Akpabio’s Gaffe And The ECOWAS War Drum In Niger, By Kazeem Akintunde

Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, caught the attention of many Nigerians last week. On Wednesday, at the end of the plenary session, the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, oblivious he was still on live television, announced to his colleagues that the clerk of the National Assembly would send tokens to their various bank accounts to enable them enjoy their holiday. Aghast, few of his colleagues immediately approached him to call his attention to the gaffe and Akpabio had to withdraw his statement in an embarrassing attempt to switch ‘tokens’ to ‘prayers’. I and many others had a good laugh after watching the clip that quickly went viral.

Akpabio is a good man with a large heart. I met him while he was the Governor of Akwa Ibom state, and he came across as someone who is ready to go out of his way to make others comfortable. He called himself an uncommon governor, and his achievements while in that state endeared him to his people. Again, his loyalty to President Bola Tinubu and the huge votes he delivered to the All Progressive Congress, APC, during the presidential election, made his choice for Senate Presidency very easy for Tinubu to endorse. Now is the time for him to learn the ropes and adjust quickly to the nuances in the legislative arm of government.

Sending tokens to lawmakers is not new in Nigeria. It has been part of our political evolution and it is not likely to die soon. Akpabio’s sin was that he innocently broadcast the token issue to the whole world. Now, the said token which he later changed to prayers, according to most witches and wizards in Nigeria, is a hefty sum of N2m that has been sent to each of our Senators. The principal officers may get more. They have just worked for less than two months following the inauguration of members of the National Assembly on June 13. Their colleagues in the House of Representatives, we have been told, are now screaming blue murder as no such ‘token’ has been extended to them. Theirs may be on the way too. Our Senators have a ‘token’ that would enable them to enjoy their holiday but many Nigerians, who have no holiday in the first instance, and must work daily to survive due to hunger and deprivation, have nothing to fall back on. The largesse must have come from the screening and confirmation of Ministerial nominees sent to the lawmakers by President Bola Tinubu. It is good to be a politician in Nigeria.

Our Senators have millions to cushion the hardship of fuel price hikes and the unification of the dual exchange rate which has seen the Naira on a free fall in the last few weeks, yet, millions of Nigerians have been told to bear with the government. They could not afford to go on holiday as hunger is permanently keeping them company. I hope they will not turn hungry Nigerians into angry citizens. If the poor can’t sleep, it would be advisable for the rich to sleep with one eye open.

While the poor continue to wallow in their poverty, their sufferings are about to be taken a notch higher as Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, has directed its standby force to be on red alert for a possible military invasion of Niger. If there is an armed conflict between ECOWAS and Niger, many poor Nigerians will bear the brunt owing to the fact that there are seven northern states that share borders with the Niger Republic.

Niger has been in the news since July 26, when military adventurists arrested the democratically elected government of the country and proclaimed themselves rulers. But the ECOWAS, headed by Bola Ahmed Tinubu feels that coup d’etat is gradually becoming rampant in the West African sub-region and there was the need to put a check to it. The regional body few days after the coup gave the coupists seven days to restore the democratically elected government headed by President Mohamed Bazoum. However, the ultimatum has since expired but rather than returning to their barracks, the coupists are digging in. Already, they have appointed a civilian Prime Minister and have also announced a 21-member cabinet to take charge of the Nation.

For ECOWAS to direct its ‘standby force’ to be on the alert shows in clear terms that the regional block is serious about possible military intervention in Niger if diplomacy fails. In fairness, the block, in a series of shuttle diplomacy, has done a lot in a bid to prevent a bloody confrontation. But the khaki boys are not interested in returning to their barracks. However, many have also pointed out that ECOWAS started their intervention in Niger on the wrong premise by issuing threats to the junta. Again, the sanctions already imposed by ECOWAS are biting very hard in the country which has turned the majority of Nigeriens against the regional block. It is on record that the Nigerian embassy in Niger has been burnt while there is undisguised hatred for the Nigerian government in Niger. Our borders with Niger has been closed and electricity supply to that country has been cut. This has thrown over 70 per cent of Niger into blackout and the masses are angry. With the sanctions biting harder and a threat to intervene militarily, the Niger coup plotters have now threatened to kill Bazoum if ECOWAS troops set foot on Nigerien soil.

It is still hazy how the so-called ECOWAS standby force will be formed? Who will contribute the troops? Who is going to be in charge of the overall command of the troops? And how will funds would be provided for operational efficiency? Though the United States of America, France, and other European countries may come to the aid of ECOWAS when it comes to the nitty gritty of the confrontation, there is no way that Nigeria will also not provide both men and materials toward the prosecution of the war when diplomacy fails.

This is where President Tinubu may have issues back home as he seems not to be reading the body language of many Northerners correctly with respect to the ongoing debacle. Most average Northerners consider Niger Republic as their second home and it may be practically difficult to order our troops, many of whom are of Northern origin, to open fire on their kith and kin in Niger.

Former President Muhammadu Buhari provided context to this few weeks after exiting Aso Rock when he said that if Nigerians don’t allow him to enjoy his well-deserved rest, he would willingly relocate to the Niger Republic. There is a long history of cultural and social interactions between many of our people in the North and Niger Republic. Again, if Northerners are saying that they are not interested in war with Niger as it would negatively impact their overall well-being, I see no reason why Tinubu must drag the country into a proxy war.

In actual fact, his hold on power could be tested as Nigeria’s constitution clearly states that he must seek the approval of the legislature before he can commit a single Nigerian soldier into any armed conflict with a foreign country. Though he wrote the lawmakers about ECOWAS resolutions and was advised to seek diplomatic solutions to the Niger crisis, it would amount to an impeachable offence if he went ahead to deploy Nigerian troops to the ECOWAS standby force without approval from the National Assembly.

Going by the mood in the nation, I do not see the present lawmakers going against the wish of their people by granting Tinubu such power. Though he has said that diplomacy is still on the table, I do not see that achieving any results either. The Abdulsalami Abubakar-led peace mission to Niger Republic achieved little or no success and so was a similar peace mission sent by the African Union and the United Nations. It was only the private initiative embarked on by the former Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi that has so far succeeded, with his closed-door meeting with the coup leaders.

Now, the coupists are calling on ECOWAS leaders to lift the sanctions imposed on the country and for Nigeria to restore electricity to the country as a minimum condition for peace negotiation, it is doubtful if much would be achieved, as both parties are not ready to shift ground. Burkina Faso and Mali are two ECOWAS countries that have identified with fellow coup plotters in Niger and have vowed to line up behind Niger in case of a military confrontation. The Wanger group, a group of mercenaries who are ready for war once they are paid, as well as Russia, are waiting in the wings. The coup plotters are also making overtures to China and North Korea to come to their aid. A military confrontation with Niger may turn out to be a long-drawn battle among the developed world on the soil of Africa and in our backyard. I hoped that we are thinking of the social and economic implications of a long-drawn battle in West Africa.

This is where I do not envy Tinubu for the tough decision he will have to make in the next couple of days. ECOWAS’ desire to have Bazoum restored to power may be what it is – a wish – as I do not believe that he will eventually get back to power. What ECOWAS should ask for should be a quick return to democratic rule in the country.

Apart from that, some of the ECOWAS leaders who are calling for the restoration of democracy in Niger Republic are glorified dictators in their own country. They are simply afraid of their shadows. They believe military boys back home may be tempted to also kick their behinds out of power, hence their strident opposition to the coup in Niger. In the last three years, there has been seven coups in West Africa and what is fueling the increasing trend is bad governance.

The ongoing war drum being beaten by ECOWAS in Niger may end up as a misadventure. The only antidote to coups in Africa is for African leaders to prioritize the welfare of their people and respect their constitution. You cannot be a glorified dictator at home, turn your people into paupers and expect the military boys to sit pretty and take orders from you. I sincerely pray that both parties see reason in Niger so that there won’t be any bloodshed in West Africa.


See you next week.

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