Recently, soldiers and men of Niger’s Presidential Guards toppled the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Bazoum and declared the unit’s head the country’s new leader. This came on the heels of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the newly-elected ECOWAS president, reading the riot act to aspiring coup plotters in the subregion. In a swift reaction, ECOWAS convoked an extraordinary summit in Abuja in which its leaders condemned the coup and issued a week-long ultimatum to the perpetrators to return power to the legitimate democratic government or face a stiff pushback including the use of force to restore democracy to the Sahel nation.
This swift, bold step is without precedence in the annals of the regional body. ECOWAS is living up to its responsibilities at last.
In the past five to ten years the West African subregion has suffered a litany of coups that have tarnished it democratic credentials and turned a region that was once the bastion of democracy into a crepuscular graveyard of military adventurism in the iron grip of military juntas. From Mali to Burkina Faso to Guinea, democratic governments have been toppled to the ground like a sand castle on a windy beach. This development does not only present a threat to West African democracy, it puts its security at great peril as well.
Although sections of the Nigerien population are in support of the coup and had spilled into the streets in celebration of it, this is not a surprise because coup plotters in Africa appeal to public sentiment and their nation’s prevailing mood to garner support for their illegal deeds. This is their usual gimmick. When they take over power unconstitutionally, they proceed to announce all sorts of policies that would deceive the public into accepting them. Being fully aware of the illegitimacy of coming into power through the barrel of the gun, the first thing they do is try and get local support by formulating policies that, on the surface, look good. I have observed this trend even from my childhood, from stories of the coups of those days especially of Uganda’s Idi Amin. When he ousted Milton Obote, the populace went out into the streets in jubilation. These same people soon realized that they had embraced a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Choosing between a democratic government and a military junta is a no-brainer. No matter how corrupt, inept, and irresponsible a democratic government is, it is infinitely better than the most benevolent military dictatorship. This retrogressive takeover of government by Niger’s military has taken the subregion back several years. Subregional democratic gain earned over many years has gone up in smoke within a few days. And it took us ages to get to where we were pre-Niger coup. This must be noted by all in West Africa—leaders and citizens: no matter the difficulties or challenges we face in a democracy, we shall come out of it someday. Military intervention, as far as I know, has not solved any nation’s problems. If anything, it only exacerbates them. In our yearning to arrive at national Elysium, we must not be too hasty, because democracy is a process not necessarily a destination. And we shall get there eventually.
We must bear in mind that the West, from which we copy our democracy, did not arrive at where they are in a blink. Their history has told us that they have had innumerable hurdles to cross in their democratic journey over the centuries. They have had their fair share of political and economic upheavals. Prudence requires that we study their difficult paths and strive to avoid them as we embark on our own journey. What is the use of learning from others’ experiences if not to spare ourselves from falling into the snares, mires, and quicksand that often strewn the road to democratic maturity?
The Niger coup has received universal condemnation. It has been condemned by nations, regional and subregion bodies, and well-meaning individuals including myself. Having served as a West African Student Union (WASU) President and being in the forefront of advocating for the deepening of democracy and good governance in Africa for almost two decades, I am of the view that Africa must not tolerate coups in whatever guise.
While we condemn the Niger coup in unequivocal terms, our leaders should also know that they must fold their sleeves up, buckle their belts, and sit up. They must put on their thinking caps, dig deep, and formulate country-specific economic policies that will boost their economy, raise their people’s standard of living, and eliminate the hardship they currently wallow in. Their people, including members of their armed forces, should note that the hardship beleaguering their countries is a global challenge caused by the worldwide economic downturn occasioned by several things starting from the dreaded coronavirus, the disruptive Ukraine-Russia War, and other cogent global economic factors. The hardship these factors wrought is biting hard all over the world; it should, therefore, not be used as an excuse to oust a democratically elected government. Nor is insecurity (the purported reason behind Niger’s coup) a strong enough reason to justify the same.
In the interim, governments of West African states should devise actionable measures that will mitigate these challenges to make life bearable for their citizens, particularly the poorest of the poor.
ECOWAS’s response to the Niger coup is highly commendable. With it in place, would-be coup perpetrators have been served a stern notice that there is no safe haven for them anymore. Gone are the days when they would oust democratic governments and be celebrated. It is no longer business as usual.
Under Tinubu’s firm leadership, ECOWAS has taken a bold step, a major political statement, that will serve as a deterrent to coup plotters in the subregion. It will tell them there is no room for them. They will not be tolerated or accommodated any further.
Armed forces in the subregion must remember their constitutional role and be true to it. They exist only to secure their nation and to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beyond that, is plunging into unconstitutionality and the realm of treason and sedition. What they can do to contribute to the development of a peaceful, prosperous nation outside of their constitutional role is diligent, uninterested service during the electioneering process. When deployed in such assignments (although most people frown at that) they should be nonpartisan and do their best to secure voters to enable them to vote for the leaders of their choice. That done, society will be a much better place.
If members of the armed forces of West African nations yearn for the betterment of their nations, they should start playing positive roles during elections. By so doing, they would help install good leaders who will rule well thereby denying soldiers the excuse of capitalizing on bad governance, collapsed economy, or insecurity to take over power in their countries.
_Comrade Daniel Onjeh, the APC 2023 Senatorial Candidate for Benue South, writes in from Abuja_