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With ECOWAS, not all Dictators are Equal



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By Lasisi Olagunju
The Jerusalem Post is arguably Israel’s most-read English news website and best-selling English newspaper. Last Wednesday, it published an interesting report of what it described as a “nature drama” involving a large black snake in the town of Shoham, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The huge snake was “found motionless with an equally motionless porcupine stuck in its mouth.” Apparently, the reptile had killed itself trying to swallow the porcupine. A reptile ecologist who visited the site and reviewed the spectacle told the newspaper: “The snake tried to devour the porcupine and as soon as it decided to abandon its unusual meal, it realized the magnitude of its mistake. The one-way direction of the porcupine’s quills did not allow the snake to spit out the porcupine and in the end both the porcupine and the snake met their deaths in the tragic encounter.”
I read that report more than three times and looked at the Niger Republic debacle and the Tchiani porcupine that is stuck in the throat of ECOWAS. I wondered how the drama may end. There is a lesson for all strongmen out there in the Jerusalem Post story. This is especially so when you realise that snakes feed on small mammals like porcupines, and porcupines also feed on reptiles, including snakes. The two predators in that story died in the jaws of their meals. In whatever way the Niger Republic trouble is resolved, there will be no winner.
Coup anywhere is detestable. But as Brutus says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” When a great system suffers abuse at the hands of its operators, it invites the attention of Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” and the “unkindest cut” of its guards. We saw it with Nigeria’s First Republic and the consequences of abuse of power. Without January 15, 1966, there probably would not have been July 29, 1966 and all the subsequent topsy-turvy that drifted the ship to this shore of sharks. At the core of Nigeria’s problem is the inoperable structure imposed on it by the coups of 1966. Without the coups, their causes, and the subsequent serial bad incidents of the 1960s, Nigeria’s journey may probably have been better today. That is why we won’t stop saying that democracy is the best form of government; we should protect it jealously from the ravages of ambition.
ECOWAS and its western allies are insisting on restoring constitutional order in Niger. Good. We support democracy, complete with its law-and-order content. But there is a problem where cow thieves sit in judgement over fowl rustlers. President Bola Tinubu’s ‘pro-democratic’ ECOWAS procession contains persons who radiate negative democratic vibes. It includes one man called Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast since 2010. Ouattara was very loud and ‘patriotic’ at last week’s ECOWAS summit in Abuja. He declared the coup in Niger as terrorism, stricto sensu. But democratic Ouattara has a history of endorsing coups and high-fiving rebellious soldiers when the rape was for his political palate. On 24 December, 1999, when the military ousted his arch rival, President Henri Bédié, Quattara hailed Bédié’s sack. He described what the soldiers did as “not a coup d’état (but) a revolution supported by all the Ivorian people.” The man apparently had forgotten uttering those words when he was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the ECOWAS summit last Thursday in Abuja. Ouattara said he considered the Niger coup and the detention of Mohamed Bazoum by the junta “a terrorist act.” He said the coup must fail and the coupists must fall. He added: “We want democracy in our sub-region. We do not accept, we will not accept coups d’etat. These putschists must go. If they don’t let Bazoum out to be able to exercise his mandate, I think we should move ahead and get them out.” Quattara is ready to send 850 soldiers – children of his rural and urban poor – to fight his war in Niger. And who will deploy the poor soldiers? They will be sent to the war front by the president’s brother, Téné Birahima Ouattara; he is the Minister of Defence.
Another of ECOWAS’s democrats is Faure Eyadema, president of Togo. He has been president of his country since 2005 – with the help of the military. Count the years. Before him, there was his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who became president of Togo in 1967 following a military coup. But the Eyadema family coup story did not start in 1967; it started with the 12-13 January, 1963 coup that claimed Togo’s first democratically elected president, Sylvanus Olympio. He was killed outside the American embassy. How did it happen? Olympio’s presidential residence was guarded by two policemen when six murderous soldiers attacked it on the night of January 12, 1963. The president jumped the fence and escaped into the premises of the American embassy. The Africa Report of 4 November, 2021 has these paragraphs: “Two things are certain. First, that the attack on the Togolese president’s residence in Lomé began at 11pm; and second, that Olympio was assassinated the next morning, at 7:15am, in front of the gates of the US embassy, from which he had just been removed. Between these two events, eight long hours passed, in which phone calls were made and orders given…Who shot him? In the days that followed, Sergeant Eyadéma boasted to reporters from Le Figaro, Le Monde, Paris Match, and Time Magazine that he had shot the president with his own hands: ‘I shot him because he didn’t want to move.'” In 1992 (29 years later), reports said Eyadema tried to retract the statement but history has not stopped pointing at him as the regicide mastermind who, however, did not claim the throne until four years later.
Eyadema was in power for thirty eight years. He assumed power on 13 January, 1967; he was proclaimed president on 14 April, 1967; he was elected president on 30 December, 1979; he was re-elected president on 21 December, 1986; reelected again on 25 August, 1993; again on 21 June, 1998, and again on 1 June, 2003. He would have loved to celebrate the centenary of his coup in power but death yanked his lips off Togo’s gourd of palm wine on 5 February, 2005. Writing a postscript on him for the Le Monde Diplomatique, a researcher at the Centre d’études d’Afrique noire, Comi Toulabor, summed up Eyadema as one man who had been a personal friend of the then French president, Jacques Chirac, and “had remained in power for 38 years – thanks to a couple of coups, systematic electoral fraud, the faithful allegiance of an army packed with supporters and members of his Kabye ethnic group, solid foreign support (especially from France), and adroit management of access to Togo’s meagre economic resources.” How did Eyadema’s son become his successor? The military high command simply announced to the nation that they had suspended the constitution and appointed Faure Gnassingbe to fill the vacancy created by the death of his father. Significantly, when that happened, the African Union said no; ECOWAS roared as it is doing now. It held a summit, interestingly, in Niamey, Niger, and issued a statement that said: “The heads of state strongly condemn the military intervention which led to Faure Gnassingbe being installed as the successor to the deceased President…They agree that this constitutes a coup d’état and they condemn the subsequent manipulation of the constitution by parliament.” The younger Eyadema later ‘legitimised’ his inheritance with a controversial election three months later in April 2005. He was reelected in 2010; was reelected again in April 2015 and was reelected the fourth time in February 2020. He will be reelected and reelected till he dies on the throne like his father. That is the teacher from ECOWAS teaching democratic nonsense to Niger.
You cannot violate good faith with respect to the subject of democracy at home and be respected abroad as a campaigner for freedom of choice. ECOWAS’ pro-democracy campaigns won’t resonate with the people as long as its motives are suspect and persons without democratic credentials push its agenda. The company being kept in Africa by western powers continues to suggest that autocracy is not abhorred in all cases and not all coups are objectionable. Or why is the democratic world very comfortable with Quattara and Eyadema and other gods with feet of clay? Scholars Christian von Soest and Michael Wahman in 2015 published an article with a provocative title: ‘Not all dictators are equal: Coups, fraudulent elections, and the selective targeting of democratic sanctions.’ I think the piece, its arguments and conclusions fit the current Niger Republic narrative, the global reaction to the fall of Mohamed Bazoum and the rise of his nemesis, Abdoulrahmane Tchiani. Soest and Wahman’s observation is that “since the end of the Cold War, western powers have frequently used sanctions to fight declining levels of democracy and human rights violations abroad.” They observe further that it is interesting and puzzling that “some of the world’s most repressive autocracies have never been subjected to sanctions while other more competitive authoritarian regimes have been exposed to repeated sanction episodes.” They conclude that because of the political and economic costs of their decisions, western sanction senders pretend not to see “stable authoritarian regimes…(while) they sanction poor targets less integrated in the global economy and countries that do not align with (their) international political agenda.” Why, for instance, do western powers have Paul Biya of Cameroon as a good friend and ally? The 90-year-old man has been in power for 41 years and is the world’s oldest head of state.
Why is the Nigerian hawk comfortable with a very bad neighbour like Cameroun but is doing ‘pakurumo’ to Niger Republic’s chicken which has simply come home to roost? Cameroun is a real case of bad being very good to definers of political values. That is a country where democracy is on indefinite holidays, where human rights violations at the hands of government and its forces are routine; where the people’s right to freedom of choice is safe-kept in the strongroom of their life president, Paul Biya. In March 2020, a Cameroonian citizen confronted President Emmanuel Macron of France publicly in Paris on the human rights situation in Cameroon. Macron responded that he would “exert maximum pressure on President Paul Biya to put an end to this situation.” Emmanuel Macron waited two years before visiting Cameroon and when he did, what did he do? According to Human Rights Watch, on July 25 and 26, 2022, Macron was in Cameroon and met with President Biya but “the visit focused on strengthening political and economic ties between Paris and Yaoundé. Macron did not publicly express concerns on the human rights situation in the country.” Why are France and its allies comfortable with sit-tight, senescent Biya? Why have they refused to see the repression in Cameroon as a blight on the conscience of the democratic world but would not mind starting a world war because of a coup in Niger? And, they are determined to do so using the paws of our cat to pick their very hot chestnuts. Already, the sanctions Nigeria thought it fired to punish Niger’s renegade soldiers are ricocheting, hurting Nigerians. Must our fly follow the corpse of Niger Republic and its jilted patrons into the grave?
The Akan of Ghana have a proverb: “One should never rub bottoms with a porcupine.” What would happen if one did? I think we should ask ECOWAS with the hurting quills stuck in its butt. We should be clear about what we want in Africa. Do we want democracy because it best serves our people or do we want it because it is what our western husbands say we should have? Why is negotiated transition back to democracy the choice for other troubled places and war the preferred choice for Niger? Why is Russia, with all its atrocities in Ukraine, the new allure of French West Africans? Why are some bad good and some bad very bad?
This article was originally published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 14 August, 2023.

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The Death of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi




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By Patrick Wintour

The death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash comes at a time when the country, faced by unprecedented external challenges, was already bracing itself for a change in regime with the expected demise in the next few years of its 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the country’s hydra-headed leadership where power is spread in often opaque ways between clerics, politicians and army, it is the supreme leader, and not the president, that is ultimately decisive. Indeed, in some ways the posts of president, and prime minister – originally based on a model of the French constitution – became overwhelmed in the drafting of Iran’s constitution in 1979, leading to advocates of a more powerful presidency to claim the role was being subsumed in a form of autocracy created in the name of religion.

The presidency, however loyal to the supreme leader – and Raisi was considered very loyal to Khamenei – is often cast in the role as a useful scapegoat helping the supreme leader to avoid criticism. That certainly became the fate of Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who became a punchbag for decisions taken elsewhere. In recent months Raisi, elected president in 2021 but in practice handpicked by the supreme leader, had been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. His death instead clears a thorny path for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

The choice is made by an 88-strong “assembly of experts”, and Raisi’s departure certainly increases the chances of a hereditary succession in Iran, something many clerics oppose as alien to Iran’s revolutionary principles. Raisi’s death will add to the sense of a country already in political transition. A new hardline parliament was only just elected on 1 March in which turnout for some of the elections fell below 10%, and was overall presented as reaching a nationwide turnout of only 41% – a record low.

Reformist or moderate politicians were either disqualified or soundly beaten, leaving a new and, as yet, untested division in parliament between traditional hardliners and an ultra-conservative group known as Paydari or the Steadfastness Front. The effective exclusion of reformists from political participation in parliament for the first time since 1979 adds to the sense of a country in uncharted waters.

The cumulative disruption also comes at a time when Iran can ill afford such uncertainty as it faces western challenges over its nuclear programme, a dire economy and tense relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially with regard to relations with Israel and the US.

The loss of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign affairs minister, in the helicopter crash only adds to a sense of instability for a country that prided itself on control and predictability. His most likely successor is his deputy, Ali Bagheri, but hardliners may regard him as too willing to negotiate with the west over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Although Iran has not lost a president in office since the revolution in 1979, the country has a clear formal system for succession in which the first vice-president – currently Mohammad Mokhber – takes charge. Few regard Mokhber, a banker and former deputy governor of the Khuzestan province, as presidential material. A new president should be elected within 50 days, giving the supreme leader and his entourage relatively little time to select someone that will not only become president at such a critical time, but also will be in a strong position succeed Khamenei himself. The immediate challenge of any new leader will be to control not just internal dissent, but the factional demands within the country to take a tougher line with the west and draw closer to Russia and China.

With the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime unexpectedly finds itself faced with having to hold elections to appoint a successor. The choice for Tehran is whether to allow the vote to be semi-democratic and contested, or risk nothing by ensuring no candidate with any organisation or following stands against the hardliner likely to be chosen as the regime’s preferred candidate. It is not likely to be a long discussion.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

Such a decision comes with risks. Iran has a long and well-known history of filtering out potential political leaders from elections. All candidates have to be deemed qualified by an elite body known as the Guardian Council, and are interviewed to ensure their worthiness for high office.

In most cases, shunned candidates shrug their shoulders and walk away. Many do not even put their names forward, knowing they will be rejected. The less the process is challenged, the less its methods are scrutinised.

Over the last month, however, a public row about the process has developed between the former president Hassan Rouhani and the Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council which has gone to the heart of the arguments about the president’s role and legitimacy. The dispute stems from Rouhani, who was presidentfrom 2013-21, having been banned from standing this year for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body that selects the supreme leader.

Rouhani, already bruised by the way he was treated as president, had refused to acquiesce on the matter. Last week, he wrote a scathing open letter that he said was written not out of personal ambition, but in defence of the republic, and insisting he would not be silent in the face of his attempted sidelining.

He revealed in correspondence with the Guardian Council that he had failed the qualification test on the grounds of insulting the judiciary and the council, lacking political vision and lacking commitment to the constitution – accusations he insisted were an attempt to usurp the authority of the president. He argued that if the Guardian Council could disqualify from future public office leaders with whom they had political, not religious, differences, the president is no longer answerable to the people, but to an unelected body.

Recalling the number of times he had been elected with the support of millions of votes, Rouhani asked: “Do the jurists of the Guardian Council with the least political, security and diplomatic experience have the expertise to disqualify candidates because of what they call political knowledge and insight? You who accuse the candidates of not knowing the people, how many times and in which competitive elections have you exposed yourself to the people’s vote?”

In the withering assessment of his treatment, he said he had been found guilty on the basis of evidence compiled by “agents whose files are a mixture of factional analysis and intercepted and mostly illegal wiretapping, and whose reports turn into vague and general letters with obvious purpose”.

He further warned: “Future presidents (if such an office and institution remains) should know that with this indictment, even they no longer have political freedom and will be unable to perform their legal duties, and instead of the constitution, they should be subject to the Guardian Council, Otherwise, do not doubt that the position of president at the end of the term of office (or even halfway) will be the ceiling and the last responsibility for which they are qualified.”

Referring to specific criticisms of his time in office, Rouhani defended his role in negotiating the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the US under the Obama administration. Referring to Donald Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from the deal in 2018, he said: “My government is proud that it was not only a government of negotiations, but also became a government of resistance when Trump’s unconventional government appeared in the United States.” The agreement had been endorsed by the supreme leader.

Equally, he said, a president had a right to speak about the judiciary’s flaws. And crucially, he argued, criticising others, as he did as president, was not unIslamic. “Freedom of speech is a right, although someone may use this right to say something wrong,” he wrote.

The cumulative effect of the Guardian Council’s actions, he said, would be to reduce voter participation.

Rouhani’s criticisms, written at a time when Iran was not expecting elections, will resonate with many, but the chances of his warnings being heeded and the supreme leader allowing an open field seem slim.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

The perennial challenge to Iran remains relations with Israel, which reached a new pitch of danger in April when the two countries exchanged fire, sparked by an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, and more broadly by Iran’s support for proxy groups willing to fight Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

But any new president will have to make big decisions over Iran’s nuclear programme. On 9 May, Kamal Kharrazi, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor and former Iranian foreign minister, said Iran would consider a doctrinal shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacked what Iran said were civilian nuclear sites.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate the IAEA, warned Iran to end the loose talk about developing a nuclear weapon, saying it was disturbing. Opponents of the regime, still powerful through civil resistance, will not mourn Raisi’s death due to his role in repressing the “woman, life, freedom” protests.

Older Iranians revile Raisi for his role as deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1988 when, at the age of 28, he played a prominent role in a movement that killed as many as 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation in Iran (MEK).

In 2019 he was chosen as head of the judiciary by Khamenei, a role he used to increase state hostage-taking and continue domestic repression through revolutionary courts.

Patrick Wintour is the Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian

Courtesy: The Guardian, London

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Dies in Helicopter Crash




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The hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has died in a helicopter crash in foggy weather in the mountains near the border with Azerbaijan. The charred wreckage of the aircraft, which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, as well as the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six other passengers and crew, was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

Fears had been growing for Raisi, a 63-year-old ultraconservative, after contact was lost with the helicopter on Sunday as it navigated fog-covered mountains in north-west Iran.

The helicopter carrying Ebrahim Raisi takes off near the border with Azerbaijan on Sunday. Photograph: Ali Hamed Haghdoust/AP

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme – said the country’s first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as interim president. The deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was appointed as acting foreign minister.

“I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei said. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei. Under Iran’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Iranian state media blamed bad weather for the crash and said it was complicating rescue efforts. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, Tasnim news agency reported.

The incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan, about 375 miles (600km) north-west of the Iranian capital, Tehran. The president had been travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The state-run IRNA news agency broadcast footage of an Iranian Red Crescent team walking up a slope in thick fog, as well as live footage of crowds of worshippers reciting prayers in the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, Raisi’s home town.

Rescue team members work at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Raisi in Varzaghan, in north-west Iran Photograph: Azin Haghighi/MOJ News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

More than 70 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, the Red Crescent said, and the chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guards to be deployed.

Iran owns a number of helicopters but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Most of its military air fleet predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Countries in the region sent their well-wishes and offers of support, including Iraq and Qatar, but also Saudi Arabia, which has long been a regional foe. The Saudi foreign ministry was following reports about the crash with “great concern”, the country’s state news agency reported.

The US president, Joe Biden, had been briefed on the crash, an American official said on condition of anonymity.NThe Turkish president said he was saddened to hear of the crash. “I convey my best wishes to our neighbour, friend and brother Iranian people and government, and I hope to receive good news from Mr Raisi and his delegation as soon as possible,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a post on the social media platform X.

The Iran-backed militant group Hamas, fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support, issued a statement expressing sympathy to the Iranian people for “this immense loss”. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Houthi rebels in Yemen also issued statements praising Raisi and mourning his death.

Raisi was a hardliner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He was viewed as a protege of Khamenei, and some analysts had suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader.

He won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, for which the turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi was under sanctions by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampered international inspections. Iran has supplied arms to Russia in its war on Ukraine, and launched a substantial drone and missile attack on Israel. It continues to arm proxy groups in the Middle East, such as the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah.

Mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the death in 2022 of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained for allegedly not wearing a hijab to the liking of authorities.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 were detained.

Reuters contributed to this report

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Red Notice: Putin is Nearby




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By Dr Chidi Amuta

Putin is nearby. Precisely, Russia’s ambitious global influencer of illiberal  order has docked next door. In Niger Republic to be exact. At the end of April, the military junta in Niger kicked out the American military advisers and tiny troop contingent from their country. Earlier, they had forced the U.S drone and surveillance base in Agadez to shut down. As part of a halfhearted diplomatic move to repair military relations with Niger, an American delegation went to hold talks with the regime in Niamey.

Almost on the same day, officials of the junta were reportedly showing a Russian military advance party around what used to be the American military base. The intent was obvious. The Russians were in the process of being handed the keys of what used to be a US base or at least preparing the grounds for an active security relationship with Moscow. Though the janitors are yet to hand over the keys of the former US base to the Russians, the signals are clear.

Earlier on, the military junta in Niger had chased away the French ambassador to the country, thus ending centuries of French influence in the country. Of course, the military dictators were towing the same line as their colleagues in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. A rushed end to French presence and influence in these former French colonies has since become the central foreign policy doctrine of the new autocrats in what used to be Francophone West Africa.

Official Moscow is still predictably silent on its intentions. But what is clear is Moscow’s preparations to replace the West, specifically the United State and France as the strategic influence in Niger Republic and its environs. And with the exit of both French and American military presence in Niger, the door has been thrown wide open for their replacement by Russia. Of course Russia’s interest in Africa especially West and Central Africa has never been disguised in recent times.

Prior to the demise of the bullish Yevgeny Prigozyn and the decline of his Wagner mercenary force, Russian commercial and security presence in these parts of Africa had been quite pronounced but diplomatically muted. Now what began as an expeditionary mercenary commercial interest is about to graduate into a full blown strategic military and security presence and interest from Moscow.

The presence of US troops and the drone base coupled with the presence of a French protection force in West Africa remained  for a long time part of the international arrangement to keep jihadist terrorists from drifting towards the south of West Africa. Countries like Nigeria were prime beneficiaries of the US presence in Niger. It was more importantly part of an international strategic engagement to barricade the region from a rampaging Jihadist onslaught from the Sahel.

This logic of containment and protection remained the major plank of Western influence remained valid until the rapid reduction of French presence and influence in the region by new military regimes. It all began with Mali which had earlier evicted French diplomats from Bamako. This was followed by the withdrawal of French protection troops from Mali and subsequently the other major West African former French territories now under military dictatorship: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and possibly Chad.

There a historical context to Russia’s residual appeal in parts  of Africa. Instructively, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was gripped by anxiety. On March 2nd, the UN General Assembly voted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of the 54 African member states, 28 voted against Russia while 17 abstained and 8 refused to show up. Towards Russia or more precisely the old Soviet Union, some nostalgia among an ageing generation of elite.

Many of these older African elite recall the days of the Cold War and the old USSR’s identification with Africa’s causes especially anti colonialism and anti Apartheid. Ideological nostalgia towards the Red Empire is strongest in places like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa where political parties that pioneered the independence and anti racist struggles were backed by the old Soviet Union.

At the present time, Russian influence in Africa remains sporadic and uncoordinated but cannot be ignored as a significant part of the strategic future of the continent. In 2019, the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi was attended by 43 African countries. It was a forum for Mr. Putin to critique the West’s policies towards Africa.

Nonetheless, Russia’s trade with Africa is only 2% of Africa’s goods trade with the rest of the world. A Russian bank VEB now under Western sanctions is a shareholder in the African Development Bank. Even then, Russia’s economic and military interest and roles in some African fragile states remains considerable. Russia is the largest arms supplier to African countries, a net extractor of mineral and other resources and a prop for fragile even if unpopular regimes. But with all its noisy presence in world affairs, Russia remains an unlikely agent of economic benefit for African countries.

The Russian economy is about the size of that of Italy. So, Russia is not in a position to act as an attractive agent of development in Africa. Russia is still a relatively poor country. Its companies playing in the African economic theatre are most extractive industry interlopers and state sponsored thieving entities. Russian infrastructure companies are still not interested in contracts in African countries. African tourist and business travel interests in Russia is next to zero. So, by and large any renewed Russian interest in parts of Africa will remain a matter of limited mutual convenience. Security assistance in return for opportunities for Russian rogue companies to come in and make some quick cash while the Russian state increases its foothold  and authoritarian leverage against the Western liberal order.

For Nigeria, the implications of the exit of two major Western powers from our immediate northern frontier are many and far reaching. Nigeria’s exposure in this regard are threefold. First, the security safe corridor  against jihadist terrorist expansion from the Sahel is instantly closed. Without American drones, intelligence and French troops on the ground, Nigeria is exposed. Our national security is further compromised. The jihadists are now free to roam free from centres in Niger into the troubled northern parts of Nigeria.

Secondly, the military presence of Russia in Niger and other parts of what used to be French West Africa immediately signals a decline of Western influence in the region and its replacement with an antithetical Russian influence. Russian security presence and strategic influence in an area now under military dictatorship effectively means the shrinking of the frontiers of freedom and democratic rule and its replacement with an authoritarian influence. Russian is not known to be a patron of democracy and freedom anywhere in the world. It cannot possibly export what it does not have at home.

Hidden under the above two meanings is a clear and present threat to Western influence in West Africa. The timing of this development in world history is fortuitous. We are in an era where the Cold War has been replaced by an increasing hemispheric war of nerves and rhetoric between Western democracies as we have come to know them and a rising authoritarian counter force. The counter force is being guaranteed by the growing influence and fortunes of China.  Russia, North Korea, Iran and other client states of the same ilk are taking shelter under China’s bloated bank accounts to keep the West uncomfortable.

Nigeria’s political response to the developments in Niger have shown little of an enlightened national self interest. At the time the coupists toppled Niger’s democratic government, Nigeria was in a position to prevent the coup and its nasty consequences. Former president Buhari had a close personal relationship with the democratic leadership in Niger.

Even after Buhari’s tenure, his successor Mr. Tinubu woefully failed to use his position as the new Chairman of ECOWAS to neutralize the coup in Niger. Nigeria was in an eminent position to use its economic and military preponderance in the region to stifle the Niger coupists. We failed.

A few tepid diplomatic threats and fickle sanctions failed to deter the dictatorship in Niamey. The junta got stronger, compared notes with those in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. They got stronger together and became a threat to ECOWAS from which they threatened a pullout. ECOWAS solidarity was broken. The bloc buckled. Its military weakness was on open display as they could neither effect an ultimatum to use force if necessary. Individual member nations reached out to the Niger and other dictators and made individual deals.

Nigeria’s resolve was broken. We shamefully restored electricity supply to Niger, lifted our limited and effete sanctions. And now the Niger junta has dug in and has admitted a potential destabilizing force into our immediate northern frontier. By creating room for the exit of the West from Niger and the tacit admission of Russian influence into the region, Nigeria has shot itself in the foot.

There is something more frightening in our political response to this development. The possibility that the United States and France could decide to pitch tent in Nigeria by negotiating military basing footholds here is far fetched. But even then, it is being opposed vehemently by some politicians instead of being welcomed enthusiastically.

In Nigerian political circles, the debate has been as to whether Nigeria should allow France and the United States to establish military bases in its territory. As is typical in our lazy politics of sectarianism, regionalism and divisiveness, the most eloquent voices of opposition to possible Western military bases in Nigeria have come from northern political voices. This is not only sad but also not backed by any iota of strategic insight and knowledge of basic national interests.

Ironically, the North is the region immediately exposed to the consequences of the withdrawal of Western forces from Niger. It has become the epicenter of national insecurity and instability of the kind associated with increasing jihadist activities. It is the home base of banditry. It is a free market for the spread of small and medium arms from the theatres of trouble in the Sahel, Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is the area where schools are being sacked and farming disrupted. It is the source of herdsmen turned into killers, armed robbers and kidnappers.

More pointedly, there is nothing that says that should Nigeria consider it strategically wise, Western military bases in the country must be located in any particular zone of the country. Such bases can be located anywhere in the country. And they often have collateral economic benefits to the host communities as in places like Djibouti, South Korea and Germany where US military bases are part of the local economic life.

In the world of modern technology, possible Western military bases can be located anywhere in the country. Advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance systems now allow major world powers to gather intelligence, order operations and manage military outcomes from virtually anywhere. The drones that decimated Al Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan emanated from drone command bases in the deserts of far away Nevada. Donald Trump ordered the drone assassination of Iran’s General Soliman at Baghdad airport from the comfort of the Oval Office in far away Washington.

The long term strategic and overall national interest of Nigeria are better served if we rise above petty regional narrow views of the developments unfolding in our Northern frontier. First, we need to protect the nation from the spread of jihadist insurgency and terrorism. We need to remain enlisted in the international effort to defeat Jihadist terrorism decisively. We need to protect freedom and democratic rule as a heritage after more than four decades of military dictatorship in our history. Consequentially, we need to act in concert with the rest of the free world to discourage Russia’s active promotion and tacit marketing of authoritarianism and anti democratic ideas around the world.

Incidentally, among the salesmen of authoritarianism in the world, Russia is handicapped. Unlike China, Russia is neither an agent of economic development nor a model of cultural inclusiveness and universalism. Few free and happy people want to make Moscow their preferred holiday or business travel destination.

Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.

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