During the 43rd ordinary session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on 18 July 2013 in Abuja, Nigeria, the Chairman, President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, announced that the Nigerian government had requested the withdrawal of its troop battalion deployed in Mali as part of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation.
According to Ouattara, the decision was based on the unstable security situation in Nigeria’s north.
However, the Nigerian government’s sudden decision to pull out of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) came shortly after the Rwandan Major General Jean Bosco Kazura was appointed by the UN Secretary General as commander of the mission. Kazura’s appointment sparked controversy, leading to speculation that Nigeria withdrew its troops in protest at the UN appointment.
Questions remain as to whether Nigeria really withdrew its troops in protest, and whether Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s action was indeed motivated by domestic imperatives.
This question is very important, as the north of Mali is still not stabilised and MINUSMA is in dire need of additional troops to beef up security. At the same time, on 8 November the Nigerian Senate approved a six-month extension of the state of emergency to deal with the deadly insurgent movement Boko Haram.
Nigeria has a long history in peace and security engagements in Africa, dating back to 1960 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since then, the country has participated in over 25 UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Over the past year, Nigeria has deployed 5 956 peacekeepers internationally. Figures from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations indicate that as of 31 May 2013, 4 738 Nigerian peacekeepers were deployed in the field, making it the fifth-largest troop-contributing country in terms of UN peacekeeping.
In addition, at the regional level, the West African giant is also the main troop contributor to the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) and is always in search of solutions to conflicts in the region. This has been illustrated by its involvement in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts, with the ECOWAS Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (ECOMOCI) and more recently with the ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau (ECOMIB). Nigeria has also demonstrated initiative and commitment in Mali by taking the initial lead in regional peace and security efforts and through its significant troop contributions. It also headed the African-led International Peace Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), which was replaced by MINUSMA.
Yet despite Nigeria’s track record in upholding regional and global security, no Nigerian has been appointed to head any of the current UN peacekeeping missions.
Neither the complexity of the crisis in the Sahel and northern Mali, nor the importance of ‘a neutral’ force commander should be underestimated. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s troop withdrawal can be interpreted as a political reaction to the side-lining of both it and, in this particular case, Major General Abdulkadir Shehu, in heading UN-led missions. Shehu, a Nigerian, had led AFISMA before its replacement by MINUSMA. In a BBC report, an anonymous Nigerian military source stated that ‘Nigeria feels shabbily treated … we think we can make better use of those people at home than to keep them where they are not appreciated’.
Another anonymous source cited by ThisDay Live said: ‘You remember what happened in Sierra Leone, after our troops had done the major thing, won the war, secured the peace. First came the British to take the glory and then an Indian Lt-Gen. Vijay Jetly was given the command of the operations by the UN. Now they are bringing one Maj.-Gen. from Rwanda after using us to do the dirty work’. These statements show the level of Nigeria’s disappointment with the UN.
Bearing the above in mind and notwithstanding Nigeria’s role as a key player in peacekeeping, it is important to remember that the government also has to deal with its own challenges in the form of Boko Haram.
In mid-May, Jonathan’s government declared a state of emergency in the northern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Over 8 000 soldiers are now deployed in these states. As for the returning troops from Mali, they were immediately redeployed to the north on 5 August, after Borno state had asked for more help to contain the Islamist militants who have killed over 3 600 people since 2009.
Boko Haram has recently also increased its attacks, especially on ‘soft targets’ such as schools. For example, in July 2013 it carried out a deadly attack on a campus in Mamudo, killing 41 students. More recently, on 29 September 2013, its members gunned down over 40 students at an agricultural college in Gujba, Yobe state. These repeated mass killings show that the threat remains in the north-eastern part of the country, and a lot still has to be done by the Nigerian government to eradicate the violence.
On the one hand, the Nigerian government’s need to respond to its domestic security challenges appears to be a compelling reason for pulling its troops out of Mali, as it must first ensure Nigeria’s own stability before working on regional security. Failure to contain Boko Haram risks its spread and alliance with other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Al Mourabitoune. With this potential powder keg comes the increased likelihood that the fight against Boko Haram will take on a new dynamic – namely asymmetric warfare. Given the general weakness of armies in West Africa, they will probably not be able to respond efficiently to the threat.
One the other hand, it is increasingly becoming evident that defeating the jihadist and terrorist groups threatening states in the Sahel and West Africa does not depend exclusively on military prowess.
The Nigerian pull-out from MINUSMA has been a blow to the UN contingent, which still faces many challenges in meeting its targeted capacity of 11 200 soldiers and 1 440 policemen. For now, Abuja is torn between international glory and domestic security, and it appears that, this time, preference has been given to domestic security. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s contribution to peace on the continent needs to be acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged.
Written by Mouhamadou Kane, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria