Security challenges, which have prompted the Federal Government to deploy troops to many parts of the federation, have forced Nigeria to scale down the number of men of the armed forces it will contribute to a sub-regional military contingent for peacekeeping in Mali.
THISDAY learnt yesterday that Nigeria would now contribute 450 soldiers to the contingent put together by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), down from the original 600 soldiers it had intended to contribute to the 3,300-strong troops.
West African leaders on November 11, 2012 had agreed to send some 3,300 troops to Mali in order to assist government-controlled troops regain control of the northern part of the country from a band of terrorists suspected to have links with al-Qaida.
The terrorists have been in control of that section of Mali for about eight months.
The ECOWAS leaders at an emergency summit in Abuja, attended by military experts from the United Nations and Europe, reached a consensus that the crisis in Mali could only be resolved through military intervention.
About a week after the summit, the Minister of State for Defence, Mrs. Olusola Obada, had told the British Prime Minister's Special Representative to the Sahel Region, Mr. Stephen O'Brien, that Nigeria would contribute 600 soldiers to the ECOWAS contingent meant for Mali.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) last December had also approved the planned military intervention by ECOWAS to restore normalcy in Mali.
The coalition, which also enjoys the support of non-African states, has been termed African-led Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and is expected to help train Mali's army.
Nigeria was expected to contribute the highest number of troops to the contingent owing to its reputation as a global peacekeeper, and has led similar missions in the past when it intervened in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Besides, Nigeria's military, which gets a big defence budget relative to other West African countries, is considered more advanced and experienced in military warfare than its neighbours in the sub-region.
However, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs source informed THISDAY that for the first time in its history, Nigeria would not be able to meet the original target on the number of soldiers it would contribute to AFISMA, as its officers and soldiers are engaged in one operation or the other in several parts of the country.
According to him, because of the security challenges in the North and insecurity in other parts of the country that have necessitated troops deployment to the affected states, Nigeria will not be able to send more than 450 soldiers to the international military contingent.
He said the latest military report showed that the military is currently actively engaged in 34 states of the federation, excluding the troops that are still stationed in Liberia and Guinea Bissau.
"We cannot dissipate our energy; we have to secure our own country first. So we cannot do more than 450, other countries would have to step up (their contributions) and the good thing is that the mission involves ECOWAS and the AU, so they would prevail on other countries to step up," the source said.
On the financial implication of Nigeria's involvement in AFISMA, the source explained that it would not be a repeat of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean interventions when Nigeria bore almost all of the cost of the operations in both countries.
"Our financial contribution would be proportional to what we are contributing and to what others are contributing; it would be shared out. Of course, there would be assistance from the AU, the UN and other countries, even from the EU which has pledged support," the source added. France is one of the countries that has pledged support for the mission.
The UNSC resolution approving the intervention noted that certain political and military benchmarks must be met before the commencement of the onslaught against the rebels and terrorist networks in the Maghreb.