The Niger putschists’ threats to kill President Mohamed Bazoum over a treason charge amount to political blackmail, according to Abdel-Fatau Musah, commissioner for political affairs, peace and security at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
In a frank interview with The Africa Report, he spells out his vision of the role (or non-role) of Western and African players in finding a resolution to the ongoing crisis in Niger following its military coup.
TAR: Are these coups justified seeing that there has been a governance deficit in the region?
AM: We know that there are governance deficits, but these are global challenges. Putschists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and now in Niger cite insecurity, especially terrorism, as their reason for toppling governments. Whose primary responsibility is it to fight terrorists? Is it not the military’s role?
If you have abdicated that responsibility and think taking over the reins of government is going to change the situation, you are wrong. We have seen it in Burkina Faso, where insecurity is still spiralling despite two military coups, first against the democratically elected government and one within the military junta itself.
Do these coups in francophone countries give credence to the narrative that it is a rebellion against French imperialism?
French dominance in the security sector with bases all over these countries, and their apparent protection of leaders that are unpopular with the masses, adds an impetus. But there is another factor.
If you look at the coups that have occurred, it is a belt that straddles the Sahara and the coastal countries from Guinea to Sudan. Sudan is not francophone. Guinea has never been a crony of France. Guinea was a rebellious former colony and one of the first to gain independence in 1958. France punished the country severely for that.
The same thing with Mali, which has been a rebellious nation vis à vis France since independence.
But why are coups not happening in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo and Benin? The severe hardship brought about by the harsh impacts of climate change plays a big role. The central Sahel countries experience radical climate issues, erratic rainfall and drought interchange, which leads to serious inter-communal animosities like farmer/herder clashes, ethnic strife and all that.
The Niger coup is not based on anti-French sentiments. This was a palace coup. People who were being paid to protect the president took him hostage, hijacked power and then started looking for justification and mobilising people against the French.
The French are still there. The Americans are there, but what have they done about it? History will tell you that the coup had nothing to do with anti-French sentiments within the military.
Everyone knows the immediate cause of the coup was the attempt to remove General Abdourahamane Tiani [as head of the presidential guard] and other factors. So, it is not a revolution. You don’t do revolutions inside the palace; you do insurrection in the community.
Let the people rise up and then you come in as a hero, mobilising them. You don’t stage a coup and start organising a mock insurrection.
Apart from asking the putschists to leave, you have told them to reinstate Bazoum. However, ousted presidents never come back. Will ECOWAS be willing to bend that demand or is it non-negotiable?
That’s a loaded question. The president has been taken hostage and what do you expect ECOWAS to do? Forget about him? We are not going to do that. We are asking for his freedom and his reinstatement. That is the moral thing to do as an organisation. Realistically, is it possible? Because the junta has threatened to kill him if there is a military intervention. We consider that blackmail against ECOWAS.
We have zero tolerance for unconstitutional changes of government, and we are not going to shy away from that principle. We are going to do everything possible to restore constitutional order in the shortest possible time frame.
Is there any incentive for the putschists to reinstate Bazoum, knowing that they could be charged with treason if he is reinstated?
We have a package which I will not disclose. We know that the putschists will require some guarantees to hand over power as requested by ECOWAS, but that will end the moment the safety, security or physical integrity of the president or members of his family are impacted. That is the red line. His safety, his physical integrity is the red line.
They say they are ready to talk but they have concocted a charge against Bazoum accusing him of treason. You don’t overthrow a president and then about two weeks later you charge him with treason. Did he commit the treason while in detention? I think they were referring to probably an opinion article he penned. These guys are searching for justification for their unjustifiable act every day.
This is military adventurism on the continent. When they staged the coup, they said it was because of bad governance and insecurity. There was nothing like treason.
It makes their offer of dialogue sound hollow because you cannot be talking while adding trumped-up charges against a captive. I don’t know who advises them, because they are not coherent. It shows their level of amateurism and doesn’t give the impression that they are serious.
Tiani had been in the presidential guard since 2010 and he was a beneficiary of the system. There were reports that the president gave him an extra 5m CFA francs weekly apart from his salary. So, if there is any corruption, he is part of it.
There were reports that one of the president’s children needed medical attention. Is ECOWAS in touch with Bazoum?
In the beginning, we had contact with him. Then, later on, they cut access to him as there was no electricity.
We were told his 20-year-old son needed medical attention. It shows the level of inhumanity. What has the son got to do with his father that he is being held hostage?
I am told that his services have been restored and his physician was allowed to visit and that he is still in high spirits. We hold the junta responsible for his wellbeing. If anything happens to him, they will pay dearly.
ECOWAS sent a delegation to Algeria with a view to getting the country to support sanctions, but Algeria didn’t seem keen. How effective are sanctions placed by ECOWAS? Also, we haven’t seen the African Union (AU) show the kind of enthusiasm that ECOWAS has.
You are absolutely right. I took part in the AU peace and security council meeting on 14 August and, of course, opinion is divided. There are countries in the SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) region where, because of their history, the narrative of revolution and insurrection resonates with many of them, so there is this natural solidarity.
SADC threatened violence in Madagascar some time back and in other places. But when ECOWAS threatened and deployed troops in The Gambia, we didn’t see this kind of support from them and other countries. There is ideology involved in all this.
The US also does not favour the military option and they have deployed an ambassador to the country. Which country personifies the West? The narrative of the coup being anti-West and anti-imperialist doesn’t hold water.
People may have sentiments in the streets, but not the soldiers that staged the coup. They are feeding into the mood of the people after the fact.
Algeria is a major player in the Sahel so it is understandable why they may not want military intervention in Niger.
The sanctions are already biting. On Monday, the Nigerien ambassador at the AU peace meeting detailed the suffering already in the country. About 60% to 70% of Niger’s economy depends on Nigeria. Its imports and exports are not through Algeria but Benin. So, the impact of Algeria not agreeing to the sanctions is minimal. We had wanted solidarity.
An insurrection cannot be done by a small group of soldiers
Niger is a signatory to ECOWAS protocols; these soldiers flouted the constitution that forbids military incursion in politics. The same people leading the coup were very happy when ECOWAS intervened in 2009 when President Mamadou Tandja wanted to extend his tenure beyond the mandatory two terms. ECOWAS had a lot of support. What has changed?
This is the third attempt to remove Bazoum. The first time was on the eve of his inauguration in March 2021. And then in March this year, another coup was foiled.
It is not an insurrection. An insurrection cannot be done by a small group of soldiers. If that was the case why did they dismiss the chiefs of the national guard and gendarmerie when they refused to join the coup? And then recruit their deputies in those roles?
The US Secretary of State spoke with President Bola Tinubu just days ago and asked him to ensure that ECOWAS keeps piling pressure on Niger. This has further pushed the narrative that ECOWAS is being used by the West. Is this true?
The US provides about $2bn in budget support annually to Niger. This is in danger because after a coup, that is the end. And, of course, the US has strategic interests in the country. They have about 1,100 troops in Niger and their largest drone base in the Sahel, as do the French, who also maintain about 1, 500 troops in the country.
We were the first to react to the Nigerien hostage situation. The US and France were there when the coup happened. They didn’t stop it, even though they could have done so if they wanted to, because they have all the equipment and everything there.
If our principles happen to coincide with the positions of the West, so be it. We don’t play into all these politics. If the US supports ECOWAS, what is wrong with that? We need support from everyone, from angels to devils, as long as we can restore constitutional order. That doesn’t mean that we are being teleguided by somebody from outside. ECOWAS is taking its decisions independently.
We see Russian flags being waved in demonstrations. And Russia has said it would be a bad idea to go into Niger. We also hear that the Wagner Group is offering its services to the junta. Wouldn’t this deter ECOWAS?
I don’t know of the Wagner Group offering their services. What I know is that the leader of Wagner Group described the Nigerien coup on the margin of the Russian meeting with African heads of state as part of the anti-colonial struggle. He never said they were going to offer any assistance. Russia, like China, has always held the position of non-interference in the internal affairs of country.
The jostling over Niger can be seen as a continuation of the multi-polar global struggle. Niger is a microcosm of what we are seeing in Ukraine. But the situation in Niger is more complicated because the US is blowing hot and cold when it comes to Niger.
On the one hand, they support ECOWAS but, on the other hand, they are still keeping their military there. They have deployed an ambassador to the country and we are seeing signs that they don’t want the military option, although we have not seen that in writing. This means that the US and Russia are being united in Niger, possibly against the hawkish policy of France.
We have to be nuanced in our analysis because anyone who is against the junta is seen as a Western lackey. That is a dominant narrative which is very faulty but convenient for lazy academics. For them, this is anti-imperialism.
What is anti-imperialist about General Tiani, who has been one of the key elements being used to further Western interests in the country? All of a sudden he has become a Che Guevara?
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