*Advises Islamic scholars to fast-track discussion with junta
*Hints many countries ready to use force to dislodge coupists
*Information minister encourages further talks
*I’m optimistic about this intervention, Lau posits
*Food, medicine trucks pile up at border over sanctions
Deji Elumoye and Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja
Nigerian president and Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Authority of Heads of State and Government, Bola Tinubu, yesterday, said he was interested in peaceful resolution of the Nigerien crisis, but still open to exploring other options.
Tinubu implored the delegation of Islamic scholars interfacing with the Niger junta in the effort to restore democratic governance in that country to expedite talks with the military authorities there for quick result.
The president spoke at State House, Abuja, when he received a briefing from the Ulamas, led by Sheikh Bala Lau, according to a statement by his media adviser, Ajuri Ngelale.
Tinubu disclosed that many countries had bought into the idea of military action, should the coupists refuse to stand down.
Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, who spoke with newsmen after the meeting, said the president urged the Ulamas to intensify the dialogue.
Lau called for prayers from the entire West African sub-region, and explained that the body of clerics offered to intervene because they did not want war. He said the clerics were optimistic that their peaceful approach would yield the desired results.
Nonetheless, the Malanville border crossing in northern Benin, from where trucks with food, humanitarian aid, and industrial materials normally flowed freely into Niger, was currently at a standstill, following the sanctions against Niger by ECOWAS.
Yesterday’s briefing by the Ulamas followed their two previous visits to Niger.
The Islamic leaders had informed the president that the junta was open to deepening dialogue with ECOWAS, as more steps were being taken to forestall armed conflict with a more detailed acceptance of the ECOWAS position by Niger military council officials.
Responding to the delegation of Ulamas, against the backdrop of ethnic rumours peddled by domestic political figures in and outside the country, Tinubu emphasised that he was at the forefront of a peaceful resolution of the crisis, amid hawkish individuals urging swifter intervention.
He disclosed, “I am managing a very serious situation. If you take ECOWAS aside, other people will react, those who are outside of our control. I am the one holding those sides back. I am the one holding back ECOWAS.”
Tinubu said, “Even as at this morning, I have been inundated with phone calls on the readiness of countries with their military forces and contributions. However, I told them to wait. I am meeting with the Ulamas and I will get back to you.”
Tinubu told the Islamic delegation that the junta must be held accountable for putting the entire people of Niger Republic in jeopardy, adding, ”They cannot use the gun given to them to protect the sovereignty of the country and turn it against the people of the country.”
He pledged that ECOWAS would remain steadfast in its commitment to diplomatic engagement with all stakeholders in the Niger impasse.
“I will draw a line in the sand and ask you to make arrangements to go back to Niger Republic,” he stated.
On the request by the Islamic scholars to the government to monitor the distribution of palliatives to states, the president promised that more palliatives were coming for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) nationwide. But he appealed to state governments to ensure transparency and accountability in the distribution and management of the palliatives.
The president encouraged the clerics to continue with their dialogue with the junta, and expressed his preference for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, though all options were still open.
Idris, who spoke with newsmen after the meeting, said the president urged the Ulamas to intensify dialogue as he was interested in exploring peaceful options.
The information minister stated, “The Council of Ulamas has returned to the president for the second time, to give a report on their ongoing dialogue with the junta and other stakeholders in Niger Republic. They have briefed Mr President on the situation and the effort is still ongoing.
“Mr President has listened to them and they’ll continue this dialogue. Mr President is interested in exploring peaceful options in this, but nothing is off the table. He has asked the Ulamas to continue with their dialogue and they will continue to do that.
“The next line of action is that dialogue will continue. Mr President, as the head of ECOWAS, is interested in pursuing resolution of this crisis. But like I said, nothing is off the table. Mr President has said they should continue to engage and the Ulamas will continue to do that.
“By the way, he has appreciated their efforts to find solution to this issue; he’s encouraging them to continue. He has thanked them and efforts are ongoing.”
Lau, who called for prayers, said the team would return to Niger to continue with the dialogue. He expressed optimism that their peaceful approach would yield the desired results.
He said, “First and foremost, we thank Allah for giving us the opportunity and we appreciate and commend the efforts of His Excellency, the president. As you saw, we have just met with him and told him all what went on there in Niger and he appreciated and he still gave us the mandate that we should continue to take this dialogue and discuss with the junta over there because they have our listening ears and we are sure, through peaceful discussions, we’ll be able to achieve what we want.
“We are still going back there to ensure that through peaceful and amicable ways, as spiritual leaders, we’ll be able to do and contribute what we can be able to do what we want.
“We don’t want war, we want peace to reign in our region. So, may Allah continue to bless the president for giving us this opportunity.
“We want serious and fervent prayers from the entire community, across the region so that Allah will grant us that, so that peace and harmony will continue to reign. Without peace and harmony, there’s nothing we can do, we can’t even enjoy the dividends of democracy and you cannot even practise your religion. I’m optimistic, Insha Allah, with this intervention, Allah will answer our prayers.”
Food, Medicine Trucks Pile Up at Niger Border
The Malanville border crossing in northern Benin, from where trucks with food, humanitarian aid and industrial materials normally went into Niger, was currently at a standstill, following the sanctions imposed on Niger Republic by ECOWAS.
A Reuters rep
ort yesterday stated that a line of thousands of trucks stretched back 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the muddy shores of the Niger River that marked the frontier, with drivers stranded for weeks.
“The backlog is one of the clearest signs yet of the impact of sanctions imposed by regional bloc ECOWAS on Niger after a military coup on July 26,” the report stressed.
The blockade was meant to pressure the junta to restore President Mohamed Bazoum to office. In the process, it has driven up the price of food inside Niger during the lean season, hampered industry and threatened a shortage of medical supplies, aid agencies, officials and residents said.
“We don’t know if we’ve been taken hostage or what,” Reuters quoted a Nigerien trucker, Soulemane, who had been stuck at the border with his cargo of sugar and oil for over 20 days, as saying. “There’s no food, there’s no water, there’s nowhere to sleep,” he added.
However, the report added that there was little sign yet that the sanctions had dented the popularity of the junta, as thousands of people took to the streets in support of the coup last Sunday, some of whom held anti-ECOWAS signs.
Regional spokesperson, United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), Djaounsede Madjiangar, said some 6,000 tonnes of goods were stuck outside Niger, including cereals, cooking oil and food for malnourished children.
Residents said there was still food on the shelves in Niamey, but prices had shot up. Since sanctions were announced, the price of rice had increased by 21 per cent, while sorghum was up 14 per cent, the WFP said.
The WFP supplies were meant to ease a hunger crisis that was already gripping Niger, where an Islamist insurgency had forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
About three million people are struggling to afford one meal per day. The crisis could push a further seven million into the same category, the WFP said.
“We could end up with 10 million people who are not able to feed themselves,” Madjiangar was quoted as saying. “Humanitarian needs are increasing,” the WFP official said.
WFP and the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, claimed they had not yet cut back operations in Niger, but warned that time was running out. Interruptions could have devastating effects in Niger, which has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, it said.
“UNICEF containers are stranded at the border and in Benin’s Cotonou port. Cold-chain equipment and vaccines risk losing their effectiveness. These include doses against the deadly rotavirus infection in children,” the agency said in emailed comments.
Meanwhile, ECOWAS and the junta remained at loggerheads. The bloc had threatened to intervene militarily if talks and other efforts to pressure the junta failed.
“These sanctions are not designed to find a solution, but to bring us to our knees and humiliate us,” coup leader General Abdourahmane Tchiani said in a speech last Saturday.
The sanctions were not just threatening Niger’s food and aid supplies. Nigeria has cut power supplies, jeopardising medical care in hospitals, Tchiani said.
Niamey-based entrepreneur Maxime Kader told Reuters he had to stop selling poultry incubators due to a lack of plywood and low power.
Large-scale infrastructure projects had also been hit by the fallout. The freezing of regional financial flows has halted construction on a Chinese-led dam project that was meant to boost food security.
Forecast economic growth of seven per cent this year was based on the expected launch of an oil pipeline from Niger to Benin, but it was not clear yet how the coup had impacted work to complete the PetroChina-backed project. PetroChina did not reply to a request for comment, according to Reuters.
At the Malanville crossing, Reuters reporters saw vehicles marked WAPCO – a company working on the pipeline. Some were allowed to cross into Niger, but others were stuck in line.
Reuters said many drivers at the border appeared to be preparing for a long wait. Some, it said, had erected makeshift tents and cooked on little charcoal stoves, while others were scrounging for food as their money ran out.
“They have to review this situation because there is no other way to go,” said Nigerien trucker Mahamat Addi Saleh. “This is where everyone passes through,” he added.