Italy will spend a little over €30 million on a military mission in the Sahel, according to a resolution sent in recent days to the Parliament. That amount is what it would cost to maintain a contingent in Nigeria until Sept. 30, which, once fully operational, will consist of 470 soldiers, 130 land vehicles and two aircraft.
The joint Foreign Affairs and Defense committees of the House and Senate will discuss the resolution starting from next week. Barring any surprises, the proposed mission should not encounter obstacles, since both the Democratic Party and Popular Alternative party, as well as Forza Italia (as confirmed by Silvio Berlusconi himself), have said they support the new African plan.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni presented this mission at the end of the last cabinet meeting, explaining that the Nigerian government had requested the Italian presence on Nov. 1. The goal, Gentiloni said, is to “strengthen the country and combat human trafficking and terrorism.” The objectives to be achieved, as the resolution now explains, are training the Nigerian forces, particularly the army, the national gendarmerie, the National Guard and the Special Forces, in their activities of “combating the phenomenon of illegal trafficking and threats to security,” but also in increasing border surveillance, as well as contributing to the “development of the air-power component of the Republic of Nigeria.”
The main purpose of the mission remains, however, to make it more and more difficult for the caravans of migrants trying to get to Europe, by helping the Nigerian forces to further enhance surveillance of the border with Libya.
The Italian soldiers will arrive in several stages. Once the Parliament gives the green light, 120 will be sent in the first six months, and the presence will reach 470 soldiers by the end of the year. Regarding transport and supplies, the port of Cotonou in Benin, 1,000 kilometers from Nigeria’s capital Niamey, has been set as the point of embarkation and disembarkation, but other routes may move through Nigeria itself.
Mauritania, another country of the Sahel region, will be involved as well. A trainer team will be in operation at the NATO Defense College there, while other specialists in Nigeria will include doctors; engineering staff for infrastructure work; a specialist team operating against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats; a security force; and an information, surveillance and reconnaissance unit in support of the operations.
Gentiloni claimed that the soldiers will carry out counterterrorism activities, but, given the small number of personnel involved, many experts believe that, beside the training activities, the Italian soldiers will be used primarily to protect and manage the base of operations, which will probably be located at the Niamey airport. It is possible that the first soldiers shipped out will merely have the role of establishing an Italian military presence in the country, letting the next government decide on further operations.
One thing, however, is certain: The funding for the mission will only last until September, and then it will be necessary to find more money. This is made clear in a memo from the Ministry of Economy dated Dec. 28, warning that the new military commitments, added to those already underway (not only in Nigeria but also in Tunisia and Libya, totaling €125 million) will drive up the costs of the foreign missions to €1.504 billion, compared to €1.427 billion in 2017.
These expenses are covered only for the first nine months of the year, after which, according to the Ministry, “an additional €491 million” will be needed. Unless—the conclusion goes—drastic budget cuts are enacted.
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