Leadership (Abuja)

21 February 2013

Nigeria: As U.S. Drones Near Nigeria...

editorial

It is curious that the United States is planning to establish a drone base in Niger, a country sandwiched between Nigeria and Mali. Significantly, these two nations have been under attack from Islamic militants. The drone base, according to a recent report in the New York Times, will give the US military command increased unmanned surveillance high ground on the activities of the Boko Haram sect and other extremist sectarian groups in West Africa that are affiliated to Al Qaeda.

The use of "drones", which are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has proved successful in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of the reported deployment plans is to limit risks involved with the use of humans and as well improve intelligence gathering around the desert belt connecting northern and western Africa. The report of the planned establishment of the drone base in Niger came on the heels of international efforts to rout Islamic insurgents from Mali.

About a month ago, French president Francois Hollande ordered a military intervention in Mali to rout a militant Islamist group which was on the verge of taking over the country. The intervention turned out to be a hugely successful outing, shooting up Hollande's rating at home. Nigeria is part of the international military coalition in Mali and have sent 1,200 troops to shore up the coalition.

As things stand, cooperation between international forces has been remarkably smooth. A rapid deployment of 4,000 well-equipped French troops and close to 4,000 African troops from seven countries has led to an equally rapid retreat of Islamist jihadists back to the north of the country. Intelligence support and in-flight refueling from the United States have been a crucial asset and will be reinforced by a drone base in Niger.

The planned deployment of drones has implications for our national security. The initial responses or lack of clear responses from the top echelons of the security sector on the implications of this development makes the whole thing more worrying.

When enquiries were directed to the minister of state for defence, Mrs. Olusola Obada, on how the plan by the US to establish a drone base in Niger would affect Nigeria's security, especially the fight against Boko Haram terror, she offered that government was reviewing the situation. "I will make consultations and get across to you," she added.

When contacted some hours later, she directed all enquiries to the chief of defence staff (CDS), Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, and Defence Headquarters for more information on the issue. According to some military sources, however, the plan has been in the pipeline by the US African Command (USAFRICOM), especially to monitor the activities of Boko Haram and their growing links with international terrorist organisations like the Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).

It is noteworthy that commander of the United States Africa Command USAFRICOM, Gen. Carter Ham, confirmed that the US has deployed its intelligence machinery to support Nigeria in fighting the threat posed by Boko Haram. Ham, who spoke in an interview session with a Nigerian media delegation in Stuttgart recently, said the support followed a request from the Nigerian authorities. The AFRICOM commander, who assumed the post in 2011, however, declined to give the details of the partnership with the Nigerian military against the terrorist group.

We also recall that when he visited Nigeria last month, Gen. Carter Ham was at the Nigerian Defence College (NDC) where he expressed concern over the increasing connectivity and collaboration between the network of Al Qaeda affiliates and adherents in Africa, including the Boko Haram sect.

Our core concern in the big picture is that if the US "drone diplomacy" must enter Nigerian sovereign territory, it must be a clearly defined collaborative arrangement, not a mish-mash of hazy cooperation without specific rules of engagement. Our weight and clout on the continent must be properly reflected in this matter. Our foreign policy priorities and internal security imperatives must take centre stage.

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