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Saturday, February 27, 1999 Published at 02:03 GMT

World: Africa

Nigerian election 'threatens' Sierra Leone

Troops in Sierra Leone, described as "Nigeria's Vietnam"

By Mark Doyle in Abuja

The planned change from a military to a civilian government in Nigeria is likely to have a crucial impact on Ecomog, the Nigerian-dominated West African military force which has intervened in three wars in the region.

Nigeria elections
Both candidates in the presidential poll - retired General Olusegun Obasanjo and former Finance Minister Olu Falae - have said they want to withdraw Nigeria's troops from Ecomog.

A civilian government in Nigeria would find it hard to sustain the political unpopularity of Nigerian soldiers being killed in foreign wars.

'Nigeria's Vietnam'

Ecomog has a major military force in Sierra Leone where it is defending the civilian government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah against well-armed rebels.

Many people have called it 'Nigeria's Vietnam'. The Nigerian army has not revealed the number of casualties it has suffered there, but last month the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, referred to "hundreds" of Nigerian dead, without giving details.

Britain is helping finance Ecomog and has access to good information about the war.

Election promises

During his election campaign, Mr Falae said he would withdraw the estimated 10,000-15,000 Nigerian troops from Sierra Leone within a year if he were elected.

Mr Obasanjo gave no time frame, but said the Nigerian troops would not remain a day longer than necessary. He said it was unacceptable for Nigeria to waste money in Sierra Leone when those funds could be used to develop Nigeria.

Threat to Kabbah government

But if Nigeria did withdraw its troops from Sierra Leone, President Kabbah's government would be extremely vulnerable to rebel attacks.

The Sierra Leoneans are training their own army, and other states in the region - Ghana, Guinea and Mali - contribute to the Ecomog force based in Freetown. However, these countries have small numbers of troops compared with the Nigerians and it is uncertain how they would cope against the rebels if the Nigerians pulled back.

The Nigerians provide attack planes, troop ships and tanks, while the other members of Ecomog contribute infantry and little else.

No troops to Bissau

One indication that a Nigerian withdrawal was on the cards following the election was Nigeria's decision late last year not to contribute soldiers to an Ecomog peacekeeping force to help separate the warring parties in Guinea-Bissau.

This force, much smaller than the one in Sierra Leone, is made up of troops from Togo, Benin, Gambia and Niger. Without Nigerian assistance, these relatively poor countries had to turn elsewhere for help with sea transport to Guinea-Bissau and finance for the troops.

The country which provided this was Nigeria's only serious rival for political and economic influence in West Africa - France.

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