It may seem strange why, after the strong ultimatum that the regional organization ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) issued to the military of Niger immediately after the July coup, the expected invasion of the country never took place. Although the ultimatum expired as late as August 6. In fact, instead of using air force, ground troops and artillery against the rebellious generals and colonels, the member countries of this organization limited themselves to strengthening their borders with Niger, stopped air traffic and took a few more largely symbolic steps. That is all.
In this regard, it should be recalled that ECOWAS is the largest regional organization on the African continent, founded in 1975. It consists of 15 States — Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. However, the membership of Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali has been suspended due to the seizure of power in these countries as a result of coups d’état.
Nigeria, one of the most populous countries in Africa (214 million people) and the most economically developed state in the region, is undoubtedly the recognized leader in this alliance, and it also has a powerful military force (about 80,000 people). By comparison, the forces of rebellious Niger last year numbered only 30,000.
But, according to the African and Western press, it was Nigeria that started to drop the idea of attacking Niger.
Why? There are many factors, but let us dwell on one important issue for modern Africa, which we often ignore, and consider it on the example of Nigeria.
Its population consists of representatives of more than 250 ethnic groups, each of which retains its own traditions, language and culture. However, the majority (about 70% of the population) are representatives of three peoples — Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. And these representatives are divided into Christians, Muslims and those who continue to adhere to traditional beliefs. Such a diverse composition of the population cannot but influence the political course of the country: both internal, as was the case with the reaction to the coup in neighboring Niger, and foreign policy depend on it.
But first, domestic political issues.
The presidential election held earlier this year was markedly polarized along ethnic and religious lines, with some calling for Yoruba candidates to be voted out, others for Igbo, and some for the Hausa. The latter were further divided into those who did not want to see Muslims in power and those who were not satisfied with Christians. Such disagreements, by the way, may in the future lead to the split of the country into two parts — northern (Muslim) and southern (Christian). At the moment, the president of Nigeria is a representative of the Yoruba people, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Historically, one of the biggest problems in Nigerian politics has been tribalism and nepotism, which are deeply «embedded» in the political course of the country. Tribalism in Nigeria is expressed in the dislike of one tribe for another that they believe is socially «inferior». Therefore, such people do not encourage inter-tribal marriages, joint work, friendship and so on. With this in mind, note: Nigeria is not about division into regions, it is about division into tribal sectors.
In Nigeria, tribalism is a springboard for ethnic conflicts. This is because it is politicized: historical tribal feuds periodically escalate into full-scale bloodbaths fomented by political leaders who assert total control over the country. Once in power, tribal adherents appoint their own, often unqualified tribesmen to high-ranking positions, which entails not only losing policies (both internal and external), but also inflames tribal strife even more.
In addition, the media also has a tribal coloration, for many of them serve as a weapon of soft power and a service of disinformation: they spread gossip that one political party was targeting a certain tribe (group) while another faction belonged to a different political party. That is, the media are «on the front lines» of this ethical problem.
Political elites know: by playing the tribal card, they can resolve crucial issues in their favor.
Social surveys show that many people in Nigeria have been discriminated against because of their tribe. Or, for example, most police officers are from the tribe to which the president of the country belongs. Everything is done so that in case of unrest on «tribal grounds» the national leader has protection.
Of course, Nigeria is not the only country with such ethnic diversity. Ethnicity played an important role in political life in Rwanda and Burundi (confrontation between Hutu and Tutsi). Hutu and Tutsi were literally pitted against each other by political leaders to maintain their power. And this resulted in many human casualties.
Tribal affiliation plays too much of a role in elections. For example, in the last elections in Nigeria, there were many cases of ethnic intimidation of voters. In addition, the Igbo, Nigeria’s third largest people, have never led the country since the democratic transition in 1999, thus increasing discontent. This is despite the fact that Nigeria has an informal arrangement to rotate the presidency between the Muslim north and the Christian south.
The local corrupt media also added fuel to the fire by tarnishing the reputation of Peter Obi, the Labor Party (Christian, Igbo) candidate who won more votes than Tinubu in the first round. Obi was accused of destroying Muslim communities while he was governor. This is just one example and there are hundreds of such cases.
Now, back to the relationship between Nigeria and Niger. The two countries have a long history of cooperation. But the July coup in Niger disrupted all that. Although Nigeria and Niger need to maintain close ties.
Firstly, the two countries share the widespread use of the Hausa language, as well as the religion, Islam. Together, this strengthens the ties between Niger and those in northern Nigeria. Secondly, the two countries fight transnational threats together. For Nigeria, Niger is a key ally in the fight against Boko Haram (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation) and other terrorist groups. The emergence of mistrust between the two countries would jeopardize joint work in the waters of the Lake Chad, with the potential for increased terrorist activity, which would also significantly worsen the economic situation of both countries.
It is important that the Nigerian people understand that. Thus, voices against the use of the ECOWAS armed forces are becoming louder and louder. Just recently, in one of Nigeria’s largest cities, Kano, Nigerians took to the streets with slogans: «Nigerians are our brothers, Nigerians are also our family. Niger is ours, we do not want war, war against Niger is an injustice and a conspiracy of Western forces».
In particular, such speeches were organized by Yoruba people who are in awe of their fellow Nigerians. Of course, this could not leave Nigerian President Tinubu indifferent as he also belongs to this people. Therefore, he dramatically changed his mind about the solution to the Niger crisis and publicly complained that he was forced to resolve the issue by force, while he wanted to propose a plan for a nine-month transitional government following the example of Nigeria’s democratic transition in 1999.
Solidarity between the Yoruba of Niger and the Yoruba of Nigeria, or the inter-tribal struggle between the same Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo within Nigeria, is a matter for only one country on the continent. The consequences of this could be different. If the authorities in Abuja manage to find a way to consolidate the various tribes under national rather than tribal (Nigerian first and then Hausa/Yoruba/Igbo), guided by the interests of the country, all will be well.
But if the current situation cannot be corrected, at best, the country will face an ever-increasing tribal confrontation, i.e., long-term turmoil. In the worst case, it may end with its disintegration along religious (Islam, Christianity) or tribal lines. The signal is already there — the Igbo people are more and more sharply declaring the need for separation and the creation of their own state. So Abuja has a lot to think about…