The Federal Government has increased from 776 to 1,200 the number of troops it is contributing to the military expedition in Mali, aimed at regaining the control of the northern part of the country from Islamic insurgents. President Goodluck Jonathan gave the new figure on Thursday in a letter he sent to the Senate seeking its approval for the deployment of troops to the terror-stricken country.
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, had earlier on Tuesday announced that the Federal Government would send 776 troops as Nigeria’s contribution to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), spearheaded by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The president in the letter addressed to Senate President David Mark, which was read on the floor of the Senate, also explained why the country is sending troops to Mali. During the consideration of the president’s request before it was subsequently approved by the Senate, Senator Magnus Abe (Rivers South) warned Nigeria against behaving like the United States, which he said would never be interested in peacekeeping in a place like Mali because it has no oil.
While Abe noted that despite Nigeria's good foreign policy which had been of utmost benefit to many African countries, such countries do not usually reciprocate Nigeria's good gesture. He, however said notwithstanding the unfair treatment meted out to Nigeria and Nigerians by other African countries, Nigeria should not be deterred from helping Mali and in promoting peace in West Africa.
Two batches of Nigerian contingent to the peacekeeping in Mali departed yesterday from Port Harcourt and Kaduna just as the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, revealed that the Federal Government had taken steps to beef up internal security to check possible reprisals by Islamic insurgents in Mali and their collaborators against the country.
In the letter to the Senate, Jonathan said taking responsibility of that magnitude was necessary in view of Nigeria's position as not only a big brother in the ECOWAS but also in the entire African continent. He also said the move was "in furtherance of the foregoing resolutions of the Security Council and other initiatives under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary General, the African Union and ECOWAS".
"Having satisfied myself that our national security is under imminent threat or danger as a result of the crises in Northern Mali, I , in consultation with the National Defence Council approved the deployment of 1, 200 [one thousand two hundred] members of the armed forces to serve in the African-led force (AFISMA) in Mali for limited combat duties," he added.
Jonathan said Nigeria was currently facing daunting security challenges, noting that given the nation's nearness "to the Sahel region, the crisis in Mali, if not brought under control, may spill over to Nigeria and other West African countries with negative consequences on our collective security, political stability and development efforts".
"As a responsible member of international community and given our recent experiences with insurgency and terrorist activities, especially in the northern part of the country, I felt compelled to urgently approve the deployment of Nigerian troops," he said.
Jonathan also said the deployment was in compliance with United Nations' Security Council's resolution 2085 (2012), which he said "was necessitated by the need to smash armed terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), their activities, as well as proliferation of weapons within and outside the region."
After Mark read the letter to his colleagues, Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba called for suspension of the plenary session and its eventual dissolution into a closed-door executive session. Upon their return to the plenary an hour later, the senators said the president's move was not only necessary but also timely and stressed the need to act fast to forestall the invasion of Nigeria by the rebels.
While Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu commended the bold initiative of France for promptly deploying troops in Mali, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri (Bayelsa West), advised the Federal Government to ensure it takes the lead in such an emergency in the nearest future while countries like France and Canada, which had gone ahead should only provide support.
When Mark called for a voice vote on the matter, there was no dissenting voice as the lawmakers unanimously endorsed the move. However, while speaking with reporters in Jaji, near Kaduna, after the take-off ceremony for the troops, the chief of army staff said the army was "aware of the influx of some chaps trained in Mali into the country" and assured the people that internal security measures were being stepped up in Nigeria. Fears of reprisals against nations contributing troops to the military expedition in Mali have heightened since some Islamic militants seized a gas plant in Algeria, in which they held some foreigners and locals hostage.
The militants said the raid on the gas plant was in retaliation for Algeria allowing France to use its airspace to carry out military attacks on the Islamic insurgents in Mali. But Ihejirika told the reporters that the Federal Government was aware of the risk involved in Nigeria’s participation in the military expedition in Mali and was doing all it could to check any reprisal. He said this was why Nigeria was enhancing its own security and that of its immediate neighbours while participating in the peacekeeping in Mali.
According to him, "Nigeria will not only be supporting the resolution of the international community, but also enhancing its own security and that of its immediate neighbours by participating in this operation.
"What we are going into could be described as peace enforcement that is to bring peace with the use of force."
He assured the troops of adequate provision for their welfare, adding that gone were the days when "the welfare of our soldiers is an issue."
"We have solved this problem [of welfare] some years back by ensuring that every soldier is paid through the bank; so before soldiers move for a mission, they open accounts in which a certain percentage of their allowances will be paid into while they are given some stipends," he added.
The army chief charged the 900 soldiers who underwent the four-week pre-deployment training to be resolute, dedicated and disciplined. In his remarks, the Commandant of the Nigerian Army Peacekeeping Centre (NAPKC), Major-General John Zaruwa, said the troops underwent the rudiments of lane training, including patrolling, cordon and search, anti-ambush drills, base camp security, VIP protection and convoy movements.
The air force contingent from Nigeria also left for Mali yesterday through Port Harcourt. Sixty-six men of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) were airlifted to Mali from the Port Harcourt International Airport by an Air Force jet aircraft marked NAF 952 at about 10am.
The men were addressed by the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh. Badeh urged them to ensure that they did the nation proud by abiding strictly by their briefings. He urged the troops, which included two females, to be focused, maintain professionalism and make Nigeria proud. Fielding questions from reporters after the departure of the troops, Badeh said the president had approved 1,200 men drawn from the air force, navy and the army for the operations.
Badeh said the air force would airlift more of its men from Kaduna and some other parts of the country for the foreign operation, adding that his men would remain in Mali until they achieve their goals.