By Comrade Nnamdi Elekwachi
It is my candid opinion that it should not be in Tinubu’s interest to contemplate military option in Niger Republic without first exploring all diplomatic avenues open to him. This personal conviction only became stronger after I read in the news (last week) that Tinubu had written the National Assembly seeking to tighten sanctions on Niger, and to subsequently levy war against the West African state, pursuant to an 8-point resolution of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS.
For one, Niger, together with what now are parts of Northeast in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon were once known as Kanem-Bornu Empire. What nations like Britain, France and Germany, as colonial masters of the area that was Kanem-BornuEmpire, did in the name of expanding their spheres of influence was to alter pre-existing age-old traditional patterns that had long before ‘the scramble for Africa’ evolved elaborate administrative machineries, and to, in the place of these old patterns, introduce alien systems. Today, the old relations still manifests among these nations who hitherto existed under one empire.
Declaring war against Niger, in whatever form – whether unilaterally, in which case Nigeria alone executes the war, or as a multilateral military joint venture coordinated by ECOWAS – will not result in any win-win outcome for Nigeria and by extension the entire subregion. There are displaced Nigerians numbering hundreds of thousands who fled Borno, Yobe and other troubled parts of Nigeria’s Northeast to Niger, following Boko Haram’s sustained onslaught. Even families will be caught up in a likely tension escalation, because some Nigerians married to Nigerien spouses still enjoy and exchange visits, as cross-boarder trade exists among locals living in border towns. Nigeria’s Northeast states in the old Kanem axis still consider themselves as part of what used to be, an old empire. Borders are porous and unmanned, even former President MuhammaduBuhari who initiated a railway project connecting Nigeria with Niger, for example, was bold enough to tell Nigerians that he would proceed on leave to Niger Republic, if post-presidency days became hectic for him.
The aftermath of colonialism saw peoples and groups who hitherto shared common heritage separated by lines drawn in Berlin, over 10,000km away from Africa. Today, a war between Nigeria and Benin Republic, in a sense, could spell fratricide for the Yoruba nation as parts of what is today Benin Republic used to be in the old Oyo Empire. This is what Tinubu’s request to the National Assembly asking that military intervention in Niger be considered looks like to the average Northern Nigerian – fratricide!
Again, internecine and asymmetrical warfare, which became prevalent following the end of the Cold War, are no nation’s forte. Not even conventional international wars are easily winnable these days. For over a year now, Russia, with her military might and sophistication, has not decimated Ukraine. Wars come with great tolls which a nation like Nigeria and ECOWAS as a sub-regional community cannot bear, given prevailing economic challenges. South Sudan and Central Africa Republic and, recently, Sudan, are all examples of ongoing conflicts to learn from. During the Tigray War, Ethiopian military joined forces with Eritrean and Somali forces but could not overrun a tiny Tigray, until negotiation which led Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy and others to talks to announce cessation of hostilities, happened. With centrifugal military operations, the ECOWAS of today lacks common military coordination.
The last time I heard that ECOWAS was readying troops for action was during the post-election crisis in The Gambia between Yahya Jammeh and Adama Barrow after the 2016 presidential election. Though that mobilisation had the support of nearly all ECOWAS countries who agreed that forces loyal to Jammeh should be flushed out and Barrow installed, war was never the first option because ECOWAS exhausted all diplomatic options, including offering a political asylum to Jammeh.
As presently structured, ECOWAS may not be able to effectively execute a conventional war. First, the Community doesn’t have an efficient standing army at the moment as it did in the ECOMOG days. Again, it has become hard over the years to mobilise a troop the size of ECOMOG because all ECOWAS member states have pressing domestic and transborder issues draining their military budgets, bar none. Sad, as it may be, there exist today among West African states military alliances and agreements that have redirected policy focus from subregional level to more fragmented ones. The Accra Initiative is one example. Founded in 2017 to check spillover and spread of terrorism and violent extremism from the Sahel, the seven-state member Initiative had Mali and Niger, now led by military junta, as members. The recent coups d’etat in those countries represent a threat to security cooperation already!
The Liptako-Gourman Authority with its Military Joint Task Force, similar to Lake Chad Basin operation against Boko Haram and other militant islamists is another example. The arrangement aimed at protecting mineral resources of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic (all now led by military juntas) and was later joined by Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Chad, another country under military rule following the death of Idris Deby. While the security goals of the Accra Initiative and Liptako-Gourman Authority remain to be seen, Nigeria herself had already gone beyond the ECOWAS subregion to the Lake Chad Basin where it contributes to the Joint Task Force fight against Boko Haram, a deadly islamist group in the Lake Chad coordinates, together with Central African nations of Cameroon and Chad.Terrorism is disintegrating subregional military alliances these days. This is a picture of how the subregion is stretched militarily today, so mobilising for war against Niger should not be the first option, for Nigeria and ECOWAS, in the face of ongoing long-drawn asymmetric wars.
Already, ECOWAS Defence chiefs are coordinating intervention programme, but a cursory look at contemporary conflicts should be lesson enough that wars are not easily winnable these days. How does a subregion that is fighting forces of Boko Haram; Islamic State West African Province, ISWAP; Ansaru; Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM which later had a splinter, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, MUJAW and other criminal groups deal with an internal war with other three contiguous countries without losing ground to subregional terrorists, especially at a time the subregion hosts terrorist cells without a common front? Any conflict of that magnitude will provide latitude for war merchants and mercenaries like the Wagner Group to trade in war. Already, Wagner Group had described as ‘Russian standard’ the putsch in Niger, leading to what many say showed Kremlin’s support, though the US understands Russia has no hand in the Niger coup.
Talking tough has never solved any problem.Tinubu, who is threatening ‘fire and fury’ today has yet to return from Guinea Bissau where he had read subregional coupists the riot act when neighbouring Niger fell to khaki boys. The fact that Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger are all led by military juntas means that those soldiers are now in control of national wealth and resources there, including in uranium-rich Niger. This is what Wagner Group leverages to supply arms or mercenaries during conflicts; don’t forget the Group has mining interests in Africa. Gold, for example, was traded in exchange for military assistance to Sudan’s ousted Bashir. Cabo Delgado of Mozambique is another example.
That these coups d’etat, in a domino effect, are happening in French-speaking West Africa should raise concern. France’s grip on her former African colonies and dependencies has not let up decades after colonialism. About 12 of former France’s colonies still use the CFA and are in the CFA franc Zone, regarded as quasi-independent nations still paying ‘colonial taxes’ to the French central bank in the name of ‘reserves.’ Russia too wants to reassert herself following the end of the Cold War, and to expand its domain to the black continent, hence its ensuing race to outmaneuver the West. Recently in a summit it had with over 40 African leaders, grains, especially wheat, were promised, together with debt reprieve. But Africa needs to be strategic in its relations with any of the power blocs; it cannot keep playing the free rider, else another ‘Berlin Conference’ may happen to the continent!
As for Tinubu and ECOWAS, to jaw-jaw is still better than to war-war. There is a wave of coups d’état sweeping through the continent, there are also many factors motivating this wave, like: corruption, weak institutions, life presidency, authoritarian and despotic regimes, lack of electoral integrity, terrorism and so many others. These are what the African Union, AU, the ECOWAS, CEN-SAD and other regional organisations should interrogate, if they intend to put an end to incessant coups. Already for Tinubu, coup d’etat is forming an arc in Nigeria’s eastern borders with Chad and Niger both now under military rule, remaining Cameroon.Tinubu himself needs to be cautious with domestic policies too. Dialogue can restore democratic order in Niger, but if it fails, sanctions can come. Unless there are reasons enough, wars are not option.
I do not think Nigeria cutting power supply to Niger was a strategic move. River Niger courses through Niger to Benin Republic and then Nigeria to where it empties into the Gulf of Guinea. Niger may want to begin damming the Niger River to generate power through an hydroelectric dam as a result of the power supply cut, resulting in the kind of tension seen between Ethiopia and Egypt when the former started her Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, GERD, which Egypt feared may cut her access to the Nile, her only water source.
Sometimes I relate the whole thing to Tinubu’s idiosyncrasy; his life as a political fixer. Is it that Tinubu is trying to look good before America and the West, known as developed democracies, because of his legitimacy problems or that he is indeed championing a democratic cause? Being the most unpopular president to rule Nigeria (Tinubu didn’t score up to 10% of eligible registered voters, something unprecedented) and faced with pressing domestic issues like the current subsidy-free regime, strike threat from the organised labour and her affiliates, and then a court case challenging his election, Tinubu could as well be diverting domestic attention to the foreign scene with a war. And should war happen, definitely, attention will be diverted thereto. Shakespeare understood this diversionary politics when in Henry IV the acclaimed bard talked about how a king, aware that the son was lacking in statesmanship, urged him to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.’ So, I ask, couldTinubube actually trying to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels?
Anyway, I don’t expect the Senate to vote for a military campaign. It is democracy, it Is game of the majority and we know the majority here.
* Comrade Elekwachi, a public affairs commentator, writes from Aba, Abia State; and can be on 08083550070, and at email@example.com