Talking tough

Exclusive: ECOWAS commissioner Musah speaks on Niger coup

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on August 16, 2023 16:12

Abdel-Fatau Musah, commissioner for political affairs, peace and security at the Economic Community of West Africa States. (Photo: ECOWAS)
Abdel-Fatau Musah, commissioner for political affairs, peace and security at the Economic Community of West Africa States. (Photo: ECOWAS)

Abdel-Fatau Musah, the ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, speaks in part 1 of an exclusive interview about how the regional body plays a multifaceted role in the Niger crisis.

If the coup d’etat in Niger is allowed to stand, four of the 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will be under military rule.

For Ambassador Abdel-Fatau Musah, the ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, the reality on the ground warranted decisive action.

Recently, he was part of the United Nations/African Union/ECOWAS special delegation to Niger that was turned back by the military junta.

In Part 1 of a two-part interview with The Africa Report, Musah shares his thoughts about the ongoing crisis and the role of his organisation in maintaining peace.

TAR: Before the latest coup in Niger there were coups in other West African countries like Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali. Why has ECOWAS changed its response to this particular coup?

AM: First, we are seeing something like a contagion developing as far as coups are concerned. Already, in the last three years or so there have been seven coups in the region. This is the fourth successful coup. It is important to stop the contagion and we feel that this is the right time with Niger, after all the warnings.

Secondly, ECOWAS is under a new administration, both at the commission level and at the heads of state level. President Bola Tinubu is the new chair of ECOWAS and Nigerians and Africans should know about his role in bringing about democracy and fighting against military dictatorship.

At the commission level, this administration took office just barely a year ago. One of our vows was to stop the spiralling coups afflicting the region.

But why is military intervention being considered?

We didn’t say we are going to use military force immediately. We opened up all avenues for conflict resolution, beginning with mediation offers, which were rebuffed by the junta.

I was part of a joint AU/ECOWAS/UN mission that was supposed to go there. We were on the way to the airport when we had to turn back because they wouldn’t receive us. When former Nigerian head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar and the Sultan of Sokoto went there, they were confined to the airport and the putschists gave ultimatums.

They rebuffed ECOWAS mediation efforts but they now say they are ready to talk. Of course, the population will suffer when there are sanctions so it is up to them to mount pressure on the junta to restore constitutional order.

The supplementary protocol on democracy and good governance, which is today the guiding tool of ECOWAS against unconstitutional changes of government, came into effect under the chairmanship of Niger in 2004/2005. It was adopted in 2001 but came into force under the chairmanship of President Mamadou Tandja as ECOWAS chair.

In any case, the US position is very different from ours. The US has not withdrawn any diplomatic recognition of the country.

The US says they prefer a peaceful resolution of the crisis. They never said they would support ECOWAS in a military intervention.

How united is ECOWAS on this Niger issue? Back in 2010, ECOWAS initially showed unity in the Cote d’Ivoire crisis only for Ghana to pull out. Apart from Cote d’Ivoire, which other country has pledged troops to the standby force?

Rhetorically, there was complete unanimity at the last summit. The only member state with some level of a dissenting voice was Cabo Verde, which says it wants a peace resolution. Apart from that, nobody opposed military action during the meeting.

Defence chiefs will have their next meeting in Accra on Thursday. The military option is ongoing and there is a unity of purpose among the heads of state. But, the military option is not the preferred option for ECOWAS. We are reserving it as a measure of last resort when that need arises. There is a steely resolve to make sure all options remain on the table among the heads of state.

Is there a time frame for military intervention if negotiation fails?

The only time frame is if the authorities refuse to negotiate or if the negotiations are going nowhere. We are open to dialogue. I am not going to discuss time frames. That is strategic ambiguity when it comes to military options.

But wouldn’t you need approval from the UN Security Council before any military intervention? Russia is a permanent member and it has kicked against military intervention. So, will ECOWAS go in there without approval?

But those powers are using the military option in Ukraine. Did any of them go to the Security Council? Why should ECOWAS go to the Security Council? If we get the blessing of the Council, we will accept it, but we are not going to the Security Council. When we went to Liberia and Sierra Leone, we didn’t ask the Security Council for anything. We informed them about an act after it had taken place. When we deployed the preventive mission to The Gambia in 2016, it didn’t go through the Security Council. So why do we need that now?

I was director for West Africa and the Sahel at the UN headquarters until last July. Most of the time, when African nations say they are going to the Security Council, the international blessing is just a side issue. Why they go to the Security Council is to access contributions to the effort, which means financial and equipment support.

The UN today cannot fight terrorism. The threat that defines the conflict environment in West Africa is terrorism. So, if the Security Council is divided on fighting terrorism, and we are using our own resources, we are not being supported.

But even the ECOWAS parliament has not supported military intervention. Apart from the heads of state, the people of West Africa have not given support for military intervention. Even in Kano, Nigeria, there was a protest. The Nigerian Senate has also called for diplomacy. So it may seem the heads of state are not listening to their people.

In ECOWAS’s array of tools, why are people only focusing on military intervention? I am not disagreeing that there are divided sentiments. In Nigeria in particular, Niger and northern Nigeria are virtually the same people and there are trade relations across borders, whether legal or illegal. There are some 700,000 Nigerian refugees in Niger.

The parliament of ECOWAS has a non-binding capacity. These heads of state and ECOWAS have been put there to do a job. The implementation of the regional integration agenda, which is being undermined by insecurity in the region and these unconstitutional changes of government, diverts the attention of ECOWAS.

How did ECOWAS enter the peace and security arena?

It was provoked by our forced intervention in Liberia and Sierra Leone, knowing that if you don’t deal with insecurity, forget about economic integration.

The prime minister [of Niger] has reached out and says they are willing to talk, but if you listen to their rhetoric, they are talking from both sides of the mouth. They are ready to talk but they are continuing with provocative actions like charging the president with treason. How does that favour talks?

ECOWAS says diplomacy is the bedrock of its strategy but is still mobilising a standby force.

ECOWAS’s policy is that wherever possible, diplomacy should be the preferred option. It is when there are obstacles in the way of a negotiated settlement that we consider all other options. Sanctions could also be seen as a coercive option on them, which is midway between pure diplomacy and military action.

It will enrage any head of state that an elder statesman like Retired General Abdulsalami Abubakar and the Sultan of Sokoto go to your country and then you slam the door, confine them to the airport, read your own riot act to them and then send them back. If they are behaving that way, do you expect ECOWAS to send them flowers?

Burkina Faso and Mali have said any act of aggression on Niger would be seen as an attack on them. Don’t you fear that this could put the region in total crisis, remembering how the fall of Libya led to unintended consequences? What if ECOWAS goes in there and the junta opens their armoury and non-state actors get access to guns?

In the military planning by ECOWAS chiefs of defence, all these risk factors were taken into account. We know what Burkina Faso is capable of. We know what Mali is capable and incapable of. It is natural that countries that are facing ECOWAS sanctions will come together. But whether they are able to make good their threat is another matter.

Both Mali and Burkina Faso have enough internal security problems. They don’t have control over their common borders with Niger.

We know their strengths and weaknesses, and all these have been taken into account. Until the Niger debacle, we were on the cusp of activating the ECOWAS standby force to go into kinetic operations against terrorism. That was the main focus of the heads of state since last December.

When you talk of a country’s territorial integrity, what is happening in Burkina Faso comes to mind. It is now having a very serious impact on Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, which it shares borders with. There are cross-border attacks on them. If your internal security is a threat, the region is not going to sit with arms folded. The situation in Niger has been a major disaster for ECOWAS in terms of its destructive capacity. We saw terrorism and we had to stop it.

You gave an example of Libya. We are still fighting the consequences of Libya. And if the military in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are saying the cascading insecurity was the cause of their coups, it is all the spinoff of what happened when terrorists’ groups and non-terrorist armed groups left Libya in 2011 and entered the Sahel, and the impact is still being felt today. I don’t think ECOWAS going into Niger will worsen the situation. It is already bad.

ECOWAS is not going there to engage in war. Secondly, people who think there is a unity of purpose even within the military in Niger and even among the ethnic groups in Niger are deceiving themselves.

One of the key Touareg leaders, a former guerrilla of the terrorists, Rhissa Ag Boula, has just set up something called The Resistance Council of the Republic. Niger was the country that managed diversity better than any of the countries in the central Sahel, where the Touaregs had laid down their weapons and were part of the governance process.

Today, they see the attack on ousted President Mohamed Bazoum as an attack by the elite majority. Whether it is the Hausa/Kanuri on the Touareg/Arab minority in the country, that narrative is gaining acceptance and nobody knows how that will end. So, even as ECOWAS goes in, there are already internal fissures in the country. In today’s world, through social media, misinformation and disinformation, renting crowds can give the impression of a popular uprising.

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