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Nigeria's role in ECOWAS

Philipp Barth /alNovember 15, 2012

ECOWAS has endorsed a military intervention plan for northern Mali. But the roles of the 15 member states are unclear. Nigeria's presence is needed, but it has serious security problems itself.

Soldier patrolOjota district in Lagos. AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Years of violent conflict with separatists in the Niger Delta and terror attacks by Boko Haram in the north have destabilized Nigeria. The security forces are on constant alert.

Yet Nigeria's military leadership is now in demand. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has approved a plan to send 3,300 troops to northern Mali to liberate it from radical Islamists.

Jonathan Aremu is a Nigerian political scientist and ECOWAS expert. He says his country does indeed have the strength to lead the troops into Mali. "Domestic securtiy problems have not weakened Nigeria's lead position within ECOWAS," he says. 

Image and reality 

German journalist and Nigeria expert, Heinrich Bergstresser, says that may be true economically, but not militarily. The army has taken part in UN missions, such as Darfur, but is out of its depth when undertaking domestic policing duties in the wake of Boko Haram attacks.    

Nigerian peacekeepers in Darfur. Photo, (AP Photo/Alfred de Montesquiou)
Nigerian military have been taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in DarfurImage: AP

"Using the army to uphold internal security is one sign that the state is structurally weak. A further sign is the poor training of the police force," he said.

The rights group Amnesty International recently reported that the tactics the Nigerian military uses on its own population are arbitrary and brutal. The British newspaper " the Guardian" also wrote that the Nigerian army is barely able to carry out even the most basic of foreign missions. Begstresser detects a discrepancy between the reality of life in Nigeria and how the country presents itself.

"The Nigerian government has been very quiet recently," says Bergstresser, " because it knows that it has reached the limits of what is possible."

Historical leadership role

Yet Nigeria finds it difficult to abandon its traditional leadership role for historical reasons. It was Nigeria that pushed through the formation of ECOWAS in 1975, against opposition from France. Nigeria established the ECOWAS headquarters in its capital Abuja. In a display of strength in the 1990s, Nigeria led the first ever military ECOWAS mission. It was to war-torn Libera.    

With a population of 152 million, Nigeria is a major player in the region. It has a bigger population than all the other 14 ECOWAS member states put together. Its economy is also stronger than the economies of all the other states combined. Nigeria finances two thirds of the ECOWAS budget accordingly.

ECOWAS has aproved a military plan to send 3,300 troops to liberate northen Mali from radical IslamistsImage: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Linguistic divisions from colonial times

Nigeria's inability to play a key mediating role in the Ivory Coast and Togo conflicts highlights the gulf that separates it from francophone Africa. ECOWAS states still divide themselves up into English and French speaking, according to the language spoken by their former colonial rulers. A Nigerian ECOWAS parliamentarian, Kabir Garba,  urged ECOWAS citizens only recently to cease classifying themselves as Anglophone or Francophone. 

Nigeria is not seen as a model country in the region, says Heinrich Bergstresse. Corruption, huge social and security problems, have deprived it of the moral crediblity it needs in order to be regarded as a leader in the region. "The Nigerian government has finally realized that its original idea of become the regional power cannot be achieved."

Leaning from the past

With little moral credibility and only limited military strength, Nigeria still wants to contribute the bulk of the 3,300 soldiers on the Mali mission. But it is conscious that it is  joining a coalition that includes 13 other African states. This is a departure for Nigeria says Victor Adetula from the University of Jos. "The government has learned from past military operations and now knows it cannot act on its own," he said.

European states such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland have also been discussing involvement in Mali and a possible military training mission. The United Nations and the African Union will take a final decision on the mission at the end of November. Shortly thereafter, the troops could be ready to deploy.