President Goodluck Jonathan said Wednesday that regional troops would definitely intervene in Islamist-occupied northern Mali if negotiations with the extremists failed to yield a solution.
“Diplomacy or negotiation is the first, military intervention is extreme. When negotiation fails that is the time you can talk about military intervention,” said Jonathan, who is on a 24-hour visit to Senegal.
He said the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would also need a United Nations mandate before stepping in. “ECOWAS will definitely intervene militarily, but … first and foremost we are negotiating,” said the Nigerian leader after talks with President Macky Sall.
“We must stabilise the government … I believe through negotiation we will be able to resolve the crisis, we don’t necessarily need military intervention … but if that fails we will have no option.”
Mali this week formed a new unity government on orders from ECOWAS in the hopes it would be better able to deal with the country’s crises, and make an official request for military back-up from the regional troops.
The country is being run by interim authorities who took over from a military junta which ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22, plunging the once stable nation into turmoil.
The ensuing political chaos allowed Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels to seize control of the vast desert north, an area larger than France or Texas, where they have enforced strict sharia law.
The option of a military intervention from a 3,300-strong Economic Community of West African States standby force has been on the table for months but “very little” has been done to implement this, Mali’s Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara admitted recently.
Mali’s army chief of staff Ibrahima Dembele has said the Malian army - which is sorely in need of training and equipment - will play the lead role in ejecting the jihadists. “No-one will fight this war in place of Mali, but the others will provide support, above all in the air and in logistics,” he said on Tuesday.
The UN has asked for more information on the size, means and plans of the proposed force before granting it a mandate. ECOWAS on Wednesday urged the new government to swiftly organise elections and re-establish “territorial integrity”.
President Goodluck Jonathan however ruled out using force against extremists in his own country, brushing aside criticism he has not done enough to quell violence as Islamist group Boko Haram wages a deadly insurgency across northern and central Nigeria.
“The government of Nigeria will not move troops to wipe out a part of Nigeria, no, because terrorists … they mix with the civilian population so if you use superior fire power there will be a lot of casualties of people who are not involved. So you must be very careful … its a very delicate situation.”
He also indicated that attacks were decreasing by the group which is blamed for more than 1,400 deaths in Nigeria since 2010 in repeated attacks on security services, churches and other symbols of authority.
“Even if you listen to the incidents, the whole thing is coming down gradually and I assure you and of course the rest of the world that the Nigerian government is going to control it, we are on it.”