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26 March 2004

U.S. Defense Official Places Nigeria in Forefront of African Militaries

Col. Nelson commends peacekeeping in Liberia, low AIDS rates

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. Army Colonel Victor Nelson recently had high praise for the Nigerian military, calling it a force for stability that has earned a reputation as one of the most capable armed forces in Africa.

While underfunded, Nigeria's military has met some extremely tough peacekeeping challenges, at the same time confronting the problem of HIV/AIDS in its ranks, Nelson told the Washington File during a March 23 interview in his Pentagon office.

On the peacekeeping front, the U.S. colonel, who commanded troops in the first Gulf War, said a battalion of the Nigerian 26th Infantry Regiment (Sokoto) "did a very fine job" as part of the recent U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia. The Nigerian battalion commander, who benefited from professional training in U.S. Infantry, Ranger and Airborne schools, is "as good as any we've got, and that battalion is as good as you'll find in Africa," he said.

The Nigerian military is also doing a good job battling HIV/AIDS, Nelson said, and has managed to hold down infections to between 6 and 10 percent of its troops, compared to the militaries of other African nations like Botswana and South Africa, whose infection rates range from 20 to 40 percent. (The U.S. government currently helps fund an 8 million Naira prevention program with the Nigerian Armed Forces Program on HIV/AIDS [AFPAC].)

Nelson, who now runs West Africa programs for the Pentagon's Office of International Security Affairs, was formerly U.S. defense attach for three years in Abuja, where he was instrumental in building cooperation between the Nigerian military and the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) during the African nation's transition from military dictatorship to democracy. In that role he helped arrange U.S.-Nigerian military partnerships like Operation Focus Relief (OFR), the 2001 training program that prepared several Nigerian battalions for service in Sierra Leone.

Nelson mentioned another U.S.-African military partnership called the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), involving Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. The State Department-administered program helped train and equip the countries' security forces, and troops from Chad, Niger and Mali recently concluded a successful operation against an Algeria-based terrorist group operating in the Sahel.

PSI, part of an overall U.S. policy against global terrorism, is meant to help Africans cooperate at the regional and subregional levels to secure their borders, and it seems to be succeeding as well as fostering greater cooperation with Maghreb countries like Algeria, he added.

The subject of Nigeria arose after Nelson was asked for his views on a recent commentary in the Washington Times entitled "Al Qaeda into Africa," whose author warned that Nigeria "is now on the verge of becoming a failed state. It is breaking apart along ethnic and religious fault lines."

Nelson rebutted the statement, saying: "I do not believe Nigeria is on the verge of becoming a failed state. They have too much oil wealth to be a failed state." Noting that public violence in Nigeria, whether based on religion, politics or ethnicity, gets high visibility from a vibrant and free press, he added: "We have to remember Nigeria is a huge country, with 133 million people, and so on any one day there is something going on. The thing to watch for is whether or not the security forces -- the police and army -- are able to maintain control, so then the government is not threatened. And that is the case today."

As for its relations with the United States, Nigeria "has been very supportive of American foreign policy," Nelson said. "Nigeria sends peacekeepers when we request it do so, and the example of Liberia is that they send some very good peacekeepers. It even took a warlord, [Liberia's] Charles Taylor, so that we could help advance the cause of peace in the subregion. Nigeria has signed Article 98 [impunity agreements seeking to shield U.S. peacekeepers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court] because we requested it.

"Sure, Nigeria has social problems," Nelson said, "but most countries do. The important point is that Nigeria is a force for stability in the region and a friend of the United States in many ways. Its military is the fifth largest in Africa and is a regional superpower. Although it doesn't receive much credit, it provides security for the nation and sends forces for peacekeeping in the subregion."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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