The Jerusalem Post is arguably Israel’s most-read English news website and best-selling English newspaper. Last Wednesday, it published an interesting report of what it described as a “nature drama” involving a giant black snake in the town of Shoham, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The giant snake was “found motionless with an equally motionless porcupine stuck in its mouth.” Apparently, the reptile had killed itself trying to swallow the porcupine. A reptile ecologist who visited the site and reviewed the spectacle told the newspaper: “The snake tried to devour the porcupine, and as soon as it decided to abandon its unusual meal, it realized the magnitude of its mistake. The one-way direction of the porcupine’s quills did not allow the snake to spit out the porcupine, and in the end, both the porcupine and the snake met their deaths in the tragic encounter.”
I read that report more than three times and looked at the Niger Republic debacle and the Tchiani porcupine that is stuck in the throat of ECOWAS. I wondered how the drama might end. There is a lesson for all strongmen out there in the Jerusalem Post story. This is especially so when you realise that snakes feed on small mammals like porcupines, and porcupines also feed on reptiles, including snakes. The two predators in that story died in the jaws of their meals. In whatever way the Niger Republic trouble is resolved, there will be no winner.
Coup anywhere is detestable. But as Brutus says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” When a great system suffers abuse at the hands of its operators, it invites the attention of Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” and the “unkindest cut” of its guards. We saw it with Nigeria’s First Republic and the consequences of abuse of power. Without January 15, 1966, there probably would not have been July 29, 1966, and all the subsequent topsy-turvy that drifted the ship to this shore of sharks. At the core of Nigeria’s problem is the inoperable structure imposed on it by the coups of 1966. Without the coups, their causes, and the subsequent serial bad incidents of the 1960s, Nigeria’s journey may probably have been better today. That is why we won’t stop saying that democracy is the best form of government; we should protect it jealously from the ravages of ambition.
ECOWAS and its western allies are insisting on restoring constitutional order in Niger. Good. We support democracy, complete with its law-and-order content. But there is a problem where cow thieves sit in judgement over fowl rustlers. President Bola Tinubu’s ‘pro-democratic’ ECOWAS procession contains persons who radiate negative democratic vibes. It includes one man called Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast since 2010. Ouattara was very loud and ‘patriotic’ at last week’s ECOWAS summit in Abuja. He declared the coup in Niger as terrorism, stricto sensu. But democratic Ouattara has a history of endorsing coups and high-fiving rebellious soldiers when the rape was for his political palate. On 24 December, 1999, when the military ousted his arch rival, President Henri Bédié, Quattara hailed Bédié’s sack. He described what the soldiers did as “not a coup d’état (but) a revolution supported by all the Ivorian people.” The man apparently had forgotten uttering those words when he was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the ECOWAS summit last Thursday in Abuja. Ouattara said he considered the Niger coup and the detention of Mohamed Bazoum by the junta “a terrorist act.” He said the coup must fail and the coupists must fall. He added: “We want democracy in our sub-region. We do not accept, we will not accept coups d’etat. These putschists must go. If they don’t let Bazoum out to be able to exercise his mandate, I think we should move ahead and get them out.” Quattara is ready to send 850 soldiers – children of his rural and urban poor – to fight his war in Niger. And who will deploy the poor soldiers? They will be sent to the war front by the president’s brother, Téné Birahima Ouattara; he is the Minister of Defence.
Another of ECOWAS’s democrats is Faure Eyadema, president of Togo. He has been president of his country since 2005 – with the help of the military. Count the years. Before him, there was his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who became president of Togo in 1967 following a military coup. But the Eyadema family coup story did not start in 1967; it started with the 12-13 January, 1963 coup that claimed Togo’s first democratically elected president, Sylvanus Olympio. He was killed outside the American embassy. How did it happen? Olympio’s presidential residence was guarded by two policemen when six murderous soldiers attacked it on the night of January 12, 1963. The president jumped the fence and escaped into the premises of the American embassy. The Africa Report of 4 November, 2021 has these paragraphs: “Two things are certain. First, that the attack on the Togolese president’s residence in Lomé began at 11pm; and second, that Olympio was assassinated the next morning, at 7:15am, in front of the gates of the US embassy, from which he had just been removed. Between these two events, eight long hours passed, in which phone calls were made and orders given…Who shot him? In the days that followed, Sergeant Eyadéma boasted to reporters from Le Figaro, Le Monde, Paris Match, and Time Magazine that he had shot the president with his own hands: ‘I shot him because he didn’t want to move.’” In 1992 (29 years later), reports said Eyadema tried to retract the statement but history has not stopped pointing at him as the regicide mastermind who, however, did not claim the throne until four years later.
Eyadema was in power for thirty eight years. He assumed power on 13 January, 1967; he was proclaimed president on 14 April, 1967; he was elected president on 30 December, 1979; he was re-elected president on 21 December, 1986; reelected again on 25 August, 1993; again on 21 June, 1998, and again on 1 June, 2003. He would have loved to celebrate the centenary of his coup in power but death yanked his lips off Togo’s gourd of palm wine on 5 February, 2005. Writing a postscript on him for the Le Monde Diplomatique, a researcher at the Centre d’études d’Afrique noire, Comi Toulabor, summed up Eyadema as one man who had been a personal friend of the then French president, Jacques Chirac, and “had remained in power for 38 years – thanks to a couple of coups, systematic electoral fraud, the faithful allegiance of an army packed with supporters and members of his Kabye ethnic group, solid foreign support (especially from France), and adroit management of access to Togo’s meagre economic resources.” How did Eyadema’s son become his successor? The military high command simply announced to the nation that they had suspended the constitution and appointed Faure Gnassingbe to fill the vacancy created by the death of his father. Significantly, when that happened, the African Union said no; ECOWAS roared as it is doing now. It held a summit, interestingly, in Niamey, Niger, and issued a statement that said: “The heads of state strongly condemn the military intervention which led to Faure Gnassingbe being installed as the successor to the deceased President…They agree that this constitutes a coup d’état and they condemn the subsequent manipulation of the constitution by parliament.” The younger Eyadema later ‘legitimised’ his inheritance with a controversial election three months later in April 2005. He was reelected in 2010; was reelected again in April 2015 and was reelected the fourth time in February 2020. He will be reelected and reelected till he dies on the throne like his father. That is the teacher from ECOWAS teaching democratic nonsense to Niger.
You cannot violate good faith with respect to the subject of democracy at home and be respected abroad as a campaigner for freedom of choice. ECOWAS’ pro-democracy campaigns won’t resonate with the people as long as its motives are suspect and persons without democratic credentials push its agenda. The company being kept in Africa by western powers continues to suggest that autocracy is not abhorred in all cases and not all coups are objectionable. Or why is the democratic world very comfortable with Quattara and Eyadema and other gods with feet of clay? Scholars Christian von Soest and Michael Wahman in 2015 published an article with a provocative title: ‘Not all dictators are equal: Coups, fraudulent elections, and the selective targeting of democratic sanctions.’ I think the piece, its arguments and conclusions fit the current Niger Republic narrative, the global reaction to the fall of Mohamed Bazoum and the rise of his nemesis, Abdoulrahmane Tchiani. Soest and Wahman’s observation is that “since the end of the Cold War, western powers have frequently used sanctions to fight declining levels of democracy and human rights violations abroad.” They observe further that it is interesting and puzzling that “some of the world’s most repressive autocracies have never been subjected to sanctions while other more competitive authoritarian regimes have been exposed to repeated sanction episodes.” They conclude that because of the political and economic costs of their decisions, western sanction senders pretend not to see “stable authoritarian regimes…(while) they sanction poor targets less integrated in the global economy and countries that do not align with (their) international political agenda.” Why, for instance, do western powers have Paul Biya of Cameroon as a good friend and ally? The 90-year-old man has been in power for 41 years and is the world’s oldest head of state.
Why is the Nigerian hawk comfortable with a very bad neighbour like Cameroun but is doing ‘pakurumo’ to Niger Republic’s chicken which has simply come home to roost? Cameroun is a real case of bad being very good to definers of political values. That is a country where democracy is on indefinite holidays, where human rights violations at the hands of government and its forces are routine; where the people’s right to freedom of choice is safe-kept in the strongroom of their life president, Paul Biya. In March 2020, a Cameroonian citizen confronted President Emmanuel Macron of France publicly in Paris on the human rights situation in Cameroon. Macron responded that he would “exert maximum pressure on President Paul Biya to put an end to this situation.” Emmanuel Macron waited two years before visiting Cameroon and when he did, what did he do? According to Human Rights Watch, on July 25 and 26, 2022, Macron was in Cameroon and met with President Biya but “the visit focused on strengthening political and economic ties between Paris and Yaoundé. Macron did not publicly express concerns on the human rights situation in the country.” Why are France and its allies comfortable with sit-tight, senescent Biya? Why have they refused to see the repression in Cameroon as a blight on the conscience of the democratic world but would not mind starting a world war because of a coup in Niger? And, they are determined to do so using the paws of our cat to pick their very hot chestnuts. Already, the sanctions Nigeria thought it fired to punish Niger’s renegade soldiers are ricocheting, hurting Nigerians. Must our fly follow the corpse of Niger Republic and its jilted patrons into the grave?
The Akan of Ghana have a proverb: “One should never rub bottoms with a porcupine.” What would happen if one did? I think we should ask ECOWAS with the hurting quills stuck in its butt. We should be clear about what we want in Africa. Do we want democracy because it best serves our people or do we want it because it is what our western husbands say we should have? Why is negotiated transition back to democracy the choice for other troubled places and war the preferred choice for Niger? Why are some bad good and some bad very bad?
This article was published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 14 August, 2023. Credit Lasisi Olagunju.