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For tiny Burundi, big returns in sending peacekeepers to Somalia

For poorer countries like Burundi, sending soldiers to join a UN or African Union peacekeeping mission offers financial and political benefits, as well as better arms and training.

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On top of the financial incentives, the United States in particular often offers something else that African militaries need: top notch training. When the Nigerian military was considering sending troops to an AU-UN mission in Darfur late last decade, for example, “There was concern for the development of capacity,” recalls former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.  Part of that meant Nigeria’s participation in a US State Department program called Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA), which offers boot camp-like courses for peacekeeping forces, from rank-and-file prep to officer training. Washington spent $11 million training Nigerian troops in 2009.

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In Burundi, this same program contracted Northrop Grumman to train the Burundian military battalion by battalion, 10 weeks at a time. The sixteenth such battalion will conclude the course in January, according to a Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak on behalf of their capital on the matter.

Burundi’s government asked the United States to train the entire military, rather than just those troops destined to join Amisom, a request the US agreed to. The ACOTA contract is expected to run until 2013.

In theater, too, the soldiers gain vital experience, argues Ankunda. Uganda, another country that provides the mission with troops, “had the opportunity to undertake some marine training for its soldiers,” Ankunda said by phone. “[This could prove] very helpful in the future, as marines are patrolling the waters and insuring that the potential oil in the [offshore] area can be without threats.”

Political benefits

Less tangibly, peacekeeping undoubtedly yields political benefits, both at home and abroad, for the countries that participate. For Nigeria, the fourth-largest troop contributing country in 2010, this was certainly the case.

“Nigeria sees peacekeeping as part of its vocation as an African leader,” says Campbell. “Nigeria’s active participation in peacekeeping is one of the things that makes Nigeria’s claim [to try and win] a permanent African seat on the Security Council credible.”

The relationship with the United States can also be a deciding factor, according to Campbell. “I think there is no question that Nigeria’s active participation in peacekeeping is an important dimension in the bilateral relationship with countries like the United States,” he says.

Indeed, Nigeria has used this relationship to its advantage in the past, threatening to examine its peacekeeping commitment if the country was not removed from a US list of countries with unsafe air space in February 2010.

Uganda offers another example of the importance of the relationship with Washington. In November, the International Crisis Group worried out loud that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was using his troop commitment to AMISOM “to deflect international criticism of his brutal crackdown on a series of opposition protests at home, receive more military aid from Washington and gain political influence in the region.”

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