Some Nigerians resident in Niger Republic have appealed to the Federal Government to facilitate their evacuation and return home before any possible offensive against the coup plotters by the Economic Community of West Africa States’ forces to restore constitutional governance.
The Nigerians, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH, said the appeal became necessary so as to avoid being caught up in the line of fire and to avoid a repeat of what happened in Sudan where many Nigerian students were trapped when fighting broke out between the government forces and rebels.
They are also apprehensive of being subjected to xenophobic attacks by Nigeriens in retaliation of Nigeria’s role in rallying other ECOWAS member states to reject the unconstitutional change of government in which the coup plotters overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum.
ECOWAS had on Thursday resolved to deploy troops in Niger following the refusal of the military leaders to restore democracy despite the sanctions imposed on them and their collaborators by the sub-regional body.
After a meeting of the ECOWAS Heads of States and Government in Abuja, the President of ECOWAS, Omar Touray, said the bloc had directed the deployment of a “standby force” to restore democracy in Niger after the coup.
But Touray gave no details about the make-up, location and proposed date for the deployment of the military intervention force.
Reading the resolutions of the ECOWAS on the military junta in Niger at the end of the commission’s extraordinary summit, Touray also called on the African Union, partner countries and institutions to support the decision taken by the sub-regional body.
The body said all efforts made to hold dialogues with the military junta had been defiantly rejected by the coup leaders as it condemned the continuous detention of Bazoum and his family members.
Associated Press had quoted a Western military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said representatives of the junta told the US Under Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, of the threat to Bazoum during her visit to the country on Monday.
According to AP, a US official confirmed the account, also speaking on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Bazoum, who was deposed on July 26, is being held hostage at his residence.
The stand-off between ECOWAS and Nigerien coup plotters has plunged Nigerians in the francophone nation into fear over a possible clampdown on them by their hosts.
Some of the Nigerians resident in Niger said the Nigeriens sympathetic to the junta had started reprimanding them for President Bola Tinubu’s support for ECOWAS directive that its forces be on standby to invade the country, rout the coup plotters and re-enthrone Bazoum.
Maina Bukar, who fled to Damasak, Borno State, shortly before the closure of the borders, told Saturday PUNCH on the telephone, “They (Nigeriens) are also angry with us (Nigerians) for closing the borders because a large quantum of household provisions the citizens use flow there from Nigeria.
“A very close friend of mine at Diffa, who is deeply sympathetic to the coup plotters, was already keeping me at arm’s length. Nigerian communities there, especially refugees of the Boko Haram insurgency, are in palpable fear of possible hostilities from their hosts should ECOWAS unleash its forces against their country.”
Another Nigerian, Musa Ali, who also crossed the border to Damasak, Borno State, and whose many relatives are still refugees in Niger, said, “Our hosts, especially those sympathetic to the junta, have now begun to display hostility toward us.
“They are angry with Nigerians because of our country’s stance on war with their country as they see what is happening in Niger as purely an internal affair.
“Now, our relations there are in danger should the hostilities continue, and they dare not return home partly because the borders between the two countries have been closed and also because insurgents are still in control of our ancestral communities and still unleashing terror.
“Our relations now daily complain to us that life is becoming unbearable in Niger Republic and are appealing to the Federal Government to arrange their evacuation back to Nigeria before ECOWAS troops will move in.”
Some others told one of our correspondents on the telephone that the position of ECOWAS was already heightening tension among Nigerians resident in Niger Republic.
Mr Muhammed Afolabi, an artisan who has been working in Niger for over 10 years, appealed to the leadership of ECOWAS to put the interest of the masses at heart before thinking of going to war with the junta.
He said the decision to put troops on standby was already having effects on his work as most of his customers had started deserting him.
Afolabi stated, “The government should consider us in this issue; they should think of what will happen if these people take revenge on us and our businesses.
“We have been having a cordial relationship with them here but with this now, who knows what will happen to us and our businesses? All we want is for ECOWAS to take things easy. If it becomes inevitable that ECOWAS troops must confront the junta, the Nigerian government must make arrangements to safely evacuate us from Niger.”
Also speaking, Mr Yahaya Abdullahi, a lecturer in one of the universities in Niger Republic, said Nigerian students studying in the country should be put into consideration by ECOWAS.
He said the involvement of the military by ECOWAS would have a negative impact on the lives and studies of Nigerians studying in the country who might suffer discrimination.
Abdullahi, however, appealed to the Federal Government and ECOWAS to evaluate the situation before resorting to force in resolving the crisis.
Mallam Bala Kulu, who sells soft drinks in Tawa, one of the states in Niger Republic, said life has not been the same since the Nigerian government cut off power supply to Niger.
He stated, “We can hardly get ice blocks to sell our products now and to enter Nigeria to get the drinks is not easy also as the border is shut.
“We can only take illegal routes through the bush and pay through our nose as all the security agents, as well as area boys, will demand something.
“Everything here is going on the high side and it’s very important for our leaders to consider that the masses will suffer if urgent steps are not taken to avert war with the Niger Republic.”
Hajia Fatima Gafar, an indigene of Kwara State, who resides in Niger Republic, appealed to ECOWAS to ensure that the current crisis did not degenerate into a war.
She said, “Yes, our lives are no longer safe here as most people here in Niger Republic see this problem as between Nigeria and their country.
“Our leaders should be very careful in their decision and not put our lives in danger for whatever reason.
“Already, we are suffering hunger and others, and we don’t want this to escalate in any way; so ECOWAS should address it in a reasonable way.”
Alhaji Hassan Maiturari, a resident of Kwani, the border town between Nigeria and Niger Republic, said the ongoing crisis should be dealt with urgently to avoid the situation being hijacked by bandits.
Maiturari told Saturday PUNCH, “This issue needs to be handled carefully so as not to get to a level where we won’t be able to control it.
“We all know that Nigeria and Niger Republic have a lot of ungoverned forests and if care is not taken, bandits and Boko Haram insurgents will take advantage to attack our people both in Niger and Nigeria.
“Our leaders should learn about the recent happenings in Libya, where the death of their former leader became an avenue for illegal arms to fall in the hands of non-state actors in Africa.”
Another resident of Tawa, Abdullahi Umar, said the Nigerien Army was actually not scared of Nigeria and ECOWAS troops.
He said, “There is not much tension here at all as everyone is moving on without any fear.
“I can tell you that the Army here does not fear the ECOWAS and Nigerian forces as they are boasting of crushing them if they make any attempt to attack them.”
He added that most Nigeriens had been appealing to Russia to come to their aid in case ECOWAS makes any attempt to enter Niamey.
Umar also said most residents of Tawa now see President Tinubu as an enemy of their country whom they abuse anytime they like.
One of our correspondents gathered that most Nigerians resident in Niger Republic were facing severe hardship as a result of the sanctions imposed on the country by ECOWAS.
An indigene of the Zurmi Local Government Area of Zamfara State, Ibrahim Samaila, who currently resides in Maradi, Niger Republic, told Saturday PUNCH that he was living peacefully with the people of that country, but stated that he was entertaining fear that Nigerians could be attacked if something terrible happened to Niger Republic as a result of the ECOWAS actions.
He also explained that as a result of the sanctions by ECOWAS, scarcity of food items and other essential commodities had hit the country.
Samaila stated, “We are living peacefully here in Maradi town but our major problem is that food items are very scarce and costly.
“But we fear that if the worst should happen to Niger Republic because of ECOWAS’ move to reinstate the ousted President, Mohammed Bazoum, our security may not be guaranteed.”
Another Nigerian, Masud Shehu, who resides in Niamey, the capital city of Niger Republic, said since the beginning of the crisis, many Nigerians were not comfortable.
He called on the Federal Government to come to their aid before the situation would go out of control.
“I am finding it difficult to get something to eat since ECOWAS enforced sanctions against Niger Republic,” Shehu stated, adding, “I really like to go back to Nigeria but there is no way as the borders remain closed.”
“I want to use this medium to appeal to Nigeria to please do something urgent and take us back home,” he added.
NiDCOM, NEMA react
When asked if there was any preparation to evacuate Nigerians that might be stranded in Niger Republic, the spokesperson for the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abdur-Rahman Balogun, said, “We will evacuate Nigerians from Niger if it gets to that point; but for now, nothing is suggesting that.”
Similarly, the National Emergency Management Agency said the Federal Government would evacuate Nigerians who might be stranded in Niger when necessary.
The Director-General, NEMA, Mustapha Habib, disclosed this while responding to questions on the sidelines of an event in Abuja on Friday.
Asked if Nigerians currently in Niger would be repatriated, particularly those who were willing, Habib, replied in the affirmative, but noted that the evacuation had not commenced yet.
“If we get there, yes we will look at it, but we haven’t for now. We are not there yet,” he stated.
Some countries commenced the evacuation of their nationals from Niger Republic last week. For instance, France’s military and foreign ministry worked to carry out multiple evacuation flights from Niger last Wednesday.
The foreign ministry had said the first two flights that landed in Paris carried more than 350 French nationals along with people from Niger, Portugal, Belgium, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Germany, Canada, India, Austria and the United States.
Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, also shared a photo of an Italian air force plane that he said landed early last Wednesday with Italians who left Niger.
Reuters had reported that the flight carried 36 Italians, 21 US citizens, four Bulgarians, two Australians and one citizen each from Britain, Niger, Hungary, Senegal and Nigeria.
ECOWAS military chiefs meet
Meanwhile, West African military chiefs will meet today (Saturday) in Ghana in furtherance of moves to implement the ECOWAS resolutions on Niger Republic.
According to France24, regional military sources said the talks among the defence chiefs will take place in Accra.
It added that following sub-regional leaders’ plans to have a standby force in their efforts to restore the toppled president, Russia on Friday warned against any military intervention in Niger.
“We believe that a military solution to the crisis in Niger could lead to a protracted confrontation in that African country and to a sharp destabilisation of the situation in the Sahara-Sahel region as a whole,” France24 quoted the Russian foreign ministry to have said.
Members of the legislative arm of ECOWAS will also hold a virtual extraordinary session following the activation of the standby military forces.
A highly placed source made this known in a text message sighted by one of our correspondents in Abuja.
“An emergency ECOWAS parliament extraordinary session will hold via Zoom on Saturday over the matter in Niger as we are exploring diplomatic means,” the source said.