As Boko Haram’s raging insurgency in northeast Nigeria shows no signs of letup, Nigeria’s neighbors are taking the lead in fighting back against the Islamic terrorist group, which has killed nearly 10,000 people from 2013 to 2014 alone and displaced a million people in the region.
The United Nations is now directly involved, too, providing technical support from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and other UN entities to the Multinational Joint Task Force, or MJTF, a military response to Boko Haram authorized by the African Union and consisting of the Lake Chad Basin Commission countries: Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The standby team from the UN peacekeeping department just met in Cameroon with the task force as it firms up operations.
“This support falls under the overall multilateral collaboration that the UN has with regional and international organisations, including the African Union,” the UN statement said. “Any direct support by the United Nations for the actual operations of the MNJTF would be subject to an authorization from the Security Council.”
The UN has also said, in a rare criticism of Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram so far, that it expects more “robustness” from the country in tackling the terrorist group.
The president of Chad, Idriss Déby, a former rebel himself, is unofficially heading the regional force, which is based in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. The African Union has agreed to authorize 8,700 troops for the operation, which may include Benin. Regional concerns intensified when Boko Haram seized a multinational military base on the shores of Lake Chad in January. The body of water is a crucial economic source for the Lake Chad Basin nations, which surround it.
Déby is an eager participant in important regional conflicts. He sent Chadian forces to the front lines most recently in the Central African Republic and in Mali, where Chadian soldiers are bearing the brunt of the UN’s mission there in the north, dying regularly from terrorist attacks.
Déby has survived several coup attempts himself in Chad and came to power through such machinations before winning the country’s first post-independence presidential election in 1996. Amnesty International accuses him of stifling dissent, as Chad, a landlocked nation, has remained one of the world’s poorest nations under Déby’s rule and has one of the youngest populations in sub-Saharan Africa, as analyzed in an article by PassBlue.
“Chad, Cameroon and Niger have really cited Boko Haram as a major security threat and have dedicated their forces to making some progress on this,” said Darren Kew, a Nigeria expert at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The Nigerian military has had its foot on the brake.”
In a press conference on Feb.13, Mohammed Chambas, a Ghanaian who heads the UN’s West Africa office and is the UN special envoy for Nigeria, expressed frustration with the Nigerian military.
“We all expect more from the Nigerian military,” he said in a telecast to New York from Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. “We want to see robustness and greater resolve in the fight against Boko Haram.” Chambas suggested that more unity is needed in Nigeria for a successful offensive to take place.
Questions already abound over how the neighboring countries will cooperate with one another in the Boko Haram offensive as the terrorist group has swiftly attacked Chad, Niger, Cameroon in the last few weeks and increased its attacks in Nigeria. Chambas did not answer a reporter’s question on who will govern territory taken by the regional forces in Nigeria.
“The task that lies ahead for Nigeria and its regional partners is not an easy one,” said Kate Robertson, associate analyst in defense and security at RAND Europe. “Boko Haram is increasingly becoming a regional problem that requires a regional response.”
The other question is why Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest country by population and possesses the best-financed military in West Africa, has not overtaken Boko Haram itself.
Theories point to Nigeria’s corrupt, dysfunctional military as one source of the problem, while others posit that Nigeria’s government, led by Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, is deliberately looking the other way as Boko Haram has been unleashing bombs in northeast Nigeria and kidnapping civilians for about five years. Northern Nigeria is a bastion of Muslims, leaving the country divided between Christian and Muslim faiths and politics.
Jonathan is also in the throes of a presidential election campaign, running for a second four-year term against a former general and ex-Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, from the north. The election was postponed from Feb. 14 to March 28. Some analysts of Nigerian politics, which are based on oil oligarchies and power struggles, contend that the military said it could not guarantee a violent-free election, so it was delayed. Others contend that Buhari was ahead in the polls, forcing the Jonathan camp and fellow high-level military allies to put off the election to give Jonathan’s campaign more time to ensure a win.
In Lagos, the capital, conspiracy theories cover many angles, like the possibility that Boko Haram has become a catch-all term for many militias wreaking havoc in the north to pull voters toward either Jonathan or Buhari, depending on who appears to be most able to stop the bloodshed.
Some analysts also suggest that violence will multiply before the March 28 election, so that Jonathan can postpone the vote indefinitely and declare an emergency state. Chambas said that the decision by the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria to delay the elections was legitimate, as it can allow for up to 10 million voters to receive proper identification, including in Lagos, the most populous city.
To try to seek money from the UN for the regional joint task force, the African Union must get approval through the UN Security Council, where Nigeria is an elected member through 2015. The closest the council has come to pronouncing forcefully on Boko Haram was a presidential statement, released in January, condemning the group.
If the joint task force accepts financing from the UN, it must adhere to certain legal standards, including a civilian protection component of police and human-rights monitors, according to Chambas, who highlighted the importance of Western nations — presumably Britain, the United States and France — in sharing intelligence with the task force.
The Chadian military has made big maneuvers inside Nigeria to rout Boko Haram recently, as its forces recaptured the border town of Malumfatori, in Nigeria. Another recent operation conducted by Chad and Cameroon resulted in the deaths of more than 250 Boko Haram fighters, one of the largest offensives so far to be led by an outside nation inside Nigeria.
Niger has also been caught in cross-border fighting, forcing thousands of residents to flee the border region of Diffa. Troops from Niger have been searching homes in the area where Boko Haram militants may be hiding; about 160 such people have been arrested.
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Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.