Yesterday, Nigeria’s The Guardian newspaper reported that President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered the withdrawal of Nigerian troops currently deployed to Mali. Nigerian troops initially entered Mali in January 2013 as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), and had come under the command of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), effective 1 July and authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 2100. With 4,684 troops currently participating in UN peacekeeping operations around the world, Nigeria is the third largest African contributor to such missions. In Mali in particular, as of mid-June, Nigeria had 991 troops in Mali (according to my numbers), meaning that one out of every six AFISMA soldiers came from Nigeria.
At this point, I’ve considered a few reasons that could be behind Nigeria’s motivation to withdraw from Mali:
- The first, and most likely reason Nigeria may pull out of Mali is the uptick in Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria. In mid-May, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, and the government believed that the progress of the security forces’ subsequent offensive was encouraging. However, Boko Haram’s continued attacks on soft targets in northern Nigeria, such as the pre-dawn attack on a secondary school in Yobe state earlier this month may have led the Nigerian government to reconsider its commitment in Mali.
- For a second reason Nigeria may be withdrawing from Mali, recall the criticisms levied against the Nigerian military in the fall of 2012 – just before its deployment to Mali. The Nigerian military was accused of being incapable of carrying out forward operations in Mali, to which the Nigerian government rebutted that the military had proper training for an engagement in Mali, but simply required funding and logistic support. Furthermore, as the most capable military in West Africa, Nigeria had previously been successful in restoring peace to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Truth be told, all ECOWAS troop contributing nations faced significant difficulties deploying troops to Mali, so pre-deployment challenges were not unique to Nigeria, but rather a common problem that afflicts many African deployments to peacekeeping missions.
- The third, and in my opinion, least likely reason is that Nigeria was slighted by the selection of Major General Jean Bosco Kazura of Rwanda as the MINUSMA Force Commander instead of Major General Shehu Adbulkadir from Nigeria, who had been the AFISMA force commander since January. If you had been following the debates surrounding the selection of the MINUSMA force commander closely, you might recall that there had been speculation of a competition between Nigeria and Chad for the position of MINUSMA force commander. Chadian President Idris Déby sought the position for Chad as recognition of the role that Chadian troops had played in the January-February offensive to clear northern Mali of Ansar Dine, MUJAO, AQIM, et al. Allegedly, in order to avoid choosing between Chad and Nigeria, the UN chose Kazura – a force commander from neither country who has the added benefit of being francophone. Again, this seems like the least likely motivation because, quite simply put, it seems petty.
Regardless of Nigeria’s motivation for potentially pulling its troops from Mali, I believe that the impact would have been worst if Nigeria had not deployed as part of AFISMA in the first place. If you think of French, Chadian, and AFISMA roles and missions in Mali since January in terms of “clear, hold, build” the French and the Chadians were the “clear” element, while the Nigerians as part of AFISMA were the “hold” element. (I don’t think we’re at the “build” stage as yet.) If Nigeria, as the seat of ECOWAS and the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations in ECOWAS, had not been part of that initial AFISMA deployment, it is unlikely that the force would have gotten off the ground in the first place. So yeah, it wouldn’t be great if the Nigerians end up pulling out of MINUSMA, but in my opinion, it could have been far worse had they not contributed to AFISMA in the first place.