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Earlier this year, French troops began to end their 9-year presence in Mali.
The nation’s forces have been assisting in the fight against Islamist extremist groups in the West African nation since 2013, with troops first arriving to support the Malian government against an al-Qaeda backed rebellion in the North of the country. Since then, the French military have remained to push back against terrorist groups such as Islamic State in Greater Sahara and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Following strategic setbacks in the Middle East, many Islamist extremist groups began to relocate their efforts to The Sahel, the geographical region stretching from the East to the West of Africa below the Sahara Desert. The area encompasses large parts of Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, and initially the French presence was welcomed.
However, extremist activity at the hands of these groups has since killed thousands, displaced tens of thousands more and forced a generation of children to miss out on education due to school closures.
French military action in Mali and the wider Sahel region has not led to a decline in extremism as people had hoped – in fact, terror attacks have steadily increased since 2013, as has the number of Malians joining insurgent groups.
Some began to view French involvement in the struggle as a neo-colonialist ‘occupation’ (Mali was a French colony until 1960), and relations between the French and the Malian government began to decline. The August 2020 Coup d’etat in Mali appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for the French presence in the region after the ruling military junta pushed back democratic elections in the country until 2025.
The announcement of the end of Operation Barkhane (the official name given to French involvement) came in July 2021, with French President Emanual Macron stating that “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share.”
The gradual departure of troops is ongoing. But what does the French withdrawal mean for the future security of Mali and its neighbours?
With some fearing the retreat of French troops may result in a political vacuum, it would be prudent to look to the other nations in the region capable of leading the charge against insurgency.
One obvious choice would be Nigeria.
The West African nation is a leading figure in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and has a large economy in comparison to many of its neighbours.
Moreover, historically Nigeria has played a key role in the resolution of regional crises, successfully intervening in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia and facilitating the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in Cameroon.
Nigeria may well have the credentials needed to fill the gap that may be left by France.
Unfortunately, there is a cloud hanging over the Nigerian Government which threatens their ability to fund their own security efforts, and one that would certainly diminish their ability to assist in any other countries.
The debt came about following the failure of a gas supply and processing agreement (GSPA) between the Nigerian Government and an organisation named Process and Industrial Developments Limited (P&ID). P&ID had proposed that it would build a plant to process the gas which otherwise would have been lost to flaring during oil extraction, providing the Nigerian government with processed natural gas with which to power the national grid free of charge. P&ID would make its money selling the processing by-products – propane and butane. The trouble is that P&ID had no experience in gas processing.
When, after two years, the plant had failed to materialise, P&ID launched closed arbitration proceedings in London. That court ruled that Nigeria owed P&ID USD6.6 billion plus USD1 million a day for every day the state failed to pay the award. That debt now stands at over USD10 billion.
This sum is 20 times larger than Nigeria’s own internal security budget. If the country is forced to repay this debt, its ability to manage its own security will be compromised, never mind the ability of Nigeria to lead the way fighting insurgents across West Africa.
Fortunately, in September 2020 an unprecedented decision meant that Nigeria now has the chance to overturn the arbitral award. A ruling in the London Commercial Court found strong prima facie evidence of a massive fraud in the original business deal between Nigeria and P&ID, and the fraud trial will be heard before the London High Court in January 2023.
If justice prevails and the debt is cancelled, Nigeria can continue unimpeded to become a regional force for good in West Africa. The battle against Islamist extremism in Africa will require co-ordinated efforts and strong leadership, and Nigeria should be supported in taking up this mantle – not face potential bankruptcy of its state coffers as a result of a complex alleged scam.