In this interview with BBC Hausa Service, a former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), reveals his discussions with the military junta in Niger Republic and President Mohamed Bazoum. He also highlights some factors fueling military interventions in democratic governance in Africa. Excerpts:
You were in Niger Republic last week. How did the meeting go and what was the outcome?
Yes, I and my team were in Niamey, the capital of Niger, last week on the authority of the Economic Community of West African States. We met with the junta that took democratic power a few weeks ago. We also met with the ousted President, Mohamed Bazoum, as well as other stakeholders in the country.
We had extensive discussions with the junta and we are happy that there were positivities in the discussion. But the ultimate goal is to see the way out of the democratic disruption in the country.
We spent over three hours in a discussion with the leader of the junta. That opportunity opened the window and hope of peaceful resolution to the quagmire in Niger. On our return, I visited President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the ECOWAS chairman to brief him on the outcome of our discussion with the junta.
In your discussion with the junta, what conditions did he provide for the peaceful resolution of the problem?
He said the coup has happened successfully and President Bazoum has been ousted. So, the issue of returning him to power won’t work.
He asked ECOWAS to focus on things that would better the lives of people of Niger and avoid the topic of returning Bazoum to power. He insisted that they can discuss every other thing freely, but that returning him to power should be avoided because it won’t work.
How did you receive the information from the junta that it might take three years to return the country to democracy?
It’s even better now that they are speaking unlike in the beginning when they never uttered a word or allowed opportunity for dialogue.
It means there’s hope for a peaceful resolution of the issue. However, the information on three years’ time for return to democracy was contained in the report of the meeting that we presented to President Tinubu.
It’s now his responsibility to discuss that and other contents in the report with his colleagues at their meeting of ECOWAS Heads of State. This, I believe, will form the basis of their further decisions on the matter.
Did they make any form of plea to the ECOWAS through your delegation?
Yes, they appealed that the closed borders be reopened so that food and drugs, as well as other essential commodities can enter the country, stressing that, even in war situations, food and drugs, and other essential items are always allowed to enter into the troubled country not to talk of Niger that is not in war situation.
They also requested that electricity be restored to the country by the Nigerian government to enable socio-economic activities to thrive.
In what state did you meet the ousted President Bazoum?
His condition has improved significantly compared to what we heard a few weeks ago when we visited Niger for the first time shortly after the coup.
But he pleaded that electricity be restored in his house because he has not been with electricity for a very long time, but the soldiers refused to attend to that need, insisting that they can only restore electricity to him if Nigeria reconnects their power source.
But in all, we were happy that we were allowed access to him and we had little interactions.
In front of the soldiers, he complained about the humiliation he has passed through over the period.
Are there any additional complaints that he made?
Yes, he complained about his son that came for holidays who was unluckily caught up in the drama, and was detained alongside him by the soldiers. He appealed to the soldiers to allow his son return to school so he can continue with his education while they deal with the issues. We took the request to the soldiers, but we didn’t get a positive response from them.
What about his state of health considering reports that he was denied access to his doctors and drugs?
That has changed. We learnt that his doctors have been allowed access to him, and they are providing him with the needed drugs as he requested. His feeding has also improved. He “feeds well” now and we could see that in him when we visited him.
ECOWAS has threatened military action against the coup plotters. Did you share that information with the junta?
Yes, we did. The military leader was concerned with such a decision of the ECOWAS, but he cautioned against any form of military action against the coup plotters as being reportedly championed by ECOWAS. However, I reminded him that he is a soldier and as a result, knows the implications of war. It often has a catastrophic effect on the socio-economic life of any country. So, we appealed to him to change his mind and allow the return of democracy in Niger.
What was his response?
He rejected that suggestion out rightly, making reference to earlier statements that discussions can be done in every other thing outside the topic of returning President Bazoum to power. He complained that the economic sanctions against Niger by ECOWAS are biting hard on the people, but appealed to the people to be patient, promising that things would get better soon.
Did you notice the effect of the sanctions on the country and its citizens?
Yes, very much. The country has, unarguably, been thrown into serious socio-economic challenge as a result of the several economic and political sanctions from ECOWAS and other countries of the West. They are lacking in food, drugs and money. There are less economic activities that could help the people.
Do you think it’s time for ECOWAS to bend backwards or lift the sanctions?
I will leave that decision to our ECOWAS leaders to make. I don’t have the power to say or do anything on that matter. However, we have made our suggestions to the ECOWAS and other relevant stakeholders on the best way to handle the matter.
But with the body language of ECOWAS, do you see military action coming soon?
I just pray and hope that we don’t get to the point of military action against coup plotters in Niger in order to restore democracy. That will be devastating and catastrophic. But since we have started discussions on several issues, and with their recent window of discussion, we are optimistic that we would make headway soon that would, expectedly, herald a peaceful return of democracy in Niger.
The first factor for increasing military intervention in democratic governance in West Africa has to do with the credibility of the electoral process and political leaders
Your first visit was unfruitful. It was even reported that you were denied access into the town. What really happened?
You know media practitioners often report news according to the understanding and interpretation of the subject matter. When we arrived Niger the first time, ECOWAS had already put sanctions on Niger and that had started biting hard on the people of Niger.
For whatever reason, our coming as ECOWAS delegation from Nigeria was made public, and people became aware of our coming. By then, the people were already angry with Nigeria and ECOWAS, and were unwilling to allow us into the country.
So, the person that came to the airport to welcome us respectfully informed us that our safety might not be guaranteed because people are already angry with ECOWAS and don’t want to see anyone from that body. He pleaded that we depart the country to avoid unnecessary embarrassment that might come from angry people of Niger.
He said the people are already aware that we are around; hence they blocked the road and also blocked the hotel that we were supposed to use in obvious registration of their anger against Nigeria and ECOWAS. The military officials thus suggested that we depart Niger and return on another date for our safety. That was what happened.
I can’t describe that as a disrespect or humiliation. Initially, we never believed the information until our Ambassador was assaulted. He was being stoned by the angry youths. It was the police that rescued him. It would have been something else ugly. But our second visit was successful.
This issue has brought serious acrimony between Niger and ECOWAS…
The relationship between Niger and ECOWAS has obviously broken down. There’s serious acrimony between the two, and it’s expected because of what happened and reactions that followed. But the people are angrier with Nigeria due to obvious misunderstanding.
But since they began to see and hear people from different parts of Nigeria speak in support of the country regarding the matter at hand, their anger against Nigeria is beginning to reduce. They now know it’s not a war between the people of Niger and Nigeria. I am happy that the understanding is beginning to improve.
These soldiers in Niger are consolidating power, appointing ministers and governors. Do you see any hope soon?
You may be right. But we are discussing the matter. We are optimistic that we would achieve the desired result.
West Africa has witnessed an increased coup. What could be responsible for this?
The first factor for increasing military intervention in democratic governance in West Africa has to do with the credibility of the electoral process and political leaders.
Political leaders take people for granted. Many political leaders have changed the constitutions and electoral laws of their country to extend their stay in office.
For instance, some leaders are voted to serve their people for a particular number of years only for them to amend the law at the end or towards the end of their tenure to extend their stay in office.
That’s one of the major factors responsible for the increased coup d’état in Africa. Another major factor is the leaders being forced on the people against their will. This is very bad. Also, the soldiers connive with politicians to successfully execute a coup for whatever benefit.
What are the solutions?
Politicians must know that there are rules and regulations guiding politics and electoral processes.
These laws were made to guide the process and give equal opportunities and justice to all. It may not be perfect; hence it’s a living document that could be subject to amendments. So, they should follow the rules and abide by them.
The second one is the issue of imposition of candidates on the people. Such actions will surely meet with resistance from the people. People should be allowed the freedom to choose who they want to lead them, and not impose leaders on them.
The electorate should also eschew monetary gratifications. The electorate must look out for someone that has the capacity to better the life of the majority and not for few gains.