22 January 2013

Nigeria and the Mali Military Operation

Photo: Claire Soares/IRIN
Chadian soldiers on the move. (file photo)

Nigeria's deployment of troops to Mali is commendable, even if belated considering our national and regional stake.

The routing of the terrorist militants in Mali is well underway. The action is led by the French with an unusual full deployment of forces. Major European countries are weighing in on the operation with contributory inputs ranging from equipment to logistic support. Even the United States, which cut off diplomatic relations with Mali in the wake of the 2012 military coup that ousted the elected government in that country, is waiving legalistic constraints to support the international effort with logistical and technical inputs. If all goes well, the terrorists that have devastated Mali and reduced the territorial coverage of its sovereignty in recent times can count their days.

What is commendable about this particular operation is that it is an action based on a rare convergence of interests among nations of divergent circumstances on a matter of global security. The threat to peace and security that fundamentalist terrorism poses is no longer subject to conjecture. The West is no longer alone in being targets of this variety of terror. Countries as far flung as Nigeria, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Kenya, Uganda and even countries in the core Islamic Middle East are targets. These nations now find themselves spending significant effort and resources fending off terrorist threats or contending with sporadic attacks.

President Goodluck Jonathan announced last week that Nigeria was finally sending troops to join the ongoing operation as part of a long overdue ECOWAS initiative. Our appearance on the scene though commendable is a bit belated while the diplomatic gains that the situation offers stand the risk of being lost. ECOWAS and by extension Nigeria has by far a more immediate national and regional security stake in the virtual overrun of Mali by Al Queda affiliate militants. Already Nigeria has for more than a year been under serious threat from Boko Haram. The group's linkages with different formations of Al Queda is well documented in security circles. If the militants hold on Mali were to be allowed, such a foothold would threaten the security and stability of the West African sub region. That is the motivation behind the Mali operation.

Ordinarily, Nigeria's involvement in the Mali operation should have been more than contributory. Nigeria spearheaded the founding of ECOWAS. It was expected that Nigeria would act as a stabilizing force in the sub region. In previous eras, Nigeria has played that role creditably through our involvement in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe and even Guinea. In some of these places, the presence of Nigerian forces altered the outcome and provided a conducive environment for international diplomatic effort to bear desirable fruit.

On the Mali issue, Nigeria's role has been confined within the perimeters of the ECOWAS collective. We have not quite provided the relevant leadership even if we have been only supportive in the context of collective action. We pledged support for the interim leadership in the wake of the 2012 coup but sat idly by as plain hoodlums invaded the Presidential Mansion in Bamako and gave the interim president the beating of his life. That cannot be the signpost of a sub -regional power.

The expectations of the citizens of Nigeria and indeed the entire ECOWAS is that the Nigerian government should step up to the plate in diplomatic and military efforts to neutralize the militants that are holding Mali to ransom. Given Nigeria's geo-strategic interests in the region and our collateral national security interest in the Mali situation, our current showing is less than impressive. We may not have the kind of military muscle and technical capability that is driving the Mali operation. But there is mileage to be gained by a more visible diplomatic showing. Therefore, we should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the leading nations of the West on this matter. Our size, importance and record in international stabilization efforts demand no less.

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