A Delicate Balance: Nigeria’s Role in an ECOWAS Intervention Force in Mali

by Margot Shorey on October 1, 2012

Although Nigeria has been a driving force in establishing peace and security in the region through its role in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), it has struggled with multiple internal conflicts that jeopardize its own security. Given the current crisis in Mali, ECOWAS, with international support, must work closely with Nigerian and Malian leaders to find a role for the regional hegemon. Any plan of action must take into account Nigeria’s prominent status without jeopardizing its domestic or regional stability. This will be in both Nigeria and ECOWAS’s interests.

Within Africa, Nigeria is dominant. The nation is Africa’s most populous country, the continent’s largest producer of oil, and its second highest troop contributing country for UN peacekeeping missions worldwide. Nigeria has been an economic and political leader in the regional organization ECOWAS, which is headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Now, as West Africa and the world face the region’s most pressing and volatile security situation in Mali, Nigeria must carefully balance its own tense internal security challenges with its leadership role within ECOWAS and the region.

Instability reigns in the north of Nigeria, where, since 2009, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has been waging a brutal and incessant campaign against government and civilian targets, particularly Christian sites. The group claims to be fighting to transform Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. Paradoxically, it is other grievances, such as extreme poverty, high corruption, and inequality with the more developed south, that allow the group’s extreme ideology and tactics to resonate with the local population.

Boko Haram’s current wave of weekly attacks in Northern Nigeria has instilled perpetual fear in the day-to-day lives of both Christians and Muslims. An August 2011 attack on the UN headquarters building in Abuja showed increased technical skill and an international dimension, not to mention its precedent as the first attack outside the north, illustrating the deepening intra-state conflict Nigeria finds itself in.

Though Boko Haram has not committed any attacks outside of Nigeria, regional and international security actors are worried about the group’s potential to destabilize West Africa’s most powerful country and expand within the region. The United States recently has expressed concern about Boko Haram’s risk to U.S. national security and pledged support to the Nigerian government to help combat the terrorist group. In June 2012, General Carter Ham, Commander of U.S. Africom, suggested that security experts’ worst fears of Boko Haram coordination with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab are becoming a reality. On her recent African tour, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by offering support to the Nigerian security forces to combat Boko Haram.

Although instability in Nigeria clearly poses a concern for the international community, controlling the security situation in Mali following the March 2012 coup has become a priority. In the past six months, Mali’s vast north has become an ungoverned region, hosting a range of non-state armed groups with complex allegiances that the weak post-coup government has failed to control. Islamic extremist groups like Ansar Dine or the Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) are threatening local security through a strict application of Sharia Law, which is causing a mass displacement of Malians and a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the lack of state control has enabled Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, AQIM, to establish itself in Northern Mali. Mali’s neighbors are worried about how Al Qaeda’s proliferation could destabilize the region, and the international community fears even greater consequences beyond West Africa.

ECOWAS’ proposed force of 3,300 troops presents one potential military solution to combat the armed groups controlling Northern Mali. On September 24, 2012 the Government of Mali and ECOWAS agreed to the planned ECOWAS support force, and Mali has now requested UN Security Council Authorization for such an intervention. The Security Council is seeking a more detailed plan from ECOWAS, providing an opportunity for regional and international leaders to think not only how and when the force should operate, but also who will comprise it.

Nigeria is the strategic and financial leader of ECOWAS and will likely be the backbone for the ECOWAS force in Mali. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s forces have struggled to control an Islamic extremist group within its own country, so they will probably be unable to promote stability any better in a significantly more challenging, unknown environment. Additionally, Nigerian participation in a Mali intervention could trigger retaliation from Boko Haram or attacks by Malian jihadist groups on Nigeria. A Nigerian-driven ECOWAS force could also provide greater rationale for Boko Haram and AQIM to link up and internationalize. That disastrous outcome would worsen the crisis in Mali further.

Still, despite these precautions, an ECOWAS force without a significant participation from its regional superpower may not be financially or logistically possible. These dilemmas highlight the challenges of forming a high capacity, neutral, and well-financed regional force in an area where many countries face their own internal conflicts. Because of its importance in the region and the world, Nigeria’s internal security is crucial to the overall stability in West Africa. A regional force to bring peace to Mali must not compromise Nigeria’s ability to solve its own violent extremism threat.


An earlier version of this article featured a photograph of soldiers that were from Niger, not from Nigeria. The Forum regrets the error. This photograph portrays Nigerian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

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