UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
LAGOS, 12 July (IRIN) - With the signing of the Sierra Leone peace accord, Nigeria quickly announced a programme for the phased withdrawal of its estimated 12,000 troops serving in the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
Does this mean the end of intervention by the regional giant in West Africa's conflicts? Many analysts think that is neither the case nor desirable, even though Nigeria is keen to drop what has been a costly burden.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan conveyed much the same message at the weekend when he visited Nigeria for two days en route for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Algiers.
"I am here to thank Nigeria for its efforts in the region on peacekeeping and trying to make sure that we are able to calm the waters and settle the crisis in the region from Liberia to Sierra Leone," Annan told reporters during his visit.
He said the United Nations planned to expand its peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Sierra Leone towards the implementation of the peace agreement and would work with ECOMOG for that purpose.
For Nigeria, returning to democracy under President Olusegun Obasanjo and in severe economic straits after a ruinous 15-year stretch of military rule, the key issue is reducing costs rather than spend heavily, as it did in the past nine years of intervention in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone.
While Obasanjo is keen to see Nigeria play a prominent role in ensuring peace in a continent where about one in every seven persons is Nigerian, he appears equally mindful of the financial implications. Nigerian officials said he wanted the United Nations to take financial responsibility for the Sierra Leone operation.
"Future interventions by Nigeria in conflicts in West Africa or anywhere in the continent really depend on whether we can afford it," a senior Nigerian official told IRIN. "But that does not mean we will fail in our responsibility as our brothers' keeper."
There are a number of reasons why Nigeria should be concerned with African conflicts.
One of them is Obasanjo's background: as a soldier he served in the UN peacekeeping force in Congo in the 1960s and as a military ruler in the 1970s he pursued Africanist causes and gave stong backing to the liberation movements in Southern Africa.
There is also the need to keep the busy an army which, having held power for 29 of the 39 years since the country's independence from Britain, may be vulnerable - if idle- to the temptation of seizing power again.
Moreover, Nigeria's military establishment genuinely perceives a threat, even if remote, to its security in the events of the past decade in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Brigadier-General Maxwell Khobe, the Nigerian ECOMOG commander who is also chief of Sierra Leone's army, has often accused Libya of implementing a destablisation plan in West Africa in alliance with the governments of Burkina Faso and Liberia using Sierra Leone's rebels.
While Burkina Faso and Liberia have denied the accusations, the destablisation theory is taken seriously by Nigeria's military authorities and is bound to shape future regional military policy.
"I foresee a situation where ECOMOG maintains a substantial presence in Sierra Leone for the purposes of sub-regional stability," said Aderemi Oyewumi, a former researcher at Nigeria's Institute of International Affairs.
"Nigeria is also likely to become more involved in conflict resolution in Africa if its economy improves," he added.
There are good signs for the economy with the price of oil, the country's main source of revenue, approaching a 19-month high.
The return of democracy and economic reforms pledged by Obasanjo are likely to yield concessions leading to relief from an external debt of about $30 billion, giving more financial room to pursue wider regional objectives.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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