‘ECOWAS is making efforts to get across to Niger’: Nigerian defence chief

Ahead of an ECOWAS summit in Abuja, the Nigerian general speaks about the political crisis and insecurity in the Sahel.

General Christopher Musa, the commander of Nigeria’s military forces [File: Christophe Van Der Perre/Reuters]By Fidelis MbahPublished On 21 Feb 202421 Feb 2024

Abuja, Nigeria – On Saturday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold a summit in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to discuss the exit of three member states and a constitutional crisis in a fourth.

The withdrawal of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso from the regional bloc in January has heightened concerns over the possible spread of insecurity in the Sahel to other parts of West Africa.

Combined, the trio have experienced five coups in the last three years, with the putschists citing the inability of the governments they replaced, to handle the spread of armed groups in the region.

The coups have led to stiff post-coup sanctions from ECOWAS that have angered Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. But it has also triggered a debate about the state of democracy in the region, even as locals in the affected countries seem to have mostly welcomed the military takeovers.

Ahead of the bloc’s meeting, Nigeria’s military chief, General Christopher Musa, spoke to Al Jazeera in Abuja on Tuesday about the unfolding situation in Niger and other matters, including challenges Nigeria is facing in its own battle against armed groups.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Al Jazeera: What impact has Niger’s exit from ECOWAS had on operations to fight armed groups within the region?

Musa: We have the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad region, comprising Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria, but because of the issue with Niger, they have pulled out, though not totally because they are still holding onto their area because they know the repercussions. If they pull out, they will be exposed. We feel we are all Africans – we should never allow Africa to turn into a proxy war region. We cannot afford to do that. Nigeria has nothing against Niger, Cameroon or Burkina Faso. We all need each other. They cannot do it alone, and we cannot do it alone. Together, we can confront the jihadists, and the jihadists are coming after them. Mali, Burkina Faso,, and Niger have been having hot with the jihadists.

Al Jazeera: Is the military resolution of the crisis against Niger still on the cards?

Musa: Diplomatically, ECOWAS is making efforts to get across to Niger for them to see reasons why they need to return to democracy and return to ECOWAS. That’s why we avoided any military conflict. There were individuals that wanted military conflict, and we said no. We don’t want our region to be turned into a proxy war area because it will do us no good. Both countries need to remain friends because the enemy we are dealing with is ready to kill anybody.

Al Jazeera: Do you think you are equipped enough to possibly end the war in Nigeria, where armed groups have held sway for more than a decade?

Musa: One of my greatest challenges is that I don’t have the weapons that I need. Even when I have the money to buy, getting them is a problem. We have situations where we go to other countries and even with our money, to get them becomes a problem. If I can get 1 percent of what is being given to Ukraine, I assure you, Nigeria will be the most peaceful country in the world. But it’s difficult even with my money. Why are we not getting these weapons even when we have money to buy them? We don’t produce them. President Bola Tinubu has directed that because of this, our defence industrial cooperation must work. We noticed that if we don’t produce, we will be held to ransom. We don’t want anybody to hold us down.

Al Jazeera: What informed the decision to deny Nigeria the purchase of some weapons to fight armed groups?

Musa: Some laws have been used against us on why we cannot get weapons because of ECOMOG [ECOWAS Monitoring Group] operations. ECOMOG was more than 20 years ago. A lot of people who took part in ECOMOG are no longer in the system. Nigeria is known for obeying human rights. When we make mistakes, we own up and make corrections. But we have seen countries that don’t even obey human rights that are being given weapons freely.

Al Jazeera: On the matter of human rights, what’s the latest update on the military drone attack that killed more than 80 civilians in northern Kaduna in December?

Musa: The reports are ready and will probably be announced before the end of this month. Why we had some delays is because we were trying to be very critical to get the names of those that suffered casualties and it’s been extremely difficult getting the names. From what we have, it’s very clear it was a mistake, and we are addressing it. Sometimes, things just happen, and there is nothing you can do about it. We have seen where we have shortcomings, and we are addressing them. We will never deliberately target innocent civilians for whatever reasons.

Al Jazeera: Concerns have been expressed about the proliferation of arms and ammunition in the Sahel region.

Musa: We know the challenges we have with light weapons and small arms worldwide. Their proliferation is causing a lot of concern in Africa, to Nigeria in particular and the West Africa subregion. In the fight we have with bandits, ISWAP, Boko Haram and the rest, we have been able to recover a lot of unaccounted weapons into the country. It shows that we require international cooperation and collaboration for us to be able to address this issue. Most African countries don’t produce these weapons. These weapons get into the wrong hands, and they become a threat. That is why the international community must take responsibility for this to ensure that these weapons don’t get into the wrong hands. For Nigeria, we are building the capacity of our borders to ensure we checkmate the movements of this equipment because we know the harm they are causing. For us, the armed forces, and other members of the security forces, we ensure we safeguard the arms we have been able to officially procure.

Al Jazeera: With the war in Ukraine and the invasion of Gaza by Israel, won’t this add to concerns about arms getting into the hands of armed groups in the Sahel region?

Musa: We call on the international community to take responsibility to ensure they put measures in place to prevent these weapons from getting into the wrong hands because once they do, we have a lot of criminals and jihadists who are ready to use them against innocent citizens.

Source: Al Jazeera