Mali’s rapid ascent to the top of the news pages has managed to put Nigeria’s own militant Islamist problem in the shade. As this column went to press, the Guardian was reporting that the battle for control of northern Mali appeared to be drawing nearer to the capital, Bamako, and there was hand-to-hand combat between Ansar Dine insurgents and French special forces in Diabaly, central Mali. There is also fighting in Léré and Konna, and air strikes by French warplanes were continuing against the Islamists, though possibly with less assurance than before the rebels managed to shoot down a Mirage 2000 jet, providing proof of their well-equipped armoury. This includes surface-to-air missiles (from Libya), high-tech equipment such as night-vision goggles (from Russian arms dealers-with the blessing of the Kremlin), plus artillery and tanks seized when Malian garrisons were overrun, suggesting that warnings of the ordeal that awaits foreign armies are fully justified, as is the risk of “mission creep”. France is boosting troop numbers to 2,500 and the refugee problem is also growing rapidly: 145,000 Malians are estimated to have fled to Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Guinea and Togo. The UN is preparing for 300,000 internally displaced Malians and 400,000 refugees.
West African defence chiefs met in Bamako to approve plans to speed up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops. The plan was for the French military to gradually leave most of the fighting to a regional brigade under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), with Nigeria providing the bulk of these forces. However, Admiral Ola Ibrahim, Nigeria’s chief of defence staff, told the BBC: “We are encouraging the Malians to do as much as possible for themselves because the issue of sovereignty is a very sensitive thing.” This was partly natural caution (Abuja had already warned that their troops would need time to get fully trained and equipped) but also tacit recognition of the problem that Nigeria is in no position to solve the problems of its neighbour when it has, according to its own top brass, lost control of its own security situation in the fight against its own Islamist militants, Boko Haram. Meanwhile, a report by Amnesty International-Nigeria: Trapped in the cycle of violence-details arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions.
A senior source in Mali told the Guardian that a lack of training and discipline among Nigerian troops was increasingly apparent. “The Nigerian army is in a shocking state,” said the source, who has seen recent assessments of Ecowas’s military capability. “In reality, there is no way they are capable of forward operations in Mali-their role is more likely to be limited to manning checkpoints and loading trucks. The Nigerian forces lack training and kit, so they simply don’t have the capability to carry out even basic military manoeuvres. They have poor discipline and support. They are more likely to play a behind-the-scenes role in logistics and providing security.”
A Nigerian military spokesman admitted that the army lacked resources but said it had achieved success in previous interventions. “Nigeria has the trained personnel, what we require however is additional funding and logistic support.”
However, Amnesty’s report suggests otherwise: “Several people complained that when an attack is taking place, the police and military do not go near the area until some time afterwards, sometimes hours later. One lawyer told Amnesty: “The police and military were not able to offer any protection, Boko Haram don’t even run away [after an attack]. They just walk away.”
So how-despite Nigeria being ruled by military regimes for 30 years of its first four decades of independence, with the hundreds of billions of petrodollars siphoned off during this time-are the armed forces underfunded? One can only wonder where the money has gone. Meanwhile, Nigerian soldiers might well be dreading their deployment-it could be a long war.