In spite of the Boko Haram insurgency in the country, Nigerian security agencies now have a fresh challenge to contend with.
The new task, according to the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Azubike Ihejirika, is the presence of suspected terrorists believed to have been trained by Malian rebels, in Nigeria.
Boko Haram terrorists, like the Malian Islamist rebels, have for years held the Northern part of Nigeria by the jugular, killing and maiming people, especially Christians in their quest to Islamise Nigeria.
“We are aware that most of the terrorists in this country today were trained in Mali.
“We are also aware that as of yesterday, there was still an influx of some chaps trained in Mali into the country,” he said, shortly after the first batch of Nigerian troops to the African- led International Support Mission to Mali departed the country(Nigeria).
Ihejirika added that Nigeria and its immediate neighbours were already enhancing their internal security strategies as their troops began participating in the peace- keeping operation in Mali.
He said, “Nigeria will not only be supporting the resolution of the international community, but also enhancing its own security and that of its immediate neighbours by undertaking this operation.
“What we are going into could be described as peace enforcement; that is to bring peace with the use of force. And as to whether the operation will be conventional or insurgent, the troops should have a mixture of both because of the characters of the rebels.”
The COAS assured that the Federal Government had made adequate provision for the welfare of the soldiers, adding that gone were the days when “the welfare of our soldiers was an issue.”
“We have solved this problem ( of welfare ) some years back by ensuring that every soldier is paid through the bank. So, before soldiers move for a mission, they open accounts in which a certain percentage of their allowances are paid into while they are given some stipends. With this, the issue of welfare will never arise,” he added.
Ihejirika said that the country was embarking on the mission to complement ongoing efforts to ensure peace and stability in the crisis-ravaged Mali and asked the 900 soldiers who underwent a four- week pre-deployment training at the NAPKC to be resolute, dedicated and disciplined.
Shortly before the departure of the first batch comprising 190 troops with defence correspondents working for major electronics media houses in Abuja, the Senate approved President Goodluck Jonathan’s request for the deployment of 1,200 troops for “a limited combat duty.”
Jonathan’s request reached the Senate on Thursday and was given immediate consideration, first, behind closed doors and later approved in plenary.
The 1,200 troops are however, 300 more than the 900 troops which the Director of Defence Information, Col. Mohammed Yerima, said on Tuesday that Jonathan had ordered for the military mission in Mali.
Yerima had said at a news conference that the first batch would leave the country for Mali on Wednesday while “the remainder would be deployed later.”
The troops moved in a convoy from Abuja to Kaduna where they were airlifted with C130 military aircraft.
Investigations revealed that the Air Force is using one of its most reliable fighter jets, “The Alpha Jet,” for the operation.
The Alpha jet played a crucial role in the Air Force involvement in the ECOMOG activities in Liberia.
It was learnt that an unspecified number of the Alpha jets took off from their base at Kainji, Niger State on Thursday.
Earlier on Thursday, the British international news agency, Reuters, had reported that the first batch of the Nigerian troops was expected to join ground combat at a border town called Banamba, close to Bamako.
“Banamba is in a state of alert. Reinforcements have been sent. Nigerian troops expected to arrive in Bamako could be deployed there to secure the zone,” a senior Malian security source was quoted as saying.
The Malian army was reported to have rushed reinforcements to Banamba after the rebels were spotted near the border with Mauritania.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Air Force has assured that its troops would remain in Mali until they accomplished the mission of bringing peace to the area.
The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, gave the assurance after addressing 66 operatives of the outfit, who were among the troops airlifted to Mali on Thursday.
Badeh expressed optimism that men of the NAF were going to Mali to do the country proud, adding that the objective of bringing peace to the country was in compliance with Jonathan’s directive.
He said, “ We (Air Force) will remain in Mali until our goal is achieved. The Air Force would airlift more of its men from Kaduna and some other parts of the country for the foreign operation.”
On Thursday, the United States, Canada and the European Union pledged their support to Nigeria and France for deploying troops in Mali.
This was contained in a statement by the Spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ogbole Ode, in Abuja on Thursday.
The statement said that heads of mission from the four countries made the pledge when the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gbenga Ashiru, briefed them on the update of troops deployment under the auspices of the ECOWAS African-led AFISMA.
They advised that the military strategy should also be pursued along with the political process, which should involve various parties in Mali.
The statement said that Ashiru informed the envoys that the crisis in Mali was an issue of deep concern not only to West Africa but to Africa, Europe and the rest of the world.
“It is against this backdrop that the military operations by the French to dislodge Islamic militants and to regain northern Mali deserve the unflinching support of the international community,’’ the statement explained.
It noted the uncommon international unanimity and endorsement that had greeted the military intervention by France, arising from the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085.