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‘Why Nigeria should not lead ECOWAS to war against Niger’



Foremost Historian and expert in African borderland and regional integration, Emeritus Prof. Anthony Asiwaju, spoke with MUYIWA ADEYEMI on the danger of deploying military to resolve crisis in Niger Republic, and how to stem the tide of military coups in Africa.

What’s your view on the ECOWAS decision to deploy military to restore democracy in Niger, considering Nigeria’s relationship with that neighbouring country?
The opinion, being sought and offered here, can only flow naturally from my widely known humble interrelated backgrounds as a Nigerian, nay African, borderlands citizen, a fronterizo of a global reputation as an extensively published Comparative Historian of African Borderlands and Regional Integration, with a unique lifelong involvement in cognate policy advocacy and widely documented impacts in Nigeria, ECOWAS and the African Union. From this confessed bias and standpoint, it has appeared that the ECOWAS decision to deploy the military machine of the regional body to undo the military coup d’etat in Niger and restore the democratic regime there, was taken in such a haste, rather at the spur-of-the-moment, that gravely overlooked the so many complications, complexities and intractable challenges in the way of any successful implementation.

How will you define Nigeria’s foreign policy in this regard, or with regards to prioritising military intervention in supporting hostility against neighbouring countries that we share cultural affinities?
I am not an expert in diplomacy or diplomatic studies; and I therefore have no formal qualification or competence to comment on issues of foreign policy and the like.

However, as a well exposed comparative-perspective historian of African borderlands and regional integration, I am sufficiently aware of the fact that when and where foreign policy practice relates to a territorially adjacent foreign jurisdiction at a given country’s immediate backyard, as in the case of Nigeria and Niger under discussion, there is a compelling need to blend and diversify the approach by balancing the conventional type, or what experts refer to as Track I Diplomacy, based on provisions of rules and protocols in familiar-type bilateral and multilateral agreements on the one hand with, on the other, so-called Track II Diplomacy that privileges recognitions of critical mass of vital though largely informal cross-border interactions and solidarities.

While on the one hand, that of Track I, foreign policy is aimed at conducting relations between sovereign States as external entities to one another, Track II obliges an inward vision between States across common international boundaries or borders in shared neighbourhood wherein prevails the non-conventional but yet important rule of good neighbourlines for mutual benefits.

In the Nigeria-Niger case in discussion, as indeed, between Nigeria and each of the other limitrophe proximate neighbours in ECOWAS and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), much energy and resources have been expended over the years on exploring the numerous cross-border commonalities of environment, ethnicity and culture to define and establish vital cross-border cooperative instruments and structures to harness the diverse cross-border factors of proximity between the two countries and their interpenetrating peoples and harmonise the two otherwise asymmetrical national economies in a rapidly integrating region and continent.

The point about the ECOWAS initial prioritisation of military engagement with the military rascals in Niger is, therefore, that it, ab initio, overlooked the necessity to look inwards for support by the people and governments of the region, not least the generalities in Nigeria, whose President, Bola Tinubu, doubles as the recently elected Chair of ECOWAS’ highest policy-decision making organ, the Authority of Heads of State and Government.

The decision by ECOWAS authority that tended to prioritise the military approach to the democratic roll-back in Niger clearly placed all its emphasis on Track I at the expense of Track II Diplomacy with which it should have blended and, in fact, surpassed.

The decision was, for example, unable to foresee the widespread reservation, if not total disapproval of military intervention of ECOWAS in Niger, by the people and national legislature in Nigeria, if not in other member states of ECOWAS.

Can you expatiate more on the issue of Track II Diplomacy as it relates to the Nigeria-Niger case in our discussion?
It is trite knowledge that Nigeria and Niger share so many vital cross-border commonalities of the same environment and historic populations, ethnicity and kinships, culture of language and religion, economy of peasant agriculture and trade.

These and many more bonding commonalities have been creatively explored to achieve such African exemplar Cross-Border Cooperation instruments and structures, as, not only the historic Nigeria-Niger Joint Commission on Cooperation with an impressive Secretariat and functional bureaucracy in Niamey; there have also been Local Bilateral Committees that twin limitrophe regional and local authorities that serve to promote the bottom-up approach to African integration, such as subsequently came to be galvanised into such wider regional integration instruments as ECOWAS Cross-Border Cooperation Initiatives (CIP), of 2005 and the African Union Border Programme (AUBP), of 2007, all aimed at driving regional and continental integration into the highly preferred future of integration more of the people State than of constituent African sovereign States at the two complimentary levels.

A Nigeria-led ECOWAS war on Niger not only risks the destruction of the aforementioned vital cross-border proximity building blocks for a stronger ECOWAS of the people; war on Niger, especially led by Nigeria at this time, raises the frightful spectre of an avoidable war of colossal destruction waged by government of exactly same African people in one state on kith and kin in hitherto most peaceful limitrophe proximate neighbouring state, to the fatal detriment, not just of the two states, but also ECOWAS itself, Africa’s oldest postcolonial Regional Economic Community (REC), that both States rank together as among the foundation members.

But Nigeria was known not too long ago to have led ECOWAS Stand-by Force, ECOMOG, to militarily intervene in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Why is the similar decision to militarily intervene in Niger not enjoying popular support by Nigerians?
The times and circumstances are grossly different. Niger to Nigeria is not Liberia or Sierra Leone for reasons already stated. Besides, ECOMOG was a regional initiative led by Nigeria then under one of the most protracted, if not controversial military dictatorships.
We must not be drawn into an inherently indeterminable debate of comparing the evidently incomparable.

What then is the available option or alternative in dealing with the situation in Niger and rolling back the frightful coup waves in Africa, and especially ECOWAS?
A more preferred option and, indeed, the only reasonable approach to the challenge currently posed by the admittedly unacceptable situation of democratic disruption in Niger and the rest of West African Sahel is diplomacy unlimited, as ECOWAS is known to have adopted and continuing to sustain in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger must not be treated differently.

The way to a lasting roll-back of military and what some analysts have also labelled as civilian coups in Africa is good governance, characterised by the eradication of endemic corruption and attendant culture of gross inequality and abject poverty on the side of the masses and provocatively opulent lavish life style of political class, exacerbated by the insensitivity of the political class everywhere in the continent; most notoriously in Nigeria; not military intervention in the States that have gone the way of ongoing aberration of military coups.

If ECOWAS goes to war with Niger, how will it affect the border towns in Nigeria, in terms of commerce, trade and social relationship?
How else could anybody have imagined the consequences other than that of whole sale wanton destruction of all the border towns on either side of the border, just as we are now witnessing in the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine.

The huge commerce and trade across the border would definitely be adversely affected, and the socio-cultural fabrics interconnecting the two traditionally close neighbouring countries would be brutally severed.

How porous is the boundary between Nigeria and Niger and how can it be well demarcated?
The notion of ‘porous boundary’ is too value-laden, coming from a negative statist perspective of border-enforcement to be entertained here. A relatively value-free, plainer and, therefore, more scientific alternative term or concept is permeability. Borders in Africa, as elsewhere in today’s world of ubiquitous nation-state/ state-nation and characteristically arbitrarily defined boundaries are milieux where state territorial sovereignties are notoriously perforated by usual types of trans-border entities, physical and human, that camouflage boundaries, making them more predisposed as bridge than barriers between demarcated state territories on both sides.

To this extent of a reformulation of the analytical concept, Nigeria-Niger boundary is certainly as permeable as any other international boundaries, including the ideologically sealed, as between Communist and open/Capitalist states like North and South Korea. And, as regard the status of the demarcation, the Nigeria-Niger is one of few African boundaries that have been satisfactorily demarcated.

How will you advise the Nigerian government in handling the matter?
We have already indicated that the way out of the mess that ECOWAS threat of military intervention in the democratic debacle in Niger is to cause the regional to back off the decision about military intervention and painstakingly stay with diplomacy, Track I blended Track II. Armed intervention under whatever guise should be taken out of ECOWAS agenda and in Niger.

Regarding the speculation of the situation in Niger degenerating into a civil war, my response is that the ECOWAS peace mission should include a component of experts in Conflict Anticipation and Pre-emptiveness.

Nigeria, like most member states of ECOWAS, is more than overstretched in the deployment of its armed forces in ever increasing internal security challenges; and it would be too early in President Tinubu’s fledging administration to get Nigeria involved in armed conflicts with, especially, such a strategic proximate neighbours as Niger.