By Olusegun Adeniyi
President Umaro Cissoko Embaló survived Tuesday’s “failed attack against democracy.” But the situation in Guinea-Bissau remains unclear. That the fragile West African country is the fifth to catch the military coup bug in recent times should be disturbing to leaders within the sub-region. Only two weeks ago, President Roch Kabore was toppled in Burkina Faso. Before then, Mali, Guinea and Chad had fallen into the hands of military usurpers, confirming the long-held proposition that democracy may be too frail a plant to survive the African climate.
Emerging reports from Guinea-Bissau suggest that the coup bears resemblance to what happened in Haiti on 7th July 2021 when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. The fact that the country is effectively a transit point for the Latin American narcotic trade makes the comparison even stronger. The “well prepared and organised” attack, according to the embattled president, could have been “related to people involved in drug trafficking.” Even if this proves to be true, the socio-economic situation in Guinea-Bissau lends itself to political upheaval in a sub-region where internal wrangling among politicians, economic deprivation of citizens and worsening insecurity present clear warning signals that civil rule is under severe pressure.
Predictably, both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have made the usual feeble statements. I doubt if anybody is taking them seriously. Certainly not the military strongmen in Mali, Guinea, Chad, and Burkina Faso who are digging in. But I am more worried for our country. In a response to concerns raised by the chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, regarding implications of these military takeovers within the ECOWAS sub-region, President Muhammadu Buhari took a narrow view. He stated that ‘‘Nigeria has passed through that stage (of coup d’etat) for good.’’
The president perhaps offered a politically correct statement as the occasion may have demanded. But I hope he doesn’t believe what he said. I have argued in the past that the philosophy of ‘it can never happen here’ is responsible for our lack of preparedness in emergencies. On 1st September 2011, I borrowed the title of a piece once written in the eighties by the late Chike Akabogu, then on the National Concord editorial board, to drive home that point. In the piece, Akabogu wrote that Nigerians like to delude themselves that they are different; that the bad things that occur elsewhere cannot happen in our country. While hoping this is not the thinking that informed the president’s response to what is a clear and present danger, I crave the indulgence of readers to rehash some of what I wrote eleven years ago: “I remember when the wave of terrorism heightened at the beginning of the last decade, it was considered too distant a phenomenon to worry about in Nigeria even when there were explosions at the United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When Farouk Muttallab was caught trying to blow up a Delta Airlines flight in December 2009 and the United States’ government wanted to link our nation with terror, we easily wriggled out by claiming that Farouk caught the bug abroad; afterall, he was not schooling in Nigeria…For us to develop, we must accept that whatever happens in other countries can happen in Nigeria.
For instance, our leaders must accept that the ’Arab Spring’ which has consumed several leaders from Egypt to Tunisia and has now birthed at Muammar Gaddafi’s shores in Libya can happen here…As pessimistic as all these may sound, that is the way most serious countries now think by building negative scenarios and working to ensure they do not happen; while also planning towards mitigating such occurrences in the event that they do. But by living in denial of anything and everything, we prevent ourselves from learning useful lessons. That is why we were surprised that we now have suicide bombers in our midst. Because we never came to terms with the fact that if it could happen elsewhere, it can also happen in Nigeria…”
I wrote the foregoing in 2011, following the bombing of the UN House in Abuja. As things stand, the situation in Mali, Guinea, Chad, Burkina Faso and now Guinea-Bissau has once again placed West Africa and the entire Sahel within the gunsights of military adventurists. “We don’t need to rape Guinea anymore, we just need to make love to her,” says Colonel Mamady Doumbouya who last September ousted President Alpha Condé, in a nation where most people believe political leaders are there to serve only their own interest. The problem for ECOWAS is that the situation in Guinea is like what obtains in most others, including Nigeria: Weak institutions, distrust of politicians, growing insecurity aided by insurgency and a worsening economic situation for most of the people. The case of Nigeria is exacerbated by the audacity of sundry criminal cartels that now carve territories for themselves, collecting taxes and killing innocent rural dwellers at will.
Nothing perhaps illustrates the challenge at hand better than a map published in the 1st February report by the research firm, SBM Intelligence. Titled, ‘An Epidemic of Failure’, the report reveals that in the last 10 years, there has been a coup in every country in the Sahel. More disturbing is that this epidemic runs through the west coast (Mauritania) to the East coast of the continent (Sudan). Instructively, two of these countries, Chad and Niger, border Nigeria.
All factors considered, the 2023 general election becomes even more consequential for Nigeria. The political class must therefore make sure they get everything right and that begins with ideas on how to tackle the various challenges confronting us as a nation. Conventional wisdom teaches that in situations like this, leaders must hope for the best and prepare for the worst. At a period in history when democracies as strong as that of the United States suffer so much stress that some pundits can even predict coups, nobody should be under any illusion that Nigeria is immune to what is happening elsewhere in the sub-region. Eternal vigilance, as the old maxim teaches, is the price of liberty.
Olusegun Adeniyi is a columnist with Thiday Newspaper