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Nigerian troops in Mali: Matters arising

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ORDINARILY, the Nigerian government’s decision to send troops to Mali as part of an African-led force to assist the beleaguered West African country contain the insurgency in its northern region ought not to raise any eyebrows. After all, this is well within Nigeria’s diplomatic remit as a sub-regional super power. If the country wishes to continue to earn the respect of its neighbours, this is exactly the kind of initiative it should be seen to be supporting.

Besides, in this particular instance, the moral case for putting our troops in harm’s way on behalf of a sister country in dire need seems irreproachable. Since the army putsch which toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure in March last year, the security situation in Mali has cascaded as the Ansar Dine (“defenders of the Islamic faith”) extremists have virtually succeeded in excising the northern region from the rest of the country. Reports from usually reliable sources indicate that they have carried out a campaign of terror in the part of the country under their control, including rape, torture, and summary executions of innocent civilians. Clearly, the Nigerian government is right to join other ECOWAS members in seeking to bring the extremists to heel, and we endorse its brave decision to commit troops.

Yet, there are nagging questions. In the first instance, shouldn’t diplomatic charity have begun at home? Since 2009, the extremist Islamic group, Boko Haram, which is more or less Nigeria’s version of Mali’s Ansar Dine, has committed atrocities in which an estimated 2,800 innocent Nigerian lives have been lost. The group has bombed tens of churches across the north,  killing  innocent men, women and children in the process of worship. Despite its atrocities, the militants remain at large, and there is little hope that the military Joint Task Force set up by the government after serious pressure from the public is capable of reining in Boko Haram’s insurgency. More worryingly, government spokespersons have at various times given the unfortunate impression that the Federal Government is powerless to contain the group.

We find it absurd that the Federal Government can, with such alacrity, commit troops to putting out Islamic insurgency in northern Mali, while basically playing the ostrich as the domestic situation festers. Why is the situation in Mali more deserving of official attention and resources? Why is it difficult for the Federal Government to treat the Boko Harm insurrection with the same sense of urgency? Are Malian lives more precious than Nigerians’? The government needs to reassure Nigerians of its commitment to the security of life and property in the northern part of the country.

Second, the 900 soldiers that Nigeria has committed to the Malian expedition will be part of a 3,300 strong African-led ECOWAS force which will also include troops from Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo. Beyond this, however, the actual details of the ECOWAS troops’ involvement remains nebulous. Will they be teaming up with the French soldiers who are already on ground? What is the timeline for the Nigerian troops’ involvement? Are there plans to send more soldiers in the near future? If yes,  how many? If Nigeria is going to play a leadership role in the ECOWAS-led force, what kind of ‘return’ does it anticipate for its investment of personnel and resources? Are we in this for the long haul?

These questions are important for two reasons. First, since the Nigerian decision to commit troops was not communicated until after a private meeting between Minister of State for Defence, Olusola Obada and a British representative, there is reasonable suspicion that the decision may have been prompted by subtle pressure from Whitehall. Second, one lesson from Nigeria’s long and costly involvement in the ECOMOG operations in Liberia is that small military operations have a way of morphing into messy and intractable campaigns. It is important that government has clarity about its commitments.

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