Alassane Ouattara, president of the Ivory Coast and chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), announced that he received a letter from Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan saying that Nigeria will withdraw part of its peacekeeping contingent in Mali.
The ECOWAS and UN force (MUNISMA) was to number 12,600 and replace the French force now in Mali that numbers 4,500. How many Nigerian peacekeepers are in Mali at present is not clear; the official number is 1,200. Nor is it clear how many Nigerians will be withdrawn. One Reuters report states that the Nigerian infantry will leave, but that signals operators and engineers will stay. Another report from the BBC claims that Nigeria will withdraw a full battalion of 850 following the Mali elections on July 28. This would limit Nigeria’s presence in the country “to 140 police, some staff officers, and a field hospital based near the northern town of Timbuktu.” The reality of Nigeria’s withdrawal, however, will become better defined as events on the ground develop further. According to Reuters, quoting the UN peacekeeping department, Nigeria will also withdraw some of its troops from the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.
According to Ouattara, Jonathan said the troops are being withdrawn from Mali “because of the domestic situation in Nigeria.” It is highly likely that this is the reason for the withdrawal from Darfur as well.
The “domestic situation” is the Islamic insurgency in the north called Boko Haram. Attempts to quell the insurrection and the state of emergency in three northern states have required the deployment of thousands of Nigerian troops. Up to now, the Abuja government insisted that it has sufficient military force to ensure internal security. However, according to the Nigerian media, a Nigerian Senate investigation concluded that the military is “severely stretched by the fighting with Boko Haram.” The Nigerian media has also carried stories–denied by the government–that Nigerian troops in Mali were ill-fed and not paid. This is not the first time Nigeria has withdrawn troops from Mali to strengthen its efforts against Boko Haram. Immediately following the May 14 state of emergency declaration, Nigeria’s Defense Headquarters ordered a portion of the troops in Mali to return home and participate in the war against Boko Haram.
The contraction of Nigeria’s peacekeeping role because of the insurgency in the north should be no surprise. Many–if not most–international observers have questioned the optimistic official reports that Abuja’s efforts to quell the insurrection were succeeding. Nevertheless, the contraction diminishes the country’s international role. Nigeria’s willingness to supply peacekeepers to UN, ECOWAS, and African Union missions over the years was an important source of Abuja’s international prestige and influence.