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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
The view from Nigeria
Ecomog troops
Nigerian troops defended Sierra Leone's Government
By Nigeria correspondent Barnaby Phillips

The long-running war in Sierra Leone, perhaps curiously, has never aroused strong passions in Nigeria. Outside commentators have described the conflict as "Nigeria's own Vietnam" - a reference to the large-scale deployment of Nigerian troops there - but the perspective from the streets of Lagos or Abuja is rather different.

Nigerians have tended to be more absorbed with their own problems, and the latest crisis in Sierra Leone is unlikely to change that.

Sani Abacha
Abacha: Ordered army into Sierra Leone
Intervention in Sierra Leone was unpopular from the start. It was the late military ruler, General Sani Abacha, who sent Nigerian troops there in the mid-1990s.

The Nigerians dominated and commanded the West African force, Ecomog, which has only recently handed over its peacekeeping role to the United Nations. Until last year, Nigeria had more than 10,000 soldiers in Sierra Leone.


But the Nigerian public was always suspicious about General Abacha's motives. They demanded to know why Nigerian lives and resources were being spent on propping up an elected government in Freetown when the general was so ruthless in suppressing pro-democracy agitation at home.

And after some 15 years of corrupt and often dictatorial military rule, public sympathy for the army as an institution was at a low ebb. Cynical Nigerians believed that soldiers serving in Sierra Leone were more interested in making money than keeping the peace, while news of Nigerian casualties was met with virtual indifference outside the immediate bereaved families.

Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo: In his interests to maintain regional peace
The Nigerian military's obsession with secrecy did not help matters. When hundreds of Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed in terrible fighting in and around Freetown at the beginning of 1999, the army said nothing.

The details reached the Nigerian public in the most roundabout way - it was the UK Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who broke the news of heavy Nigerian casualties while answering parliamentary questions in London.

Desire for peace

Nonetheless Nigeria's new civilian ruler, President Olusegun Obasanjo, eager for his country to play an active role in regional and global diplomacy, will now be desperately concerned that the tenuous peace in Sierra Leone should not collapse.

After all, a sizeable Nigerian force remains there, serving under the United Nations. The president responded promptly this week to an appeal from the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to send a negotiating team to Freetown, to try and reason with the Sierra Leonean rebel leader, Foday Sankoh.

But President Obasanjo is badly comprised by the situation at home. He promised, during last year's election campaign, to end his country's expensive military involvement in Sierra Leone.

According to Dr Ogaba Oche, a West African specialist at Nigeria's Institute of International Affairs, any move to renege on that agreement "will not meet with favourable public reaction".

Nigerians may feel sympathy for the suffering of Sierra Leoneans, but they do not want to see their country embark on another foreign adventure at a time when there is already so much hardship at home.

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04 May 00 | Africa
Renewed bid to free UN troops
01 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Farewell to the general
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