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30 minutes with Dr Usman Bugaje

Dr Usman Bugaje is a political activist, locally and internationally and a one-time member of the House of Representatives where he chaired the Foreign Affairs…

Dr Usman Bugaje is a political activist, locally and internationally and a one-time member of the House of Representatives where he chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee. He featured on Trust TV’s 30 Minutes programme following his recent trip to neighbouring Niger Republic, which has been in the news after the coup that happened last year and with the junta still sitting tight after all the tough talks by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

 

You recently visited Niger Republic. Was it on your personal volition or you were encouraged by some interest to go and do some back-channel discussions?

It was my personal initiative. It was also because since the problem started in July 26, those of us who are activists and have been used to working together anytime there’s crisis, whether within the country or outside, came together and formed a platform where we shared information and tried to reach out to governments or their agents so that they can take informed decisions and share the perspective.

You would recall that when I was in the National Assembly, I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee for four years and had the opportunity to interact at that level with a number of international institutions. We visited our embassies across the globe.

Also, during the time of the Darfur crisis, I organised about 15 African countries at the parliamentary level to do what we called African Parliamentarians for Darfur, to engage the parliament in Sudan at that time at that parliamentary level to understand exactly what was happening, and to remind them of their responsibilities, as well as work together to see how we could help and support them.

Does this suggest that you have the qualifications to get into Niger’s affairs?

I have developed a bit of experience; I have also developed some skills in doing that. I was also former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s envoy to Sudan between 2000 and 2003 when I was a special adviser, political, which also exposed me to talking to people in conflict.

We had to unite the factions in Southern Sudan, led by the late John Garang. Salva Kiir was his deputy. We had long meetings with them.

So, when this Niger coup took place, the first thing we advised was to first find out the circumstances because foreign policy is always an extension of internal policy; it is a reflection of what is actually happening inside.

It is driven by that national interest because governments are always operating within a context; they don’t exist in an ideal environment. And because of that, the first thing they would have done was to ask for the situational problems that led to that particular coup.

Our intelligence agencies are supposed to keep a tap on all countries, whether they are in conflict or peace.

I expected that when such a thing happens, our government and other ECOWAS member-states should immediately call for the files of that country. And the experts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or in our own case, both Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Agency and other related intelligence sources, should be able to file a report.

Are you suggesting that there’s failure of intelligence or a misreading of the coup by Nigeria and ECOWAS?

Perhaps more than that. Even if they had gotten the intelligence right, I think its interpretation by the executive arm of government is sometimes a problem.

I have had the privilege of having been both in the executive arm and later on in the legislative arm and I have an idea of the gaps that sometimes exist.

And what I mean is generally the intelligence people might be able to source and offer to the executive. Sometimes the executive arm may not be able to weigh or get the real weight of issues or the processes.

A lot of people were surprised at the initial ECOWAS position when they came out of their initial meeting talking about the use of military force. It sort of froze a lot of people and raised a lot of concerns, such that it appeared the situation wasn’t very well read. What do you think went wrong?

It is more than that. Yes, maybe the reading – they did not read the situation very well. But also remember that the coup was essentially not against Bazoum; it was against France. This is what we need to understand.

Bazoum may have his own failings, but the real spirit of the coup is not so much of Bazoum like France.

Remember, it got to a point where the minister of mines in Niger could not visit the uranium sites without French permission. It got to that point.

So, there’s a lot of built-up tension against France?

Exactly. And they have been raising these issues. Their civil societies and academics have been raising these issues, but politicians have been trying to manage it because they are so endeared and dependent on France that some of them did not have the courage to really face that country and stop some of these things.

Niger is one of the richest countries in Africa but it is one of the poorest. And these contradictions are simply because France has literally taken over their wealth and only released to them the bit that can keep them alive. This is what they have been complaining of. So, it was a coup of liberation.

Now, we want democracy to thrive because we think it is more sustainable and allows people to have the freedom to express their views and make their choices. But we also have to remember that for you to champion democracy you also need to have the credibility to do so.

You have people like Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast, Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, who is in deep trouble in terms of what is happening in his country regarding their elections. And these are the people, especially Ouattara, at the forefront of pushing for these things.

Another dimension to it was when Nigeria cut an electricity contract that was supposed to be independent of ECOWAS as it was a bilateral agreement. You would start thinking if it was more than ECOWAS: What is the problem of Nigeria with this thing?

Then the idea of French influence on our foreign policy comes in and you can begin to see the reading or hands of France in what is happening.

Now, you have a Nigerian president who is more at home in France, probably because he happens to have a home, business relations and friend there; what would you say is the implication of this?

He went to France after they announced his victory at the polls. If my count is correct, I think he went there three times before he even took the oath of office.

People are watching. And you know that his associates, the Chagoury, are French citizens; and they are well connected. They are all part of this. You can even see French influence in our own foreign policies.

But there’s also a lot of propaganda about this matter, such that the Nigeriens are using a lot of it, especially in the social media, to paint this very terrible picture of France. Yes, there is some basis for it, but there is so much misinformation and propaganda going on in the social media about the matter, what is your take on this?

This is why I think we need to visit Niger; and I have just done that. And I went by road because there is no air travel.

Tell us about the road journey. Through which route were you welcome?

I am from Jibia Local Government, which borders Niger Republic. And half of the people on both sides of the borders are actually relatives; they intermarry.

The person I actually asked to accompany and guide me has his home and wife in Jibia town and another home, wife and children in Niger. There are quite a number of people like that.

He has his business and farms in Nigeria and Niger. His father actually died in Zinder. He was a merchant. For them, these borders are absolutely artificial. We all know how these borders were drawn.

What was your reception in Niamey, did you manage to meet anybody in some official position like the prime minister?

I have met people at the highest level but I would not want to discuss that here. I met people in the civil society, people from the universities, the Ulama, religious scholars who are imams of big jummat mosques. I met women groups and bureaucrats; one of them is an adviser to one of the ministers; and we had a long discussion.

I went to markets in Maradi and Niamey, just to see goods and their prices for myself. I went to pharmacy stores to see the medicines available. I caught cold, so I bought some Augmentin from one of the stores.

I look like every other Nigerien, so we interacted.

You see, the people in Niger are very happy with the coup. It is a popular coup. It symbolises the aspirations of the people as they were beginning to get tired of their politicians, just like we are tired of our own politicians, who, for the last 25 years, have not solved one single problem.

That is including you since you were there at one point?

I don’t see myself as a politician. But I am in politics and I always make the distinction. I have never shied away from saying that. And I will remain in politics for as long as I find it necessary. I really don’t see myself as a politician because when you say you are a politician, it comes with a character – you would be ready to tell lies, cheat, steal, be shameless, and so many other things that have become the hallmark of our politicians. I don’t want to be part of that.

Back to Nigerien politicians; are you saying it is as if the rest of Nigeriens feel they have been let down?

Yeah.

Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have quit ECOWAS and formed their own alliance called Sahel. ECOWAS appears to be lost about what to do next in order to bring things back in check. What do you think could be the way out?

Well, ECOWAS had a meeting on the 8th of this month without the three countries that have gone and issued some statements. When I looked at the list, there were few states missing. I am not sure how many they are.

Like I said, there are reasons to suspect that there is a lot of overwhelming French influence in our foreign policy. It is not just the engagement after the coup because we have had coups before. The engagements are usually to sit down and discuss, saying, ‘We know you have sovereignty, therefore; it is an internal affair, but there are certain peer reviews and standards we need to ensure and keep. We are committed to certain standards of governance, so how do we restore that order?’ You negotiate.

But the way this particular one was done to Niger was not the way that ECOWAS treated other coups, all within the range of time that this particular thing happened.

People have reasons to suspect that there is more than just the ECOWAS interest in this matter, but particularly the fact that Nigeria cut electricity, which is a bilateral thing. It is not an ECOWAS affair.

Remember that between Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, there is a similar arrangement that has not been affected. I think that even between Ukraine and Russia, there is some gas arrangement that has not been affected by the war. So, this is really in breach if you like the international practices.

Later on, they blocked the borders, food and medicine. Now, when you cut electricity, block borders, food and medicine, it is almost a declaration of war. And some of us know that Nigeriens are just laughing at us, saying we don’t even have the army to invade their country. Look at that border, where do we have the army to do that?

It is either the executive have not been informed properly or they have ignored the information and intelligence. Professional bodies have given them and they have gone out to make wild statements, most likely under the instigation of France, and probably, the United States.

Could this also have been a case of inexperience because the Nigerian president was just fresh on the seat of government after the election?

The social media says that ‘Lagos Boys’ know everything. So, maybe this is the arrogance they came with. They think and don’t consult; whatever it is.

I want us to see that as a country we have violated the norms, we have done things that are far beyond the ECOWAS brief, and that has created a lot of negative reactions from Niger.

Niger is taking these things with a lot of humility and decorum; and they are still saying that despite what you people have done to us, we still see Nigerians as our brothers, we still see these colonial boundaries as artificial, not barriers.

Is it your belief that Nigeriens, especially the ordinary people, don’t have any anger against the people of Nigeria, given the hardship they have been made to endure?

I met a lot of them because I had people to guide me right; I mean that Nigeriens came to greet me with a lot of respect. In fact, some people visited me in the hotel I lodged, with a lot of respect. They said they suspected that the Nigerian government was under French influence, otherwise the country won’t do this to them.

So the people-to-people relation isn’t affected?

I will say it is not, but it can be affected if we continue to be laid back and allow our country to mess us up, especially in our relationship with our borders.

In the past few days, there was an interview by the head of the military junta, where he said the Nigerian president looked more like a ghost than him. That is not the kind of language you would expect presidents or heads of government to use. What do you see as the way out?

You would remember that the language of the foreign minister wasn’t nice either; it was condescending. So they were basically reacting. These are reciprocal reactions.

They have gone to the extent of reminding Nigerians that they were there to help them during the civil war, saying that without Niger, maybe there wouldn’t be Nigeria today. How do you see this?

Niger was the only window. Remember that we had Cameroon on one side and Benin on the other side.

Were they on the Biafran side?

They were on the side of Biafra, including France.

But Niger was under the influence of France.

Exactly. Amani Jori refused to do what the French wanted him to do; he rather did what he thought he owed as duty to his neighbours. That was how we were able to sail through to get us where we are. They are right.

I think that in terms of people-to-people relationship, we are still not in that crisis level, but we need to de-escalate and show empathy to our brothers.

I think what we need is people-to-people diplomacy, not government diplomacy. That was the kind of thing I tried doing.

I visited them and sat down with them, listened to them and understood things that people who have just been reading about the situation may not be able to understand.

I have prepared a report; and I am sharing this information to those I think could reach to the government so that they can have a perspective other than whatever report they were getting.

I think it is important to realise that our country has gone beyond the ECOWAS brief and I think they need to address this, even if they have been instigated by France. If they did that as a misstep or not, I think they need to address the issue.

That is to quickly reconnect the electricity, according to the bilateral agreement?

They need to revisit the issue of energy, open the borders and allow medicines and food to flow like they have always been. Without this, you are basically breaking down communication?

The other thing we need to do is to look at the 1993 ECOWAS Treaty, Article 91, which states that whoever wants to pull out would have to give one year notice. It is on that basis that they are asking the three countries that have withdrawn to reconsider their decision.

But they also need to realise that in what they did, they did not quite comply with the ECOWAS Treaty of 1993.

The truth is that we need Niger as much as Niger needs us; nobody wants to have a hostile neighbour.

On this issue of democracy, we are all suffering. I mean they have realised that their democracy is not working. Right now, our democracy is also not working, so I think we need to review, reinvent and customise it to serve our needs. We should not be using foreign models that may have worked elsewhere, ignoring our socio-cultural environment, values and future together as African states with a long history.

 

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