Throwback: Why Obasanjo shifted Nigeria from military to mediatory role in ECOMOG missions

Throwback: Why Obasanjo shifted Nigeria from military to mediatory role in ECOMOG missions

In 1990, West African leaders established the ECOMOG as a military arm of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to intervene in conflicts within the region, particularly the Liberian civil war which started in December 1989.

Nigeria, under the leadership of former Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, played a prominent role in pushing for the establishment of the ECOMOG force, and due to the strength of its armed forces, it automatically became the backbone of the regional force.

The ECOMOG had its first peacekeeping operation in Liberia and out of the 16,000 troops deployed to the country to quench the conflict, Nigeria reportedly provided 12,000 soldiers.

Generally, for the ECOMOG, the intervention was a successful operation as the troops succeeded in reinstating peace and order in Liberia after seven years of civil war, which is believed to be the bloodiest in Africa.

However, what turned out to be a successful expedition for the ECOMOG in Liberia was a pyrrhic victory for Nigeria as ‘the Giant of Africa’ lost at least 500 soldiers to the peacekeeping mission.

The military administration of General Sani Abacha led the regional initiative for the restoration of normalcy in Sierra Leone with 12,000 Nigerian soldiers in addition to the 1,000 soldiers provided by other West African countries.

Nigeria providing 92% of the troops sent to Sierra Leone for peacekeeping further accentuated its big brother status in Africa.

After several months of fighting the rebel forces, the ECOMOG troops reinstated Kabbah to power in March 1998.

Again, while the Sierra Leone outing was a big win for the ECOMOG, Nigeria had the lion’s share of the allegations regarding human rights violations during the intervention.

Despite losing hundreds of soldiers to the operation with over 1000 of them sustaining injury, Nigeria was accused of intervening in the crisis without any official mandate from other West African leaders.

The Liberia and the Sierra Leone peacekeeping missions stretched Nigeria to its limit as the situation prompted the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo to count his country’s costs in the ECOMOG missions.

In 1999, Obasanjo at a reception ceremony for Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers revealed that Nigeria lost at least 500 of its soldiers to the Liberian war. He added that hundreds of soldiers were wounded with a staggering sum of US $8 billion wasted on the peacekeeping operation in Liberia.

In 2001, the former President said Nigeria had spent $13bn on peacekeeping operations in 12 years.

The ECOMOG peacekeeping missions in the ‘90s constituted a financial burden for Nigeria because its ‘Giant of Africa’ status propelled it to always pick the bills for the operations, while other West African countries were reportedly incapacitated by the SAP-induced economic crisis of the time.

It was against this background that Obasanjo decided to wind down Nigeria’s involvement in ECOMOG missions in 1999. He also withdrew 8,500 Nigerian troops from the Sierra Leone operations.

As Nigeria eased out of direct military ECOMOG operations, its involvement shifted from wielding gun barrels to holding the olive branch. This explains why Nigeria did not take part in the ECOMOG mission to Guinea-Bissau in 1999.

However, given Nigeria’s natural leadership in Africa, the influence of the West African country still looms large in ECOWAS and ECOMOG interventions.

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