Expect More Bandits In Nigeria If … — Abdurrahman Ahmad
National Missioner, Ansar-ud-Deen Society, Abdurrahman Ahmad, led a delegation of Islamic scholars from Nigeria to meet the Niger junta leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, as part of the efforts to peacefully resolve the efforts to restore President Mohamed Bazoum who was toppled on July 26, 2023.
The Economic of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, had threatened to remove the junta by military force if diplomatic options failed. As part of the diplomatic options, Tinubu had raised a team of eminent Nigerians, led by a former Head of State, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, to meet and negotiate with the coup leaders in Niamey, but the coup leaders failed to meet with them even after they had arrived the country.
In an interview granted a television station last week, Ahmad spoke on his team’s trip to Niger and meeting with the junta leader and the findings.
According to him, the Niger coup leaders refused to meet the Abdulsalami team because they felt short-changed after Niger electricity was disconnected by Nigeria without listening to them. “He (Tchiani) said it was under the heat of the anger that they reacted the way they did and asked for forgiveness repeatedly”, Ahmad said.
He also warned that it is not in the best interest of Nigeria at this point in time to fight Niger because it is like declaring war on ourselves.
The Missioner added: “It will be an opportunity to strengthen insurgency, for bandits to have free reign and intensify their cross border attacks”. Excerpts of interview:
Some people believe that this should be a job for diplomats. Do you agree?
It is a very serious matter and Nigeria, in particular, cannot afford any war at this point in time. We are already fighting so many wars that include socio-economic and political. We cannot add direct military war to that. As religious leaders, we are closer to the people. Every day, we get calls of people who ask for financial assistance and can barely survive. We are not in a conventional war and this is happening, what will now happen if we get ourselves drafted into a war that may, at the end of the day, be a proxy war? So, we thought that beyond the pulpit, we should take up the challenge and we met the President to ask him for relief to intervene.
What were the issues at stake that informed the decision of clerics to undertake this intervention?
Nigeria has perhaps the longest border with Niger Republic. About seven northern states share border with Niger Republic. These are the same people who speak the same language, share the same culture and they have historical and cultural ties that date back to 100 years. It is not in the best interest of Nigeria at this point in time to fight Niger because it is like declaring war on ourselves. That is number one.
Two, northern borders are very porous and it is sometimes very difficult to patrol and monitor. It will be an opportunity to strengthen insurgency, for bandits to have free reign and intensify their cross border attacks.
Three, the President is not yet 100 days in office and we think that it is not going to be in the best interest of this administration to start a war that may be fought differently; so, as religious leaders and patriots, we thought that we should make this contribution to national cohesion.
It must have been a strange and novel undertaking. What were your findings?
For some of us, it wasn’t novel at all because we have also engaged in a similar shuttle for the Ivory Coast when there was this impasse after their election and there were two people claiming to be winners – Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. It was a very terrible situation. Albeit, that was different as it was an inter-faith delegation. We were together with Christians, particularly Christian bishops in Africa.
The only difference was that this delegation consisted of only Islamic scholars who were going to meet soldiers. In Côte d’Ivoire, we had encounters with soldiers too but they were friendly. I must confess that we weren’t sure what kind of reception we were going to get considering that there was an earlier delegation that was not well received.
This was a powerful delegation of a former Head of State, and we were just ordinary turban tying people.
Nevertheless, we thought it was a worthy risk. Incidentally, the experience was electrifying. We were pleasantly surprised because we arrived in Niamey to a rousing welcome. Very excellent reception by the new leadership in Niger (I am not in a position to call them junta) and the people. Surprisingly, we arrived to a red carpet welcome. The new Prime Minister was at the airport to welcome us and some of the new ministers. We were not expecting anything close to this. Eventually too, all of the Islamic religious leaders in Niger across the country were at the airport to welcome us. On our way to the presidential villa, you could see that people were excited and happy to see us. That was the only time we felt relieved.
When you say the new Prime Minister, are you referring to an official of the new military leadership?
That is why he is new.
What message or response did the new military leadership in Niger share with you in response to your negotiation efforts?
Primarily, we went to explore alternatives to war and we went to explore a diplomatic option, that was our mission and we had the approval of the President, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, President Bola Tinubu. He gave us the approval that if we could broker it, they would also be ready, adding that if the Nigeriens are ready, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, will be ready.
With that mandate, we went to Niamey to meet them and that was what we put on the table: The need to de-escalate tension and explore the diplomatic option. Of course, they were very receptive to it. Even though we didn’t ask for it, the first thing the new Head of State said was to tender an unreserved apology for the way they treated a former Head of State of Nigeria. We didn’t ask him to apologise, we didn’t even raise that.
He said it was a mistake, noting that they acted in that manner because they felt short-changed, they felt that they weren’t given fair hearing as their electricity was disconnected without listening to them. He said it was under the heat of the anger that they reacted the way they did and asked for forgiveness repeatedly. That surprised us because it was the opening.
Next, he said that his government was ready for negotiations and there were conditions. He also said they didn’t feel safe to travel anywhere outside Niger and they will welcome talks with ECOWAS. Third, he assured that they aren’t there to stay, that the most patriotic thing to do at the time was to seize power to save the people, their country and, intriguingly, even the sub-region.
Why we didn’t go into that was because we weren’t there to interview him. He said that an indication that they weren’t there to stay is that they have appointed a civilian prime minister who is popular in Niger and accepted by the people.
We asked for a rapid transition to civil rule and we wanted him to make a commitment, but he said they will come up with a timetable as soon as they are settled and he could not commit to a timeframe as of the time we were talking with them.
He said such a decision could not be taken unilaterally and he wanted ECOWAS to lift the sanctions, restore electricity because that was crippling business and affecting people’s livelihood. Generally, the atmosphere was cordial, it was very much relaxed and I must tell you that we were happy and hopeful.
Do you think that your efforts can prevail in the long-term?
It is gratifying to note that the President has graciously approved a continuation of this diplomatic effort, so it is not going to be one off.
After you left, we heard that they were ready for talks. However, much later, we heard that they were going to be prosecuting the ousted President who was held hostage for high treason. Did it come to you as double speak?
It came to us as diplomats. This is a time when everyone will be putting bargaining chips on the table. I think, as I understand it, that they want to be negotiating from a position of relative strength, not absolute weakness and the way I see them and the way we interacted with them, I believe that they cannot afford to renege on their promise or commitment. This is why the President also has graciously approved the continuing contact and I hope and pray that we are going to be able to also talk them.
I am not sure because I have not read any authentic report of the burning of the Nigerian embassy in Niamey because the Nigerian ambassador to Niger was also part of our delegation. He was there with us. In fact, he was waiting for us at the presidential palace. If Niger was hostile, in diplomacy, the first thing for them to do was to summon the Nigerian ambassador to Niger and ask the embassy to close or leave.
Part of the reports indicated that the military leader also said that they intervened because Nigeria was going to be affected. Did they tell you what they meant by that?
Something like that. You know it is not everything that we could discuss because it is an ongoing effort. Some of these things are meant for the President, it is not meant for the public at this point in time. Yes, there was an allusion to that and there were some elaborations. I think this is something that is not meant for public consumption at this point in time.
Is there a timeline to the conversation between ECOWAS and the Nigeriens?
I think it has already happened. It is happening because I understand that a delegation of ECOWAS will be in Niamey to jump start or kick start talks. I think it is going to be soon. It is very gratifying to note that ECOWAS has suspended further action on the military that was put on standby. It is indicative of some progress. We are hopeful that perhaps we are going to be reading more good news.
What did you glean from the Nigeriens?
This is Nigerien internal affair. Every country has its own peculiar politics. Nigeria, to the best of my knowledge, isn’t interested in which colonial power Nigeriens support. They have their own national interest defined, we have ours defined. They are a francophone country, and if they have a problem with France, that should not be a Nigerian problem. It is not within our mandate to interrogate whether they support Russia or France.
Do you mean that Nigeria shouldn’t be concerned about other world powers’ interests in Niger?
It should. Niger is our next door neighbour. What happens in Niger must interest Nigeria and will affect Nigeria. I am not a diplomat and I don’t speak the language, but I do know that Nigeria also has its own national interest well defined and Nigeria cannot afford a hostile neighbour like Niger and Nigeria cannot afford that a hostile foreign power will be established in Niger. Already, we know the role that France is playing in supporting the insurgency against Nigeria.