While French, Chad and other forces chase terrorists out of Mali, Nigeria is yet to send 20 per cent of its pledge.
The deployment of Nigerian soldiers as part of the Africa-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) is turning out to be a complete charade as army authorities and the Ministry of Defence are having a hard time coping with basic logistics such as provision of the right uniforms, food, and proper transportation for troops, PREMIUM TIMES has learnt.
Morale is said to be at the lowest ebb among the first batch of 160 soldiers led by Colonel Gagariga already in Mali as they have resorted to skipping meals as their food provisions run out, military insiders have told this newspaper.
Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan said the Federal Government has spent $34 million (N5.1 billion) on the deployment of 1200 troops to the troubled West African country and pledged a further $5 million (N750 million) in assistance.
But three weeks after the first batch of 160 soldiers was sent to the Malian capital, Bamako, the army is having a difficult time getting the remaining troops combat ready.
Discontent is rapidly growing among the troops who believe that some highly placed individuals in the army are siphoning logistics supports and provisions meant for them, defence sources told PREMIUM TIMES.
The Nigerian Army Peace Keeping Centre (NAPKC) led by Major General, J.S Zaruwa could not provide fatigues and proper transportation for troops, our sources said.
Plagued by inadequate logistical support and managerial inefficiency, 800 soldiers from the 81 battalion in Ibadan and 280 from the 333 Artillery Regiment, after completing preliminary training for the Malian mission, have been rendered redundant at the NAPKC in Kachia, Kaduna.
"We are just at the NAPKC doing nothing," a troop member said.
Even as French troops and soldiers from Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso enter Kidal, the last known stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, neither the army authorities nor the Ministry of Defence know when the bulk of Nigerian soldiers will be in Mali.
The new army spokesperson, Brigadier Ibrahim Atahiru, said in a telephone interview that "they will be deployed very soon."
Director for Defence Information, Brigadier General Mohammed Yerima, who refused to speak about the training and readiness of troops, said the ministry only becomes responsible for the soldiers after they (soldiers) have been handed over for deployment.
"At present there are 162 soldiers in Mali. We will deploy more as soon as they are handed over to us," he said.
This contradicts reports by some newspapers (not PREMIUM TIMES) credited to an officer in the office of the Director for Defence Information, Wabi Mohammed, that 768 troops have been deployed to Mali.
Putting Soldiers in harm's way
In the early hours of January 19, a convoy of Mali-bound soldiers on its way to Kaduna for pre-deployment training was ambushed allegedly by a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis-Sudan (JAMBS) in Okene, Kogi State. Two soldiers lost their lives and five others were seriously injured.
They were unnecessary casualties.
The lives of the soldiers would have been saved if the army had been faithful to the original plan of conveying the soldiers by air, officials said.
Another defence source, who asked not to be named, suggested that some army top brass cornered the funds provided to airlift the soldiers.
"The boys are being moved by vehicle from Ibadan to Kaduna for training against the flight proposals made for them," the source said.
Our source also said that the NAPKC, which is in charge of getting the troops ready for the mission, has refused to provide uniforms meant to be used during training and no explanation has been given for this.
According to our source, there is widespread discontent among the troops stationed at NAPKC as a result of neglect and inadequate provisions.
"The boys back home are not very happy as they are not adequately taken care of at the NAPKC," he said.
PREMIUM TIMES further learnt that there are plans to move the soldiers for further "mission specific training" in Sokoto. The training is expected to last for six weeks.
But our source said the army is just buying time until logistics becomes available.
"There is a little confusion among the top brass. We have only 157 already in Mali but due to logistics requirement they are trying to delay others by way of training," he said.
Not sure when the next round of supplies will be provided, a top brass in the military reportedly told the 160 soldiers already in Mali that they have to make do with the supplies they have for three months instead of the one month it was originally planned to last.
The company has now resorted to skipping meals in order not to completely run out of provisions. The draught of provision has been worsened by the fact that the army has only earmarked one C-130 NAF plane to convey both men and provision to Mali.
"Food is a problem in Mali. They intended for one month but they ask them to use it for 3 months so they eat just two imbalanced meals a day," our source said. "They are suffering and their morale is low somehow."
Last week, pictures of Nigerian soldiers clearing a space with cutlasses to cook in the open air were posted on social media. PREMIUM TIMES cannot confirm the authenticity of the pictures. However, Mr. Yerima said the soldiers are expected to prepare their own food themselves.
"Do you want them to be poisoned?" he asked. "So you want them to go and eat in a restaurant and be poisoned."
Mr. Yerima also denied that the soldiers in Mali are not taken care of.
"That's not true. Don't cheapen your organisation. They have moved to their new location and they are doing perfectly well. They have moved about 150 kilometres away from Bamako towards Gao. They are now engaged in actual combat," he said.
An overstretched army
According to our defence sources, it is almost impossible for the army to meet its pledge of 1200 troops to Mali.
The Boko Haram insurgency, the unrest in the Niger Delta and the country's commitment to the African Union mission in Darfur, Sudan, have over-stretched the Nigerian Army, they said.
"We are just pretending to the international community," one of our sources, a top officer said. "We don't have the capability in view of our commitments back home.