By HUGO Odiogor
The unfolding power game in Cote D’ Ivoire has all the trappings of a similar episode in Liberia and Sierra Leone where Nigerians were victims. In this interview, Mr. Frank Igwebeze, a the former Midweek Editor and Foreign News Editor of the defunct National Concord newspapers, narrowly escaped the war in Liberia, shares his experience.
As a near victim of the Liberian civil war, do you think our government is doing enough to safe-guard the interest of Nigerians in Cote D’Ivoire?
Nigerians are, and should be, the major concern of the Federal Government in any crisis situation abroad. In the case of Liberia, Nigerians were not only abandoned, Nigerian embassy officials left them without notice. As they massed at the Nigerian embassy ground, beside the German embassy, they were under the illusion that the place was a sovereign Nigerian territory. But when Charles Taylor’s men came with a truck, there was no resistance.
They simply carted away these Nigerians including my colleagues, Tayo Awotusin and Chris Imodibie. Guinea, which was supporting Charles Taylor at the time, kept its ambassador up to the time the embassy was overrun by the rebels.
The ambassador and his countrymen and women were not touched. The truck was full that older men decided to wait so they could follow the truck on its second trip. As soon as the truck was driven out of sight, the men were asked to lie face down and were murdered in cold blood by Taylor’s rebels,’ right on the grounds of “sovereign territory of Nigeria”. My worst fear is that there might be a repeat performance.
In the case of Liberia, there was no Liberian desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Lagos at the time. The foreign Affairs Minister at the time was abroad. It is also interesting, perhaps intriguing coincidence, that the current foreign affairs minister was abroad when “unknown attackers” assailed the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan.
Compare this scenario with Guinea, which was supporting Charles Taylor at the time, kept its ambassador up to the time the embassy was overrun by the rebels. The ambassador and his countrymen and women were not touched.
Do you see an early resolution of the conflict in Cote D’Ivoire?
It will be too presumptuous to answer your question positively. For instance, when the Liberian crisis started, nobody gave the rebels half a chance of success. The president of Liberia at the time, Samuel Kanyon Doe, came to Nigeria, standing by General Babangida, his host, and bolstered by the heavy supply of arms promised by Nigeria, boasted that the rebels only shot into the air and frightened innocent people out of their homes, looted their property and disappeared into the bush. He challenged the rebels to come to the township.
First, the arms Nigeria sent into Liberia were captured by the rebels before they were put to use. The moles in President Doe’s rag tag army gave away the routes the arms passed through. Then rebels came to town,, the rest is now history. Similarly, Laurent Gbagbo could be depending on the army in the south. But when the so-called rebels in the north advances, there may be no sustained resistance as Gbagbo currently believes.
Until he sees reason and gets enough money to paper over the cracks and settle his cronies, both in the political class and the military, a long-drawn civil war is in the offing. Promise of an asylum trivializes the situation.
Why is ECOWAS seemingly weak in dealing with the type of crisis in Cote D’ Ivoire?
ECOWAS is weak because its pay master and big brother – Nigeria – is under pressure by the west to stir up military crisis in Cote D’ Ivoire so that the UN can move in. But smarting from the $12billion and $7biilion bills it needlessly incurred in Liberia and Sierra Leone respectively, Nigeria is unwilling to make another senseless gamble. So, it is toeing the path of negotiated settlement given the fact that its fragile and unstable economy and polity could hardly stand another debacle.
More importantly, General Babangida railroaded Nigeria into Liberia and Sierra Leone, because it was during the military regime. In a democratic dispensation, it is a more difficult thing. The ECOWAS attitude is further compounded, perhaps accentuated, by the fact that the internationally acclaimed winner of the election is a Burkinabe.
Alassane Ouattara is from Burkina Faso. Blaise Compaore will rather support one of his own. When the chips are down, the rebels in the north will receive assistance and cooperation from Burkina Faso more than the rebels in Liberia did.
Ouattara has lived in Cote D’Ivoire for more than fifty years and, by the country’s constitution, he is entitled to contest. He is about nine to ten years older than Gbagbo. He has, though gentle, resilient and accommodating, earned the sympathy of the international community. Senegal, a predominantly Moslem country, is on his side. Ghana is sitting on the fence.
Togo cannot bare its fangs, because it has a large dose of internal dissent to contend with in addition to its unwillingness to risk losing the largesse, goodwill and other forms of support from Nigeria. If Gbagbo’s greatest ally, Nigeria, could call on him to step down, it is difficult for other ECOWAS countries to lend him support.
Do you think Nigerians in trouble spots are more concerned about their investment than their safety? That is, will it be out of place to ask Nigeria to ask Nigerians to leave Cote D’Ivoire before the situation degenerates further?
Yes and no. In any crisis, there are people who will always be unwilling to relocate. The case of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S is a good example. But in the case of Nigerians living in Cote D’Ivoire, many who will be willing to leave may not get their country’s needed support at the time they need it most.
Do you see the actions of EU and US in evacuating their nationals as hasty?
No. That is the most appropriate thing to do. You don’t evacuate in the midst of exchange of fire. These countries place high premium on the lives of their citizens. In Nigeria, playing the ostrich and big brother is more important. Remember that Africa is the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Nigerians have not been directly targeted.
It will be wise to evacuate them now before they become targets. The attack on the Nigerian embassy is enough warning.
What type of diplomacy should be appropriate at this point in time for Nigeria to secure its nationals in the troubled country?
Nigeria has not approached it appropriately. It was most premature to have gone public with the offer of asylum. The bungled case of Charles Taylor’s asylum is still fresh. Nigeria has cut several deals on the West Coast of Africa using Gbagbo as the pointman, especially among francophone countries. It is an unfair cut to have advertised the offer of asylum so early in the negotiation.
It will harden Gbagbo’s intransigence. Pressure and negotiation are the best options but it has to be done in a way to make Gbagbo quit in a graceful manner.This will be in the interest of all those concerned, particularly, the people of Cote D’ Ivoire.