Nigerians are hungry, they are talking food; their president is talking war./Lasisi Olagunju

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Niger’s war of blood and water

By Lasisi Olagunju

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 7 August, 2023)

One of the bitter lessons Bola Tinubu may have learnt in his abortive war against Niger Republic’s military junta is that with northern Nigeria, blood will always be thicker than water. In this matter, Niger Republic is blood; Nigeria, especially the part of it outside the Muslim north, is water. Northern Nigerians will not sacrifice their brothers and sisters in Niger for anything, not for a nebulous concept called ‘democracy’ and definitely not in defence of Western interests.

Last week, I looked at the geography of West Africa, its map and where Niger stands. I queried the rigour (or, even the wisdom) in ECOWAS slapping border closure on Niger when it should be clear to the leaders there that you cannot close a door you do not control: Benin Republic and Nigeria which are in Niger’s southern borders have frontier populations that would do anything to protect their brothers and sisters in Niger. Niger’s northern borders are shared with non-ECOWAS members, Libya and Algeria, who share very strong Muslim brotherhood ties with Niger. The other borders are with Burkina Faso in the southeast, with Mali in the west, and with Chad in the east – all under military rule, like Niger.

The last five days have been very testing for Nigeria. Tinubu last Thursday sent Sultan Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar (a retired Brigadier General) and General Abdulsalami Abubakar to Niamey to negotiate with the coup leaders. They came back empty-handed. That very day, northern Nigeria issued a carefully worded warning to Tinubu’s government to back off the course of attacking Niger. The north spoke through its umbrella group, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), which described a military action against Niger as “certainly not an adventure to be led by Nigeria.” The people on the other side, the north said, are “our brothers and sisters.” It reminded Tinubu that Nigeria and Niger “share a long historical border of more than one thousand five hundred kilometers with families and communities sharing common facilities including farmlands, markets, cultural bonds, and languages for many centuries predating the Trans Saharan Trade and colonial times.”

Gen Abdusalam’s peace effort was abortive

Still, the president did not appear to have read the North. On Friday morning, Tinubu sent a letter to the Senate asking for approval to carry out ECOWAS resolutions on the Niger crisis. Military intervention is one of those resolutions. On Friday night, northern senators released a statement urging their colleagues from other parts of the country to join them to reject that call for war. The Senate on Saturday afternoon voted against the war plans of ECOWAS. Its chair and our president, Tinubu, can now smile away from the odious shame of defeat.

Because of Niger Republic, the North was restive throughout Friday and for much of Saturday its volcano was humming. Northern Nigeria was saying that it wouldn’t have Nigeria fight Niger, a country with which it had been one family before the British created Nigeria. Uthman dan Fodio was born in Maratta in the Tahoua region, present-day Niger; he died in 1817 in Sokoto, present-day Nigeria. Read Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Nothing, not Nigeria, not democracy, neither coup nor pressure from any patron abroad would make northern Nigeria cut its family tie with Niger. What clever leader walks so headily into a trap as Tinubu has done? He is, however, lucky; he has a Senate of night soil men that has helped him to clear the mess. But why did he think he could pull off a military campaign against Niger by Nigerian forces? Who would have helped him pull the trigger and fire the tanks? Why did he write the Senate? Why did he not look carefully at the ethno-religious demography of the Senate before unleashing his war whim on that chamber? He should have weighed the options he had.

Talking about weighing options before actions are taken. Reports say our North was/is not just against military action against Niger; it is also against plunging the neighbouring country into darkness by the Nigerian government. Watching your brother’s back is what family means. We supply about 75 percent of Niger’s electricity. This was disconnected some days ago on the orders of Tinubu. How wise was that option?

Long after this coup flood would have dried off, its tributaries will continue to ravage Nigeria-Niger relations. How right (or righteous) was that act of disconnection of electricity from Niger? Or how legal or illegal was it? The use of international waters is governed by international law moderated by bilateral/multilateral treaties, agreements and Acts. For River Niger (post-colonial), there are about six of such, starting with the Act of Niamey of 1963, the Agreement of November 1964, the Niamey Agreement of 1973, the 1980 Convention, the Protocol of December 1982 and the Water Charter of 2008, among others. These laws lay out “general principles for equitable and reasonable participation and use of the water of River Niger” and obligated parties “not to cause harm to other states” in accordance with the laws. A key agreement here was the decision not to have River Niger dammed by any of the upper-course states so as not to injure downstream Nigeria’s hydroelectric dams while Nigeria undertook to supply electricity to the upper riparian countries. Until last week, Nigeria kept to that agreement; but Niger Republic has long violated the pact. Our neighbour is building an ambitious dam,
Kandadji Dam, with a height of 280m, a length of 8,780m and a reservoir covering an area of 282 hectares. The dam, 489km away from Nigeria, should be ready by 2024 – next year- or 2025, but the injury envisaged in 1963 is already taking its toll.

The Niger Basin Authority manages River Niger for all its riparian states. Its National Focal Structure (NBA-NFS) meeting of 14 July, 2017 discussed what it described as “the dwindling flow of the River Niger, the development of Kandadji Dam project upstream of River Niger and other related issues.” Whatever that meeting decided did not stop Niger from going ahead with the project. In September 2021, the now deposed President Bazoum visited the construction site, he sounded upbeat and said that “all the obstacles have been a few months you will see the project taking shape.” He explained that the dam was aimed at addressing dependence on Nigeria for electricity supply. Bazoum’s predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who started the project, was also quoted as explaining the dam’s objectives: “It is not only a question of producing electricity, but also of regenerating the river’s ecosystem, while creating the conditions for local development.” What has happened to the treaties and their implications? Article 17 of the 1964 Agreement says “The Act of Niamey together with this Agreement may be denounced by any one of the riparian states after the expiration of a period of ten years from the date of its coming into force.” The Agreement goes further to prescribe the procedure for the denunciation. Did Niger Republic follow that process before starting the project in 2017? If it did, what did our government do? Because blood is thicker than water, Niger’s negative activities and their ‘injurious effects’ went on under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari without a word of protest from our leader. He, instead, feted Issoufou and his successor, Bazoum; they feted him so much also that he publicly announced that he would relocate to Niger if Nigeria became unliveable for him.

If northern Nigeria needs to throw the south of Nigeria into the Atlantic to save Niger Republic, it will. This should not rile us. A former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, once noted that “the Niger-Nigeria border is artificial.” He said “it was drawn in the colonial period by London and Paris…to check German expansion in West Africa rather than recognition of ethnicities or other indigenous factors.” Niger’s population is 25.25 million. The Hausa share of that figure is 13.07 million – more than half of the total. We have Fulani, Kanuri, Tuareg Arabs in our northern population; Niger has them too. So, the people along that axis share much more than geography; they see no border, what they see is family. An American political scientist, Williams Miles, about 18 years ago looked at what he called “local versus external perceptions of Niger-Nigeria boundary” and submitted that “for the border-line Hausa, identity is not zero-sum: feeling more and more Nigérien/Nigerian does not result in diminution of their ‘Hausa-ness'”(see Williams F. S. Miles, 2005: 297). Their ethnicity and religion are their country, not Nigeria, not Niger. In that corridor, you can’t define the concepts of citizenship and nationality and get them right. Each person there belongs, daily, to the country where dawn meets them. Miles (2005:307) says that in 1998, the Nigeria-Niger Border Commission identified eight ‘Nigerian’ villages in Nigerien territory and nine ‘Nigerien’ villages on Nigerian soil. He adds that there are tens of villages halved between the two countries and that there are “inhabitants with farmland straddling the boundary (who) had to choose one colonial side or the other. French subjects were not supposed to farm on ‘English’ territory, and vice versa. As a result of ‘intermarriage’ (e.g., a ‘French’ Hausa man marrying an ‘English’ Hausa woman) and ensuing inheritance
complexities, it has become quite possible for a son to claim his family and heritage in Niger, even if he himself grew up in Nigeria and is a citizen thereof.”

If Tinubu did not appreciate these facts before he started his Niger misadventure, he should now. His teacher is the torrent of negative vibes from northern Nigeria because of its twin brother- Niger Republic.

Can we leave Niger alone to decide what it wants? It is not the first (and won’t be the last) to suffer a military coup. My people say that it is with one’s mouth that one rejects what one does not want to eat. When Nigerians wanted democracy, we were in the trenches for almost two decades fighting for it. We’ve not heard a word of condemnation of the coup from inside Niger. Al’ára ní ara ò ro òun; why are we taking analgesic on behalf of neighbours who insist they feel no pain? Nigerians are hungry, they are talking food; their president is talking war. Should it be like that? Why the undue interest in Niger’s affairs by Nigeria and its ECOWAS? We can understand the superpowers and the unease around them that almost threatens a world war. There is something in Niger for them. Canadian news agency, Reuters, last Friday gave a further hint. It wrote that Niger Republic has strategic significance for the United States, for China, Europe and Russia given its uranium and oil riches and pivotal role in the war with Islamist rebels in the Sahel region. Niger has one of the largest uranium deposits in the world. It, in fact, accounts for about five percent of global uranium supplies. United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) statistics shows that France, with 56 operable nuclear reactors, has one of the largest nuclear power programmes in the world. Its nuclear reactors generated 361 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2021 – 68 percent of the country’s annual electricity generation. That feat is from Niger’s high-grade uranium. Niger gives electricity to rich France, but because Africa has leaders who sleep on their brains, uranium-rich Niger has no reactor – and cannot have a reactor; over 80 percent of Niger is in darkness and the country itself is one of the world’s poorest.

So, why is the world in turmoil because of a tiny, poverty-ridden country in backwater Africa? The drivers of global politics do not get serious to benefit others. In international relations and politics, national interest is an instrument of political action; it justifies anything and everything. And, because Africa’s husbands’ national interest must prevail at all times, sometimes without their footfalls being heard, they use, misuse and misgovern our leaders; they send them on slave errands. That is very manifest in the current Niger debacle. Tinubu and his brother West African presidents should reread 17th-century poet, Jean de La Fontaine’s tale of The Monkey and the Cat: “shrewd, wily monkey convinces unwitting (or downright stupid) Cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. Cat scoops chestnuts from the fire one by one, burning his paw as he does so; Monkey eagerly gobbles them up, leaving none for the Cat.” They should also read about Vladmir Lenin’s “useful idiots”, a ‘simple’ people routinely used cynically by their lords and masters to push a cause they know little or nothing about and is of no benefit to them.

What will Tinubu look like after this time out? Studies upon studies have shown that leaders who drag their nations into unnecessary war expose themselves to a condition that threatens their retention of political power. Luckily for our president, his puny Senate has saved his face for him with a soft landing. But let him stop acting Reagan without the depth of Ronald Reagan. As Emeritus Professor Toyin Falola said in a private group discussion yesterday, Tinubu’s friends should tell him to recalibrate: “His handling of the coup in Niger is terrible: he forgets the large Hausa population; he forgets the Yoruba-Sabarumo alliance in Niger which can cause genocide to his Yoruba people…he forgets refugees; he forgets the pipeline passing through Niger to Morocco; he even forgets the rams needed for Ileya. His friends should tell him to recalibrate. As Mr. Macaroni would ask: “Are you normal?” Is Tinubu normal? In my only public piece on him, Adán, I explained the danger he represents, using the bat as a metaphor: a shifting character that feeds on its environment, destroys it, and moves away.”

Because Tinubu is famed to be smart and wise, this final word should be enough counsel for him.

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