By Theophilus Ilevbare
The Nigerian Senate gave constitutional approval to the deployment of 1,200 troops for combat mission as part of the Africa International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) – an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organized military mission sent to support the government of ECOWAS member nation Mali against Islamist rebels in the Northern Mali conflict. The mission was authorized with UN Security Council Resolution 2085, passed on 20 December 2012, which “authorizes the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year. Nigerian troops had already been deployed by President Goodluck Jonathan before a letter was transferred to the Senate for approval. This action in itself raises serious constitutional questions.
The swift dispatch of troops belie the security challenges at home. It is now habitual and priority for Nigerian government to solve crisis in neighbouring African countries faster than the insurgency at home. If the federal government had responded in similar manner to the Boko Haram menace during its formative years, their activities would have been nipped in the bud. Security challenges now seem insuperable, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses are now the hallmark of the Joint Task Force (JTF) on duty in the troubled northern states of Nigeria.
The “brilliant record” of Nigeria’s participation in peace mission in neighbouring African countries count for nothing when compared to the insurmountable security challenges at home. There is nothing ‘responsible’ about being proactive in regional conflicts when the Boko Haram menace has claimed over 3,000 lives and counting. The present security challenges at home does not warrant any form of peace-keeping outside the shores of the country.
The conflict in Mali birthed by the emergence of three Islamist groups now active in northern Mali – Ansar Dine, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad all beefed up by an influx of mercenary fighters from Libya about a year ago. Defeats by Tuareg separatist aided by Islamist fighters coming back to Mali after the fall of Gaddafi triggered a military coup, in the confusion that ensued, the army were forced to retreat from the vast deserts of the north, with the secular Tuaregs swiftly pushed aside by their former allies, extremist militants took control of a vast area, big as France. For a country fettered with poverty, its citizens in perpetual pangs of hunger and most Malians practicing a temperate form of Islam, the insurgents in Mali were able to operate in shadow manner their presence undetected for years in the forests and deserts with strong ties and financial backing from al-Qaeda in the Middle East (AQIM). These Islamist rebels were also engendered by the subsequent destabilization of northern Africa after the war in Libya leading to the proliferation of arms and ammunition to groups masquerading as Libyan freedom fighters.
Nigerian government should take a cue from the reluctance of some European countries, particularly Britain whose Ministers were ordered to the Commons to stress that UK troops would not ‘undertake a combat role’ in the crisis in Africa, amid fears they could be sucked into a long, bloody conflict opting for logistical air assistance to France. The US played an active role in ousting Muammar Gaddafi during the Libyan uprising with air strikes without putting boots on the ground. Nigeria could have explored similar possibilities and should begin to think along such direction for future invitation to combat missions.
The suggestion by some senators that it is high time Nigeria considered her economic interest in foreign policies like the world super powers, US in particular, was instructive. We need not go on foreign missions without reaping the maximum benefits of our sacrifices. “It is no longer uhuru for the country to continue to play Father Christmas in its foreign policies” quipped a Senator.
The remark by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Azubuike Ihejirika, that Mali trained terrorists have crossed the border into Nigeria is rather preposterous as he gave no evidence of their presence. Actually, Nigeria does not share its border with Mali. In-between there is Burkina Faso, Niger republic and Togo. If all these nations did not report terrorist immigrants, then on what basis did the COAS raise alarm that Mali trained terrorist had landed Nigeria shores? A ruse it turned out to justify the deployment of troops to Mali.
There are real threats of retaliatory strikes of western targets across Africa and beyond, countries whose troops are part of the combined effort to flush out the terrorists. Mali may not play a significant role in world economy but it is surrounded, on far and near sides, by countries that do. Nigeria and Algeria with the largest and second largest gas reserves respectively in Africa, suppliers of petrochemical/minerals, make them potential targets of reprisals. Recently, al-Moulathamine, a group affiliated to AQIM has since claimed responsibility for the attack on a gas field in southern Algeria run by BP, Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach.
The Algerian government said 38 workers and 29 militants died in an attack during a three-day military operation to end the hostage crisis. After a special forces operation crushed the last holdout of the fighters at the Amenas plant. Considering that Algeria have been co-operating with the French military operations by allowing the use of its airspace and committing about 900 troops to the UN mission in Mali, the Islamists fighters vowed to avenge what they called the country’s support for French military action in neighbouring Mali. With Nigerian troops too in Mali, we may fear the worst.
There is a school of thought who believe the Malian crisis can be resolved with a bit of political persuasion rather than military intervention. Aside this, there lies a serious fear of Islamist fundamentalist taking over Mali and the country’s northern desert already held by insurgents and could become a breeding haven for terrorists to plan and launch international strikes. Already the fighters have taken control of major towns in the north. In the Taliban-Afghan style, they flog women for not covering up and amputate in public squares. The turban fighters have taken advantage of the political instability to capture territories hitherto used to stockpile weapons and train forces.
Few weeks ago, rebels seized control of a town called Konna, and gained entrance to Mopti, Mali’s second city which by extension means there capture of the whole south in addition to the already controlled northern part of Mali. Their aim is to topple the government in the capital, Bamako. French troops have provided effective shield for the capital. Reports say French and Malian forces reclaimed the key towns of Konna and Diabaly from militants after days of intense fighting.
Now here is the big question; what is the strategy of the Nigerian troops nay the AFISMA in Mali? Is it to crush the terrorist or chase them out? Whichever of the tactics they deploy, reprisals from splinter and allied terrorist networks in Nigeria, like the Kogi state attack, are a cinch. But if their strategy is to push them out which is the obvious tactics from days of fighting in Mali, border countries should be prepare against the influx of fleeing Islamist rebels.
To stay ahead of the game in the fight against terrorism, Nigeria needs to be proactive on the home front. Have we deployed troops to protect or fortify, if any form of security already existed, Nigeria’s porous borders? Did we count the cost of an economic spill over of a full blown war in Mali, or of a military impasse or casualty?
From the foregoing, the deployment of Nigerian troops to Mali has raised more questions than answers.