West africa

Nigeria presses for Canada to aid Mali

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada Ojo Uma Maduekwe says if the West takes a piecemeal approach, the conflict in Mali will only get worse. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Nigeria, the leading power in West Africa, wants Canada and other Western nations to take on the conflict in Mali as an international problem and provide funding and heavy equipment like helicopters – and it is warning the West not to parcel out small pieces of support now because it will force them to take on a more costly effort later.

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As Canada and other Western nations debate sending more support for France’s military mission in Mali, one question has drawn little notice: What does Africa want? In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Nigeria’s ambassador to Canada, Ojo Maduekwe, provided an answer: real military resources to support African troops, and a full-throated international commitment to the fight.

With 167 million people, Nigeria is a country that Stephen Harper’s government has placed on its shortlist of key nations with which it must forge stronger ties to grow Canada’s economy. Trade Minister Ed Fast will lead 30 company executives to the country this weekend.

Mr. Maduekwe, a former Nigerian foreign affairs minister and campaign manager for President Goodluck Jonathan, warns that West Africa faces a threat – in Mali, in his country and the region – that isn’t a broad popular uprising or a battle between religions. Nigeria is sending 1,200 troops, alongside 2,500 from other West African nations. But he said they need military backing from Canada and others to succeed.

“What is required here is global political will, and global resources far beyond the capacity of African states, to see this thing as a common threat and deal with it,” Mr. Maduekwe said. “Rather than waiting for this thing to get worse, the time to deal with it is now, by a more imaginative, bolder and more creative response. An incremental approach ultimately is not the smartest thing to do. It will be more convenient for now, but more costly in the future.”

The Harper government, concerned about being dragged into a widening war, has sent a C-17 heavy-lift aircraft to ferry equipment from France to Mali. “It’s something,” Mr. Maduekwe said. “It’s not enough.”

A few African leaders, like Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, have opposed the French military intervention. But West African neighbours have viewed the Islamist insurgency in Mali as a developing disaster. Niger’s ambassador to Canada, Fadjimata Sidibé, noted last week that the uprising has threatened to displace Mali’s secular government with harsh Islamist rule – a chilling thought for neighbours with both Christian and Muslim populations.

In Nigeria, an al-Qaeda affiliate has launched bloody attacks. Boko Haram, seeking to create an Islamist state, is suspected of killing 23 people in northeastern Nigeria this week – 18 hunters selling meat from animals strict Muslims do not eat, and five playing an outdoor board game. The group was linked to the killing of 600 last year alone.

Mr. Maduekwe despises suggestions that it’s a religious clash. “In my country, Nigeria, both Muslims and Christians are united in the struggle, are united in their outrage about the life-denying damnation of the pseudo-religion of these criminals,” he said.

Mr. Harper said Wednesday that he’s considering “whether and how” to extend Canadian assistance for France’s Mali mission. The next phase of the Malian mission is the deployment of African forces. Mr. Harper has stressed the need for African leadership. Mr. Maduekwe points to the fact that although Nigerian soldiers are spread over six states to deal with Boko Haram, it has sent 1,200 to Mali.

“We’ve moved them. We’re already there. And more [are coming]” he said. “That is the African initiative. Initiative is one thing, capacity is another. And all we are asking for is to reinforce that capacity. We need equipment, which we do not have. We need funding for this – it shouldn’t be seen as a regional problem, it’s an international problem. We need training in dealing with this kind of threat.”

Mr. Maduekwe said no one expects Canada to send combat troops, though “they’d be very much welcome, like the French,” but it can do more. African troops will need helicopters, for example, to move quickly around a vast area to strike jihadists and secure the ground, he said.

That is an uncomfortable request for Mr. Harper, who has stressed that Canadians aren’t being sent to combat zones. Sending Canadian helicopters means sending Canadian pilots and crews and guns to protect them.

Is it Canada’s worry? Mr. Maduekwe insists it matters to Canadian interests. Ottawa is working to expand trade ties. Canada will eventually realize that the danger in Africa is a threat to the world, Mr. Maduekwe argues. “We want the Canadian voice to be very strong to say that the challenge in Mali should be seen as an international problem, not just an African problem.”

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark