Niger: Agbaje Canvasses Non-military Diplomatic Engagements

In this interview with WALE AKINSELURE, a professor of Political Science, Adigun Agbaje, speaks on implications of the pronouncements and proposed interventions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the wake of the recent coup in the Niger Republic coupled with the positions of Burkina Faso and Mali on the ECOWAS intervention.

THE ECOWAS has given a 7-day ultimatum after which it may consider a military intervention in Niger Republic where coup plotters recently deposed the country’s leader. Countries like Burkina Faso and Mali have vowed to oppose any action by the ECOWAS against Niger Republic. What is your overview of the looming battle within the sub-region?

I have read what some Nigerians have been saying. Obviously, there are two positions. One is to say no military intervention; the other is to say if you have to, then go ahead and do it. In fact, there is a third one that says, clean up your house first. From what I have seen, the two-track approach is still in process. What I see is people are talking tough on both sides, including those who are weighing in on the Nigerien position. But, I believe the other track, which is the more peaceful approach is on. It is a very difficult situation to find ourselves as a sub-region on the African continent. It is very difficult because there are precedents; there have been interventions before and there have been cases where we had military coups and there were no interventions and that is where Burkina Faso and Mali cases become very important. I think what we all have to agree upon is that as much as possible, non-constitutional seizure of power is to be abhorred. It is not to be encouraged as much as possible. There is always that error margin where you might say that non-constitutional seizure of power kind of addresses non-constitutional abuses by those in power. So, we have to weigh all of these and in the next couple of days, it is important that our leaders at all levels, political, military, intellectual, diplomatic, pull out all stops. In the Nigerien case, the non-constitutional seizure really has no tangible reasons to have occurred. The man in office was constitutionally put there; we have not seen huge abuses of power or repressive rule. So, it is difficult to say that the Nigerien example is in line with unconstitutional responses to unconstitutional rule. This is where we have a challenge. Look at the Nigerien case. Please don’t go the military way as something that is inevitable. But, as you are planning for possible military intervention, also rack up the non-military diplomatic engagements in a typically African manner to resolve this. I am one of those who believe that the Nigerien example should be taken on its own and it we should not allow it to go unattended to because there was no obvious immediate reason for the military intervention. This is just an example in adventurism, an attempt to capture power because you are able to. We need to encourage our military to become more professional. The military cannot handle the Nigerien problem.

The Nigerien problem is fundamentally that of poverty, security. The military cannot handle it. You need a more mature, non-military way of providing leadership because even if you are going to use the military option, it has to be led by civilians and other agencies and institutions that are able to put in place the skills required to begin to address the rebellions in Niger and to then recall the very lofty elements of Nigerien history in terms of democracy and so on. So, I would say that as much as possible, the military option should not be effected. Attempts should be made to put on the table, in the seven-day period, those other mechanisms that can make it unnecessary for military intervention to take place. But, I also believe that things may need to get messy or more messy before they get better and clearer. All options should be on the table. I don’t buy the idea that because ECOWAS did not intervene in Burkina Faso, it shouldn’t in Niger. If ECOWAS had intervened successfully in other places, democracy is a lofty goal, all sacrifices that are required must be made, but they must not be made in a haste.

Reversing the military coup is not going to get Niger to its Eldorado. There are fundamental issues that are getting even messier, that still need to be addressed and require the attention of ECOWAS and other powers. Of course, this is not just ECOWAS, America also has interest; French is interested; Russia is knocking on the door. That is the reality of our lives as West Africans but fundamentally, let all the cards remain on the table. Let’s see whether we can play the more peaceful diplomatic card first and see how we can succeed. The cost of military intervention is immense but the cost of non-intervention for the future of the West African sub-region can also be very immense.

Do you consider the decision of the ECOWAS to announce a closure of air and land borders in Niger as hasty? Could that pronouncement have instigated Burkina Faso and Mali’s stance in support of Niger and against the ECOWAS?

The drama of power is as important as its substance. I don’t think it was hasty to say your borders are closed, no flight zone. That is part of the drama of power. You create the required impressions that these things are going to have consequences and right away, this is what we are planning to do. I am not sure whether, in fact, the machinery has been put in place to force that. But it is important to display that you have the capacity to do this. Let us also say that the regimes in Burkina Faso and Mali are not the ones we actually cheer; they are not regimes we need on the African continent. That is why I said all the cards must remain on the table. You cannot separate our domestic politics from our foreign policy. I see some of the responses to the government’s position as coming from internal political considerations. We need to move beyond that and actually propose a sole movement towards the unity of purpose to say that what serves Nigeria better is that we have regimes in West Africa that are at least respectful of democracy, no matter its weaknesses and that are ready to effect change in a constitutional manner. If we don’t move towards that, we are all going to cut our nose to spite our faces. I don’t think it was hasty to say we are closing borders or closing the air spaces within the West African sub-region, it is something that can be put into effect just to show that disdainful seizure of power should become a thing of the past in West Africa and the rest of Africa. There is no other way to do it if we don’t bring both the reality of force as well as the drama of the possibility of the use of force while at the same time putting all the diplomatic cards on the table. On Sunday, even the Chadian President had gone as an emissary of the ECOWAS President to Niger and the first pictures of the president in detention came from that meeting. I want to believe that silent diplomacy is still going on and that is to be emphasized within the seven day period that has been announced.

What is your admonition to the Niger coupists and their backers, Mali and Burkina Faso, amid the ECOWAS stance?

My admonition would be that unconstitutional rule is by definition, unsustainable. You can still have coups in the next five, six years but you cannot be turned into permanent dictatorships. Dictatorships, by definition, are bound to fall. The Soviet dictatorship lasted decades but at the end, it fell. Be on the side of the people, perform your fundamental role of securing the state. Let politicians do the job; of course, politicians also have a duty. As it has been shown globally, the more you seek as a politician or so-called democrat to abridge democracy and to turn on your opposition, the more you weaken your own rule and the more you become grave diggers to your own so-called constitutional order. So, it is not talking about just the military but also the politician that it is a very fundamental rule of nature that if you aspire to democracy, you cannot aspire to force non-democratic rule on people and expect to stay in office.

We have recorded the seventh military takeover in West and Central Africa in three years. When will there be an end to military takeovers in the sub-region and in the continent at large?

When the military focus on their role and perform creditably to address insurrections and instabilities and threats to the state and when the civil populace, including the politicians, learn that at the end of the day, democracy is a process, it has be nurtured, it has to be invested in, and that any move from politicians and the civil populace to abridge democratic aspirations automatically will mean that you are creating a condition for such unconstitutional move as coups that we have witnessed. It is our hope that we can begin to move towards a situation where there shall be no more military coups in West Africa and the rest of the African continent but that is a wish that can only be founded on professional military able to secure the state and a strategic political class able to know that its future and its own sustainability relies on its committing fully and purposefully to democracy, development, equity and justice.