Why Nigeria Joins Mali Operations

Nigerian troops

Nigeria’s military joins international forces to rout Islamist terrorists, restore peace in Mali and return democracy to the crisis-ridden country

|  By Olu Ojewale  |  Feb. 4, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

THEIR mission is not impossible. But Nigerian troops who are being deployed in Northern Mali to participate in the United Nations approved operations, are embattled on two fronts. First, they are in the crisis-ridden West African nation to uproot the Islamist rebels that have captured the North and threatening to overrun the entire country.

Second, the troops are also there to dislodge the Boko Haram sect, a Muslim fundamentalist group, which has been terrorising Nigeria for over three years. For the Nigerian military, getting rid of the Boko Haram sect that has its base in Northern Mali, where it recruits, train and gets arms, is more fundamental because of its link with al-Qaeda, the main international terrorist group.

In an interview with Reuters’ news agency in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, January 22, President Goodluck Jonathan said that Nigeria had a direct interest in the crisis in Mali, because of links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda’s northern African wing. “We believe that if we stabilise Northern Mali, not just Nigeria but other countries that are facing threats will be stabilised,” Jonathan said in the interview.

He, however, promised that the Nigerian troops on the peace mission in Mali would not leave until democracy returns to the crisis-ridden country. “We cannot pull out until we have solved the problem. I cannot tell you when we will solve the problem, but Nigeria is totally committed and we remain committed until the crisis is resolved. Until democratically elected people take over the government of Mali, we will not pull back,” Jonathan was quoted as saying.

Lieutenant General Azubike Ihejirika, Nigerian chief of army staff, alerted the country on Thursday, January 17, that Mali-trained terrorists had infiltrated the country. If there was any doubt that this was untrue, the reality dawned on Saturday, January 19, when a military detachment heading for deployment in Mali was on the firing line of a splinter group of Boko Haram. Two of the Nigerian soldiers were killed and five others seriously injured. The soldiers from a military unit in Ibadan, Oyo State, South West Nigeria, were on the way to the town of Kachia in northern Kaduna State where they were to prepare for deployment to Mali, when the attackers struck near the city of Okene in Kogi State.

The following day, an Islamist group called Jama’atu Ansarul Musilimina Fi Biladis Sudan, JAMBS, or Vanguard for the Aid of Muslims in Black Africa, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to Nigeria’s participation in the military intervention in Mali. JAMBS, which splintered from Boko Haram in June 2012, is believed to have close ties with Islamist groups in North Africa and Mali. The group, in a statement signed by Abu Usamatal Ansary, its leader, asked Nigerian troops to be prepared and ready to face “difficulties from JAMBS any where anytime…” The group also vowed to intensify its attacks on Nigeria and other African nations that might send troops to the troubled country.

The first batch of Nigerian troops arrived in Mali Sunday, January 20, as part of ECOWAS military intervention in Mali codenamed Africa International Support Mission to Mali, AFISMA. Nigeria is contributing 1,200 troops to a 5,500-strong African-led mission in Mali to rout Islamist groups from the north.

This time of the year is extremely cold in Northern Mali, with the sahara wind reaching its peak. This may not be a challenge for Nigerian troops in Mali since combat operations require a lot of physical effort which would regularly keep their body warm. Sources say in addition to combat, the troops would be deployed to man border posts to seal off all exit points for the rebels.

A source close to Mali said the Islamists were skilled in marksmanship and were always trigger happy when they hold weapons. “They are precise in what they do and before and after any operation, they would say their prayers,” the source said. Nigerian troops are also asked to be mindful of JAMIS’ threat that it would be on the lookout for them.

Apart from JAMBS, what appears to be more worrisome for the African troops going into the campaign is the fact that the Islamists, who are being funded by Muslim radicals in the Middle East, have access to caches of sophisticated weapons. They have also benefited from the caches of arms brought into the country by the Tuaregs who fought along with the late Muammar Gaddafi’s troops before his death. In fact, the Tuaregs had been with the late Libyan leader since early 1990s when droughts ravaged their northern enclave and destroyed their herds, thereby leaving them without any means of livelihood. The central government was said to have cared less for them.

Until last year, Mali’s  government itself was a model of an African democracy, since the Malians removed a dictatorial government in 1992. But the democratic success story ended in March last year when a group of young soldiers led by an army captain seized control of the government. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo said the military was dissatisfied with the attitude of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government to the rebellion in the North where the Islamists with the support of the Tuaregs had taken over and declared an independent country called Azawad.

The Tuaregs had returned home after the death of Gaddafi to found the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MNLA, which they used to dislodge the Malian army. But the Islamists, who joined the Tuaregs to prosecute the conflict, had money and were well-horned in strategy which they used to turn against the Tuaregs and routed them. The Islamists also started destroying historic Islamic shrines and, the famous ancient libraries of Timbuktu.

Armed with sophisticated weapons and well-trained soldiers, the Islamists were on the march to Bamako, the capital of the country located in the south, when the French intervened and took the case to the UN for international backing. Intelligence reports revealed that the Islamists with the support of al-Qaeda, had plan to destabilise seven African countries including Algeria, Niger and Nigeria.

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