Nigeria–the giant of West Africa–could be expected to play an outsized role in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force to intervene in Mali. The commander of the force is Nigerian, and Nigeria has reported it will supply 900 of the total force of 3,300. In the past, Nigeria has also footed the lion’s share of the costs of regional intervention forces.
However, at present Nigeria’s military is overstretched. There are troops on active duty in thirty-three of the thirty-six Nigerian states and the army, in effect, has the lead in responding to the Boko Haram insurgency in the north. Therefore, it is no surprise that President Goodluck Jonathan last week reported a cut to Nigeria’s initial troop pledge to the ECOWAS Mali force and signaled that his country would be unable to fund most of the operation, unlike in the past. Unfolding events appear to have bolstered that troop pledge again, however.
With the acceleration of Mali-centric activity following the French intervention, President Jonathan announced that Nigerian troops would arrive in Mali imminently. There are reports that some are already there. It is unclear what, if any, operational significance the presence of small numbers of troops from ECOWAS states will have on the current fighting. However, the Nigerian presence keeps open the ECOWAS role. France already has around 750 troops on the ground, and is planning to more than triple that to at least 2,500. The United States, UK, Belgium, Denmark, and Canada have all pledged transport planes, and in some cases, logistical and training support.
Many Nigerians inside the government have maintained that Boko Haram has links with international jihad networks, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the leading elements among Mali’s Islamic insurgency. Mali has used that claim as a basis of requests for outside help. If such links do exist on meaningful terms, it would seem likely that Boko Haram will escalate their attacks in northern Nigeria in solidarity with its Islamic brothers. If that happens, there will be yet more pressure on the already overstretched Nigerian forces.