*By Paul Ejime
Following the tension generated by the threat of military intervention and the stand-off between the Niger junta and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the statement by Nigeria’s President and ECOWAS Chairman Ahmed Bola Tinubu on Thursday in Abuja, appears to indicate a positive movement and compromise on how to restore constitutional order in Niger.
“…General Abdulsalami Abubakar (a Nigerian former military Head of State) instituted a nine-month transition programme in 1998, and it proved very successful, leading the country into a new era of democratic governance,” Tinubu told a delegation of Islamic leaders, adding: that he “…sees no reason why such cannot be replicated in Niger, if Niger’s military authorities are sincere.”
The Brig.-Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani-led Niger junta, which toppled his former boss President Mohamed Bazoum, had announced a 36-month transition programme, which has been rejected by ECOWAS.
President Tinubu’s statement is an indication that ECOWAS is open to negotiation for a shorter transition timetable, while keeping the military intervention option open.
Tchiani and his colleagues should, therefore, seize the opportunity and agree a negotiated and more acceptable timetable of say 9-18 months. This is enough time to organise a credible election, under an ECOWAS-led support and guidance by the international community.
However, the involvement of external powerful interests, particularly France and the U.S. has complicated matters in Niger.
In fact, the latest Niger coup (the country has experienced several since independence from France in 1960), has further exposed the hypocrisy, inconsistency, double standards, if not perfidy of the West in its relations with Africa.
Scholars and commentors who argue that after more than six decades of independence, African countries should stop citing slavery and colonialism as excuses for the continent’s backwardness or underdevelopment do have a point given the level of corruption, resource mismanagement and governance failures under the watch of post-independent African leaders.
Even so, imperialism and neocolonialism still constitute a dangerous clog in Africa’s wheel of progress and development.
The Niger coup was the seventh successful one in four former French colonies in West Africa in three years with two each in Mali and Burkina Faso, and one each in Mali, Guinea, and Niger.
These are all member States of the 15-nation regional bloc, ECOWAS. Before the 2020 coup in Mali, all ECOWAS members operated one form of civilian administration or another.
International reactions to the coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso followed a familiar pattern – condemnation, suspension of membership from ECOWAS and the African Union, imposition of sanctions and then negotiated political transition programmes, which are being implemented by the juntas.
In neighbouring Chad, another former French colony, which is in Central Africa and not a member of ECOWAS, international reaction to the unconstitutional change of government there, is markedly different.
In April 2021, the President of Chad, Idris Derby Ito, was assassinated by Chadian rebels and against the provisions of the country’s constitution, his son, army General Mahamat Kaka seized power, in a manner many described as a coup.
Surprisingly, French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the few dignitaries that graced the inauguration ceremony of Mahamat Derby to succeed his father.
In contrast, France has been among the most vociferous in condemning the coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger, but not in Chad, perhaps because the principles of democracy do not matter in Chad.
Relations between France and the Mali junta have deteriorated so badly that the French Ambassador and French troops have been expelled from Mali, with the expelled troops moved to Niger.
Then fast forward to the coup in Niger and the unusual outrage and reactions by Washington and Paris.
As expected, France is worried that it is losing grounds in its former colonies in Africa, where anti-French sentiments are openly expressed accompanied by sporadic street protests.
Similarly, the U.S. and its Western allies fear that Russia, China, and other emerging interests would move in once they are kicked out of the coup countries.
Furthermore, the palpable diplomatic frenzy in the French and American capitals, is a demonstration that Niger is unlike Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.
America and France have military bases and along with other Western allies, maintain an estimated combined troop strength of 3,000 in Niger.
Niger is also rich in uranium, craved by nuclear power countries such as France, which sources more than 50% of its electricity power from the Niger uranium mines, while more than 80% of Nigeriens remain in darkness, and mining host communities, suffering health hazards from radiation.
In the estimation of France, America and their Western Allies, Niger is of strategic importance, but the interests/wellbeing of Niger’s estimated 26 million poverty-stricken and long-suffering people do not matter in the geopolitical equation.
The American constitution frowns at any relations with coup-produced regimes, so Washington is still undecided whether the Niger army takeover is “a coup” or “an attempted coup,” but America’s newly appointed ambassador, arrived in Niger recently amid growing tension over possible use of military force to restore constitutional order in the country.
Relations between Niger and France have taken a turn for the worse with the junta expelling the French Ambassador and demanding the departure of French troops from Niger.
President Macron has rejected the junta’s demand, insisting that the French ambassador should stay put because the junta lacks legitimacy.
This has raised tension and made Niger a dilemma for ECOWAS, with its new management at the Commission determined to arrest the drift and leadership failure of the past decade, when the organisation ignored or tolerated “constitutional, ballot box, human rights and anti-rule of law coups” without consequences.
Some ECOWAS leaders blatantly altered national constitutions and rigged elections to obtain or retain power while clamping down on the opposition and protesters against their undemocratic behaviours.
ECOWAS has intervened militarily in several member States in the past including in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, and Guinea Bissau, under various protocols and instrumentalities acceded to by the member States.
But Niger now presents a unique challenge with the ECOWAS response, especially the possible use of force being subjected to various interpretations.
ECOWAS officials insist the regional bloc is acting independently, but critics say it is being teleguided or stampeded into a proxy war in Niger by Western powers.
The popular opinion in Africa is that America, France, and their Western allies, should leave Africa out of their geopolitical battles with Russia and China.
The military coups in former French colonies could be related to opportunism on the part of the coup makers, but the discontent and disaffection towards France among citizens of these countries cannot be ignored.
Former French colonies such as Cameroon, Togo, Rwanda, Burundi and Gabon have either applied or have been granted membership of the British-led Commonwealth Organisation.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, a long-time ally of France, was conspicuous in his presence at the second Africa-Russia summit in St Petersburg last July.
The policies of foreign countries, particularly France toward Africa are unravelling and require recalibration to ensure mutual respect, based on equal partnership, justice, equity and fair play instead of a master-servant relationship.
The jury is still out on the success or otherwise of the presence of external forces purportedly fighting terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel region. The idea of military bases in African countries should also be reviewed to ensure that they are not inimical to the interests of the host countries.
Anti-French protests on the streets of West African countries may have been instigated by the juntas, but the truth is that the citizens are fed up with decades of unbeneficial policies and toxic relationships that have kept Africa behind.
French President Macron’s bellicose, condescending, and patronising stance and comments such as insisting that the French ambassador in another sovereign nation, who has been expelled and stripped of diplomatic immunity must stay put, are not helping the ECOWAS course either.
It is the neighbouring countries, and not France, that will bear the heaviest burden of a military intervention in Niger, with the attendant humanitarian disaster and other unpredictable consequences of instability in West Africa and the Sahel region.
*Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications
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