By Eghe Isiaka Guobadia
Nigerian soldiers are again helping to keep the peace; and this time around keeping off a strain of Islamic zealots hoping to establish a theocracy in a troubled part of Africa. The intervention has the backing of the United Nations Security Council, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Both institutions believe that the use of force is necessary to unite Malian territories and dislodge those Islamists who took advantage of a political uncertainty in Mali to sweep across its northern region, taking over territories and towns including Gao and Timbuktu.
The Security Council resolution approved in New York calls for political reconciliation, elections and the training of Mali’s security forces before any military operation is launched to reclaim Mali’s northern areas. But probably concerned for its investment interest around Mali, the French impatiently went there with their big guns to sack the Islamists before the African nations were fully ready to engage. Now, soldiers from Nigeria and their counterparts from six other African countries are in Mali to keep the gains of the French. And perhaps also to keep an eye on the Malian army where rival units are still at loggerheads.
From the lessons of warfare in the last several years, it is clear that big guns alone do not end a war. It is also true that the armies of many small and financially weak countries are no match for the battle-tested, loose and well-armed unconventional armies of al-Qaeda-allied fighters. Evidently, no sooner was the French air campaign over than the Islamist insurgents launched a surprise attack in the heart of the Malian city of Gao, fighting French and Malian troops in efforts to retake Mali’s recaptured north – a taste of what is yet to come.
What happened in Gaa indicates that turbans alone do not distinguish between terrorists and the rest of the population; and that desert conditions and the sympathy of the locals are to the advantage of the Islamists. This is where the whole matter becomes tricky and makes forecast for ending the war blurry, if the experience of the United States in Afghanistan is anything to go by.
Nigeria and the other African nations, in my opinion, are in for a long haul! Canada, for instance, envisaged this and did not commit troops to the Malian campaign. Its reason is that the campaign is threatening to become a counter-insurgency operation, similar to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK and Germany, amongst others, are not committing troops but equipment and logistic supports only. Their reason probably is similar to that of Canada.
If predictions are right and the war becomes longer than anticipated, shouldn’t the question be asked how prepared are our armed forces, our civilian leadership and our general population to face the challenges of a long war without a clear end-point? A long war will sap the patience of our men and women in uniform, their families and the civilian population. It is costly, in both money and blood and could take resources away from most urgent domestic needs or over-extend already meager resources in critical areas.
Besides raising the profile of al-Qaeda amongst its supporters, an endless war could complicate matters for the home governments of some of the African nations contributing troops. Nigeria in particular has a sizable Moslem population; and any real or imagined action that offends the sensibilities of Moslems or Islamic tradition in Mali could cascade into unexpected negative consequences amongst sympathizers elsewhere. In Nigeria, it could embolden Boko Haram and hand it a recruiting tool. A long war could also become a magnet for restive returning fighters from Syria, Somalia and Yemen looking for more action in entirely different environments. Or result in a population displacement, the refugees of which will invade the entire West African nations, consuming their resources.
To prevent these fall-outs is exactly where Nigeria’s national interest lies and perhaps one of the reasons why it has committed its troops to the campaign and peacekeeping in Mali. Countries contiguous to Mali – Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal – have more to lose from its unraveling and they should be on the frontline, but many of them aren’t. Nigeria’s commitment must, therefore, not be ad infinitum. It must decide when best to pull out and bring its young men and women home. Nigeria has its own unresolved insurgency, kidnapping and border control problems that warrant the mobilization of all available resources.
The potential for a quagmire exists in Mali and it will not be in the best interest of Nigeria to be sucked in, not when it appears that a sizeable section of the country has a natural empathy for the Islamists. Moreover, the financial and human costs would be enormous.