This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria's Troops in Mali to Ensure 'Our Survival', Says Ashiru

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, has said Nigeria is in the vanguard of efforts to resolve the Malian crisis in order to fend off the potent and present danger of a deleterious backlash in the world's most populous black country.

Ashiru told THISDAY in an interview that Nigeria, which commands the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, also had to back up its command position and security interests by sending a large contingent of troops to Mali.

He said Nigeria was now reaping benefits for its efforts to restore peace to crisis-ridden countries in Africa and was also being appreciated.

Nigeria has deployed 1, 200 soldiers to Mali as part of an international force to root out al Qaeda-backed Islamic insurgents who had taken over northern Mali after hijacking a rebellion by the Tuareg rebels.

But the Defence Headquarters said only 162 Nigerian soldiers were at present on ground in Mali.

The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic North African people who live in northern Mali, have intermittently fought the Malian government since the country's independence from France in 1960.

But on January 17 last year, they launched a revolt under the aegis of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), mainly armed with weapons brought back from Libya, where many members of the group had fought for the slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Joining forces with Islamic extremists in northern Mali, the MNLA had in March last year declared independence for the state of Azawad, which also became a sanctuary for al Qaeda-sponsored terrorists, before they were recently driven away by a French-led military operation.

Ashiru said Nigeria had to intervene in Mali to prevent the growth of a terrorist nest from where a terror campaign could be exported to Nigeria.

"Unlike the previous ones in ECOWAS, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where we were trying to enthrone democracy, rule of law and orderliness, this one that involves Mali is to ensure Nigeria's survival," he said.

"We are in command of AFISMA, so we must have enough troops to back up the command position. Mali is vast, so there must be enough troops on ground for effective operations and to achieve the desired objective."

The objective, Ashiru said, is to get rid of terrorists that pose a danger to Nigeria's stability as well as the stability of the West African sub-region and the continent, in general.

On criticisms in some quarters of Nigeria's involvement in Mali, the minister said, "I feel sad that it means some people cannot see beyond their noses, they cannot see the wider picture, that there is a connection between the insurgency in Mali and the terrorists' activities we have in Nigeria."

He disclosed that some Nigerians had been arrested among the terrorists fighting in Mali, stressing, "Are you sure they are not those that are being trained to come and act under Boko Haram and kill our people in places of worship and market places? That is the linkage."

On the oft-reiterated assertion that Nigeria is hardly appreciated for its expensive peace interventions in Africa, Ashiru said that had changed now

"That is why when President Alassane Outtara came, he told me he had made a promise to himself that Nigeria must be the first country he would visit after his inauguration, to come and thank the Nigerian people and government for the support they gave his country. He said if not for Nigeria's stance, the bloodbath in Cote d'Ivoire would have been unimaginable."

On the arrest of 15 Russian sailors suspected of involvement in arms smuggling last October by the Nigerian Navy, and the allegation by Russia that Nigeria's action was jeopardising relations between the two countries, Ashiru said no country could put Nigeria under pressure.

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