Nigeria has announced it may bring home its soldiers deployed abroad to help fight the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, a move that could have significant security implications across Africa.
“There is a need for a ‘troops’ surge’ in operational areas, which may require recalling Nigerian troops from peace missions abroad to enhance the operational capabilities of the Nigerian army,” Mike Omeri, a government spokesman said Thursday.
The Nigerian government has come under strong criticism for its lackluster performance in containing the Boko Haram insurgency that continues to terrorize villages in the northeast of Africa's most populous country and largest economy. Civilians in affected areas have long complained of Army negligence and charged the military with neglecting its duties, including running away instead of confronting militants.
With almost 3,000 troops deployed outside its borders, Nigeria is the world's eighth largest contributor of peacekeepers to United Nations missions, and the third largest in Africa. Nigerian forces are involved with peacekeeping campaigns in South Sudan, Congo, Mali, Liberia, and Sudan’s Darfur region. Nigeria also provides troops to African Union missions.
On paper the Nigerian military and paramilitary together are said to number as many as 400,000, Yet active forces are thought to be closer to 160,000.
Mr. Oweri said the recall of Nigerian peacekeeping forces was a point of discussion when regional countries met in Niger earlier this week to discuss the multinational strategy to combat the insurgent group, reported This Day, a Nigerian daily.
Earlier this week, the UN Security Council condemned the Baga massacre by Boko Haam-- that left as many as 2,000 people dead – in its first public condemnation of the Nigerian jihadists. The Council also urged the multinational force to push forward with a strategy.
Baga, the town attacked by the insurgents this month, is a key military base for the Multi-National Joint Task Force that comprises troops from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameron. The troops are supposed to patrol the border and go after Boko Haram, but witnesses said the militants took control of the area after troops fled the town and left residents at the mercy of the attackers.
“The military has failed to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity,” said Manji Cheto of Teneo intelligence, a political risk advisory firm, to Bloomberg News. Ms. Cheto also noted a rise in vigilantes from communities that “felt let down by security forces.”
This not the first time Nigeria has redirected its peacekeeping forces. In 2013, the country withdrew some of its 1,200 soldiers from the UN peacekeeping force in Mali to tackle the jihadists at home. Nigeria's Mali deployment was criticized for being ill-equipped.
The Nigerian withdrawal became a blow for the then new UN force, the BBC reported.
Western cooperation with the Nigerian military has also been troubled. The US supplied arms and training to Nigeria, as well as intelligence support, primarily in pursuit of Boko Haram, but has complained of Nigeria's lack of cooperation and failure to make use of shared intelligence. Britain and France have also assisted Nigeria since the high-profile capture of about 300 schoolgirls from Chibok last year, most of whom remain unaccounted for.