate moguls. My final thought today is, why did our Defence Headquarters announce that some people tried to instigate soldiers to carry out a coup in Nigeria? Why tell us this story? Why not simply apprehend the would-be Nigerian Tchianis and hand them over to DSS?
In 1981, when businessman Zanna Bukar Mandara was said to have tried to get soldiers to stage a coup, he was arrested and tried. Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi, who was Director General of the Nigeria Security Organization [NSO] at the time, once told me that, together with Military Intelligence, they thwarted many coups in the Second Republic. He said NSO monitored coupists when they held meetings in town, warned Military Intelligence when they were moving back to the barracks, and vice versa. However, when NSO monitored a meeting in the town, told Military Intelligence that they were moving back into the barracks but MI says no such meeting took place, “it means the top brass are involved,” Shinkafi said.