A good number of people, including me, seems opposed to Nigeria leading the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to war in Niger. In one of the most telling anti-war metaphors, a Nigerian columnist and editor, Lasisi Olagunju, likened military intervention to rubbing buttocks with the porcupine.
Doves everywhere are flying the flag of peace. Protesters are also waving placards reminding Nigeria’s President and ECOWAS Chairman, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, not to start a war he cannot finish.
As if he doesn’t know, Tinubu has also been reminded, among other things, that there’s already too much trouble at home – insecurity, economic hardship and a country deeply divided by the last elections – without a clear plan, so far, of how to dig himself out of the mess. He cannot invite more trouble.
Tinubu is not just being told to mind his business, fix Nigeria and forget war. In what is clearly an indication that even the pacificists recognise that he cannot ignore a problem at the door, however, the president has also been advised to prioritise talks and negotiations with Niger’s military leader, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, who deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and seized power on 26 July.
That is easier said than done. I’ve been forced to pause and lower my flag for talks at half-mast after reading one of Christopher Hitchens’ essays in his collection, And Yet, from which I have adapted the title of this article.
Hitchens wasn’t writing about Niger, of course: it was about the US Middle East policy at a very difficult and dangerous time. At the height of Iran’s nuclear enrichment controversy, the Obama administration received a letter from Tehran offering “unconditional talks”, over the hostile and fraught relationship between Washington and Tehran.
The invitation to “unconditional talks” with Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, characteristised in Washington as the devil incarnate, spooked memories of Azar Nafisi’s 2003 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which she said a relationship with the Islamic Republic “is like having sex with a man you loathe.” I honestly don’t know which one is easier – rubbing buttocks with the porcupine or having sex with a man you loathe!
The instigation for talks, at all costs, with Niger’s military junta must feel that way for Tinubu. How do you talk with a man who not only despises your election and questions the legitimacy of other regional leaders, but one who has also spurned your emissaries and is openly rallying other scoundrels against you and the regional body?
It’s gratifying that the latest indications from Niamey are that the military regime is prepared for talks with ECOWAS. But what, in any case, would such talks be like in light of the regional protocol by all 15-member ECOWAS countries, including Niger, against unconstitutional changes in government?
A chapter from the encounter of regional leaders and the diaries of three regional military coup leaders in the last few years could give us an idea. The soles of the shoes of the ECOWAS special envoy and former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his team are worn out from futile diplomatic visits to Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso after soldiers seized power in these countries, and for three years, all refused to talk sense.
Assimi Goita, Mali’s military leader, seized power in 2020 and initially promised a transitional government within six months. Before you could say Assimi, however, he sacked the figure-head interim government in May 2021 and promised elections would be held in 2024, that is four years after he first seized power.
Guinean military leader Mamadi Doumbouya, who seized power in September 2021, was careful not to commit early. After about five months in power, plenty of talk and ECOWAS sanctions, which all parties knew were just about as empty as the talks, Doumbouya announced in January last year that he needed an extra 39 months to hand over power.
And just around the corner, Ibrahim Traore, the Burkinabe military leader and third soldier to lead a successful coup in the region in five years, has not made any secrets of his flirtations with the Russian-backed Wagner Group.
The hint of a transition is not even on the table, much less discussions with ECOWAS about a possible hand over date. Anyone who saw Traore’s recent red-carpet reception by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow might understand why he cannot be in a hurry to leave power. Better to talk about talk and enjoy the illegitimate fruit of power than to confront the threat of a forceful removal.
It is in the context of this catastrophic failure of previous talks with military juntas in the last three years, not to mention the audacity of their defiance, that we must view talks with Tchiani. It is either we have decided to shred the protocol against unconstitutional changes in government and return to the 1970s/80s by normalising military rule, or we make it clear that there would be consequences for military coups.
The argument that we have ourselves to blame because civilian rulers have performed shabbily, wangled their ways into office, or illegally extended their tenures is seductive but untenable. To adapt the Italian prosecutor, Virgino Rognoni, who took on the Red Brigades in the 1908s, “in whichever way a democratic system might be sick, military coup will not heal it; it kills it. Democracy is healed with democracy.”
We can all agree that talk is better than war, but those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the futility of talks in the last three years since the fall of Mali, have not said how more pillow talk with Tchiani would do for Niger what it has failed to do for the embarrassingly defiant coup belt.
It’s been said that the “hasty” announcement of a military option by ECOWAS and sanctions by the body, especially Nigeria’s decision to cut-off electricity to Niamey, hardened the junta. Maybe. But the junta’s response to diplomatic overtures made right after did not suggest that sending flowers early on would have made much difference.
Tchiani’s latest comment that the military government has enough evidence to try President Bazoum for high treason is a ridiculous excuse to buy time and befuddle the point. It is a measure of how unpromising the talks would be, that an illegitimate government is even thinking of charging an elected president with “high treason!”
How did we get here? By talking, of course, without any clear intention of, or will to do anything, when talks failed. Wasn’t it an embarrassment to ECOWAS, for example, that in spite of promises by the Malian military leader to hand over within a few months of the coup, the military-dominated legislature later announced that nothing less than four years would do, to which ECOWAS negotiator, Jonathan, tamely replied, “I believe ECOWAS may not accept it…we’re going to negotiate further with them.”
Seven months after Jonathan made this statement, the soldiers in Burkina Faso read correctly that it was just another empty talk. They struck.
If, in 2016, ECOWAS had offered President Yahya Jammeh talks, instead of deploying a regional force to remove him from power after he lost the election and refused to quit, he’ll probably still be in office today, talking.
Sure, regional leaders could do better by using institutional mechanisms such as the AU’s Peer Review to improve the quality of governance and perhaps even review the governance charter.
Yet, there’s no evidence in Africa that the military has done any better after seizing power. It’s time to end the nonsense in Niger not by rubbing buttocks with Tchiani, but by keeping the cage-trap firmly on the table for this porcupine and his cohorts.
Ishiekwene is the Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP newspapers.