hard line

Nigeria: No compromise with coup plotters says Tinubu, new Ecowas head

By Flore Monteau

Posted on July 14, 2023 10:25

 Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu being sworn in on 29 May 2023 in Abuja. © REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu being sworn in on 29 May 2023 in Abuja. © REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Nigeria’s new President Bola Tinubu, who was appointed the head of Economic Community of West African States on Sunday, says that defending democracy is one of his priorities.

“We will not allow coup after coup to take place,” said Tinubu on 9 July, setting the tone in Bissau after he was appointed chair of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Tinubu vigorously defended democracy and made it clear he would take the strongest possible line with the military putschists ruling Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

“We did not invest in our armies, their uniforms, their training, and their boots so that they could turn against the people,” said Tinubu. “We invested in them to defend the sovereignty of their country, and now they want to set up their own government. We have to react; we can’t remain like dogs without fangs at Ecowas. We have to bite back.”

Speaking at the end of the 9 July conference, Oumar Alieu Touray, president of the Ecowas Commission, said “major sanctions” could be applied to transitioning countries that did not respect their electoral timetables. He urged them to remain “faithful to the 24-month transition timetable in a transparent and inclusive manner with all stakeholders”.

Without a government

Tinubu, for his part, said he wanted to send a “warning signal” to coup plotters. But despite his offensive words, the new Ecowas chair’s strategy remains unclear.

More than 40 days after his inauguration as Nigeria’s president, Tinubu has still not named his ministers and therefore has no one to tackle these burning regional issues.

In the meantime, the Nigerian president has started to cultivate certain alliances, notably with Paris where he stayed before his inauguration. “France remains a privileged partner of Ecowas and Tinubu is open to such collaboration,” says a well-informed source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

We have to react; we can’t remain like dogs without fangs at Ecowas. We have to bite back.

According to the source, Tinubu hopes to bring France and Mali closer as relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply, reaching a breaking point when the Opération Barkhane left in 2022.

Nigerian mediation

For several weeks, Tinubu has been fine-tuning his regional strategy. On 13 June, he met Goodluck Jonathan, the Ecowas mediator and former Nigerian president, in Abuja to receive a report about the constitutional referendum being prepared in Mali.

“Nigeria has always been a pro-democracy activist in the region,” says an observer close to the government, citing the role played by Olusegun Obasanjo, another former president of Nigeria, as an example.

Obasanjo acted as a mediator after the 2003 coup d’état in the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe, and tried to ease tensions between Alassane Ouattara and Guillaume Soro in Côte d’Ivoire in 2017. In 2020, Tinubu’s predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, firmly opposed the coup that led to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s fall in Mali.

Describing the putsch as “a major setback for regional diplomacy with serious consequences for peace and security”, he called on the Malian authorities to “act responsibly” to ensure the restoration of constitutional order.

‘Anti-military DNA’

Tinubu rose up against the military dictatorship in his country during the early 1990s, was arrested and forced into exile in Benin, and is seen as a fervent defender of democracy by some Nigerians. “It’s in his DNA to be anti-military,” says the observer quoted above.

Tinubu feels the army’s mission is not to “violate republican principles” but to ensure the population’s safety.

Already facing numerous security challenges, Nigeria wants to protect itself from the descent of jihadist groups towards the Gulf of Guinea and does not intend to let instability spread to West Africa. “When it comes to security, he is going to be uncompromising”, concludes the observer.

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