I don’t know about the government, which has several diplomatic, intelligence and military sources of information, but we ordinary Nigerian folks were taken by surprise by the coup d’état in Niger Republic. It unfolded slowly, at first looking like a slow-action palace mutiny. It then rapidly unfolded into a full-blown coup, detention of the President, demonstrations in support and against, attacks on ruling party headquarters and its chieftains, inter-ethnic tension, closing of borders, severing of ties with the country’s most important neighbour and partners, revoking of decades-old security agreements, imposition of sanctions and threats of military intervention. It is our biggest foreign policy crisis in recent memory.
From afar, I thought Mohammed Bazoum is the most charismatic leader Niger Republic has produced since Diori Hamani. He is a light-skinned Nigerien Arab, member of a tiny ethnic group, tall, athletic, eloquent in French, Hausa and Arabic plus a smattering of English, dynamic and with a crowd-dazzling ability. He laced his April 2021 inaugural speech in Hausa with several expletives to drive home his point. We thought he was on top of his game because he was Niger’s Interior and Foreign Minister for many years under President Mahamadou Issoufou.
Bazoum is more charismatic than the violently temperamental Colonel Seyni Kountche, Niger’s ruler from 1974 to 1988, who was later adjudged to be mad due to a brain tumour. Bazoum outshines the dour but highly restrained General Ali Seybou, who midwifed his country’s return to democratic rule in 1992. I was in Niger Republic in 1991 as a reporter for Citizen magazine and was amazed that General Seybou watched patiently as activists hijacked a constitutional conference he convened and transformed it into a Sovereign National Conference. I interviewed many of the confab’s dramatis personae, including the highly articulate opposition leader Monsieur Sanousi Jackou, who was nearly blind due to eight years’ solitary confinement under Seyni Kountche.
Bazoum is more charismatic than the drab-looking Mahamane Ousmane, the coarse Ibrahim Mainasara Ba’are, the dour Major Daouda Malam Wanke [who handed over to civilians in 1999 and came to live in Argungu, which he said was his ancestral home], the overdressed Mamadou Tandja, the hardly remembered Salou Jibo, or even Mahamadou Issoufou, what Nigerian newspapers call “immediate past President” of Niger.
The nearest thing to this palace coup that we had in Nigeria was in 1975, when Commander of the Brigade of Guards Colonel Joseph Nanvem Garba announced the overthrow of General Yakubu Gowon. A palace coup’s medical equivalent is arthritis, when the body’s immune system goes rogue and attacks body tissues. “It is like being attacked by your own bodyguard.”
Given our very close proximity and very deep historical, socio-cultural, economic, political, military and security ties, every coup d’état in Niger Republic causes concern in Nigeria, but none more so than the 1974 coup which overthrew President Diori Hamani and resulted in the killing of his very fashionable wife, Aisha Diori, who was very popular in Northern Nigeria. General Yakubu Gowon was devastated by that coup. For nine years he had inherited Diori’s very close ties with Nigeria’s First Republic leaders. Diori even extended help to the Federal side during the Nigeria Civil War. General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Sultan Muhammad Sa’ad, who were in Niamey last week, are not the first Nigerian delegation ever to try to intervene in a Nigerien coup. The late Alhaji Usman Faruk, who was Military Governor of North Western State at the time, said in his autobiography that Gowon ordered him to proceed to Niamey and intervene to save Diori’s life. The coup leaders hid Diori in a remote desert location, and Faruk was flown there in what he said was the most dangerous air travel of his life. In contrast, Abdulsalami and Sultan Sa’ad did not even see Bazoum.
In 1974, Gowon’s intervention was not to save democracy or to restore Diori to power. In total reversal to the current situation, Diori was a democratically elected civilian ruler while Gowon himself was a military ruler. It was purely a matter of concern and loyalty to a very friendly neighbour. Gowon, in fact, had very good ties with all his neighbours, including Cameroun’s Ahmadou Ahidjo, Chad’s N’garta Tombalbaye and Mathieu Kerekou of Dahomey, which changed its name in 1975 to Benin Republic. I can’t remember if Nigeria objected to that name change the way Greece objected when a former Yugoslav Republic adopted the name Macedonia, the name of a Greek province.
Up until the 1990s, the governing principle of the Organisation of African Unity [OAU, predecessor of African Union, AU] was “non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.” No country was ever suspended from OAU due to a coup or even genocide. Not even Ethiopia in 1974, when soldiers toppled OAU’s founding father, Emperor Haile Selassie. On that same night, soldiers lined up 60 top officials of Selassie’s government and executed them, including the prime minister. The headline of Nigerian newspapers the next day was “Bloodbath in Ethiopia.” Tanzania was not suspended from OAU in 1979 when Mwalimu Julius Nyerere sent troops across the border to drive out Uganda’s Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. Nobody suspended Ghana from OAU in 1979 when Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings tied three former Heads of State, Generals Afrifa, Ignatius Acheampong and Fred Akuffo, to the stakes and executed them.
OAU did not suspend Liberia in 1980 when Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe killed President William Tolbert, the OAU Chairman. More than that, Doe lined up a dozen of Tolbert’s ministers at the Monrovia beach and executed them, including Foreign Minister Cecil Dennis, who was chairman of the OAU Council of Foreign Ministers. Indeed, if there was any event in Africa that ever warranted foreign intervention, it was the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when over a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. No African or foreign country intervened until Paul Kagame’s rebel forces marched in and captured Kigali.
Since early this century however, AU has abandoned OAU’s non-interference in internal matters mantra in favour of a robust insistence on democracy and peer-review mechanism. But how far should we go to enforce this new principle? In 1999 when US President Bill Clinton led NATO to bomb Serbia in order to stop the genocide in Kosovo, I recall the British Defence Minister doing a live BBC phone-in interview. A man phoned from Serbia and said NATO’s action was hypocritical because it did not intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide. The Brit minister wryly said, “Just because you cannot help everybody does not mean you should not help somebody.”
Some Nigerians are saying that since our troops intervened in Congo in the 1960s, Chad in 1978, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s and more recently in Gambia, plus contribution to UN Peace-keeping Forces in Lebanon, Bosnia and Darfur plus a police contingent we sent to Namibia in 1990, we should intervene militarily in Niger. Look here; can we twist around the British minister’s saying and say, “The fact that you helped somebody, does not mean you can help everybody”?
Before you help anyone, it is important to know if he is ready for help. It does not appear as if the people of Niger Republic want help to “restore democracy.” Some Nigeriens have demonstrated in support of the coup, have attacked the headquarters of Bazoum’s ruling party and even tried to mob his ministers. Audios and videos posted online by numerous citizens of Niger Republic warn Nigeria to keep off their country. For whatever reason, Nigeriens see the threatened ECOWAS military action as an invasion of their country, not an attempt to restore democratic rule. In many audios they are mocking Nigeria, saying our troops failed to contain Boko Haram and bandits, and that their army is smaller but better motivated and more dare-devilish than our own.
Nor is it good that ECOWAS is split in this matter, with eleven members supporting the resolution and four members against it. Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea even pledge to support Niger because they themselves are under military rule. Nor are we sure what Chad will do, since it is also ruled by a soldier. In practical terms it is only Nigeria that can do this intervention. Most of the countries that “support” armed intervention cannot do anything, including Senegal that announced its intention to send troops.
Nigerian military is much larger than its Nigerien counterpart, but Niger has a land area bigger than Nigeria. At best our troops can seize the capital, Niamey, most likely followed by insurgency and insurrection that could last years. I am also wondering: why wont the French Foreign Legion do it, not to “restore democracy” but to safeguard France’s access to uranium mines which it seriously needs to power its nuclear power stations? There are an estimated 2,000 French and American troops in Agadez, plus airfields and drone bases. Plus, they are the self-appointed guardians of democracy throughout the world.
Maybe our concern is that the coup in Niger could have a further contagion effect in the region and the African continent. Already there is a “coup belt” map stretching from Sudan through Chad to Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. We are in danger of reverting to the 1970s when most African countries were ruled by soldiers. Speaking at the NIIA’s 25th anniversary in Lagos in December 1986, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere said there had been 69 successful coup d’etats in Africa up until that point. By the time coups paused in Africa in the 1990s, the number had probably passed 100. Africa’s Sahelian Belt is now threatening to replace South America of the 1970s as the home of dictatorship.
ECOWAS should drop the military threat and concentrate on diplomatic pressure. We should also restore power supply to Niger Republic. Unilaterally breaching a 1960s deal for them not to build a dam on the River Niger in return for power supply from Kainji could easily boomerang. Even a restored democratic government in Niamey could one day say, “Nigeria’s pledge is unreliable, let us build our own dam on River Niger.”