An offensive against Boko Haram by a regional task force is preparing to deploy, led by Nigeria and its partners — Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin. At least that is the plan. Troops will number about 8,000 soldiers, with headquarters based in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, and headed by a Nigerian, Maj. Gen. Iliya Abbah.
The force has an operational concept, clear rules of engagement and a unified command, unlike the ad hoc setup in which Chad and Niger partnered to push back the Islamist extremist group in the Lake Chad Basin region earlier this year as Nigeria took on Boko Haram inside its borders.
So “there shouldn’t be any misunderstandings” among the countries involved, said Mahamat Zene Chérif, Chad’s ambassador to the UN, in an interview with PassBlue. The new arrangement allows the task force to go into any of the five participating countries, especially Nigeria. So far, though, the countries are still fighting Boko Haram independently, despite firm approvals from the African Union and the United Nations and money pledged from Britain and the United States for the five countries to proceed jointly. Nigeria has said recently, for example, that it has started negotiations with Boko Haram.
When Chad and Niger first attacked Boko Haram together in March 2015, concerned that the extremists would soon cross their borders from northeastern Nigeria, they claimed victories in crucial towns, embarrassing their big oil-rich neighbor Nigeria. Until then, Nigeria, where Boko Haram originated, had been waffling in its response to the terrorist group’s violence as it kidnapped, bombed marketplaces, hospitals, mosques, churches and schools and killed ordinary people, sending about 2 million to refugee camps.
After military successes this spring by Nigeria and by Chad and Niger, two of the poorest nations in the world, Boko Haram has been reduced. At the same time, realizing their need to work together, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, another neighbor, formed the multinational joint task force to expel Boko Haram fully from the region. The force obtained the blessing of the African Union in March and later, in July, from the UN Security Council.
Chérif, who is in his 50s and has been Chad’s ambassador to the UN since 2013, represents his country as an elected member of the Security Council, where Nigeria also sits. He detailed the task force’s work ahead as it organizes, he said.
He also discussed a new proposal by Chad that a force brigade be formed to complement the peacekeeping mission in Mali to contend with the terrorists killing peacekeepers there. Chad is the third-largest troop contributor to Minusma, as the mission is called. It is also the deadliest peacekeeping operation in the UN, recording 56 deaths of peacekeepers since 2013, when it began.
“What’s important is that the new leadership of Nigeria is committed and engaged to combat Boko Haram,” Chérif said, referring to the country’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, elected in April. Chérif, who speaks Arabic, French, English and Russian, has a master’s of law degree from Kiev University.
Regardless of Boko Haram’s international notoriety, extensive information on the group is unknown. Chérif said it now consisted of 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers, down from around 7,000 in January, when Chad first attacked the extremists as they threaded into Cameroon, a vital link to Nigeria’s coast for Chad, a landlocked country. Chérif said that Boko Haram had tanks and occupied territory in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria but now was confined to Nigeria. (Recent suicide-bomb attacks in Cameroon were claimed by Boko Haram,)
Although Boko Haram no longer controls any big city and is supposedly decimated, it has a big capacity to regroup, he added.
“It doesn’t mean that Boko Haram is totally defeated because it is continuing to perpetrate terrorist acts in all these affected countries, including Chad,” Chérif said. In August, Chad executed 10 men, apparently Boko Haram members, who were accused of plotting suicide attacks in N’Djamena that killed 42 people.
The men were found guilty and shot by firing squad, an act the UN condemned because of Chad’s re-imposition of the death penalty. Through the arrest of the 10 men, mostly Nigerians, Chérif said, Boko Haram’s network in N’Djamena was dismantled. Kidnapped children were found among those captured by the terrorists; children who were Nigerian or from Niger were sent back to their countries. The children from Chad were handed over to Unicef.
Boko Haram’s apparent change in leadership in August, from Abubakar Shekau to Mahamat Daoud, a Nigerian, has not been verified. (Chérif said that Shekau was injured in Dikwa, Nigeria.) The US, France and the European Union are providing some intelligence and other logistics to ousting the terrorists, but the onus is on regional countries to finish off the extremists.
Chérif emphasized during the interview in his office in New York, where a large painting of an African desert scene decorates the room, how the task force still requires help from the “international community,” which he did not specify further. Britain has pledged the equivalent of $7.6 million to the joint task force, and the US just pledged $5 million on top of the $34 million it has provided to Cameroon, Chad and Niger for equipment and logistics, said a US State Department spokesman.
A “poor country like Chad cannot support all this expenditure related to this operation,” Chérif said. The country has more than 5,000 troops deployed in the region, entailing logistics, airplanes, helicopters, fuel and ammunition, which it is finding it hard to pay for. Additionally, Chad’s main economic partner is Nigeria, but with the border occupied by Boko Haram, trade has dropped precipitously.
Chad may be poor, showing slow progress in improving life for its 13 million citizens, but its military spending has stayed resiliently high compared with spending on health and education. Chad continues to prioritize its focus on security in the Sahel region, where terrorism networks constantly crop up or break up. It’s a country surrounded by Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan as well as Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.
Chad, as an oil-producing country, has also watched its revenue drop, so taking on Boko Haram has become too costly for the government of Idriss Déby, who has ruled Chad since 1990. (The fight is also relatively costly for Niger and Cameroon.)
Discussions to adopt a UN Security Council resolution to ensure financial international support to the task force failed because Nigeria refused to let the Boko Haram problem fall into the purview of the Security Council.
The council did agree in July to rally the “international community” to support the end of terrorism in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions, including the “continued threat posed to international peace and security by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (also known as “Boko Haram”).”
Yet Chérif’s frustration was apparent when he compared the threat by Boko Haram as equal to the danger posed by the Islamic State in the Middle East, saying, “There is an international coalition very well mobilized in the Middle East.” Why not Africa, he asked?
Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS), though details are scant. Boko Haram, which first emerged in 2002, is not the only operation terrorizing hot spots in Africa. Al Qaeda warlords, entrenched in pockets of Mali; Shabaab in Somalia; ISIS in Libya and others “are communicating between them and have a network, and we don’t think we can finish with this threat in one, two, three months,” Chérif said.
Chad plays a large role in containing the terrorism in Mali through the UN’s mission, Minusma. Chad contributes about 1,400 troops, who are stationed in Kidal, a northern city subjected to rebel attacks mainly through roadside bombs. Chad has repeatedly asked the UN to rotate its troops from Kidal to share the risk, but the UN has not sent other troops. Senegal and Algeria were possible replacements, Chérif said, but they have not materialized.
“It is very difficult to live in the north,” he said. French soldiers stationed in the Sahel offer surveillance to the peacekeepers, though it is not enough protection. The quality of food is another complaint voiced by the Chadian soldiers.
“In some areas, some soldiers are able to get shrimp, even in the desert!,” Chérif said. “But the others are not. . . . It’s incredible.”
To improve security in Mali, Chad proposed at a UN gathering this summer that a special force be formed to confront the terrorists in Mali. The goal, Chérif said, is to make Minusma safer so that other countries will contribute more peacekeepers.
“All participants recognized that we deployed in Mali a peacekeeping operation in a very specific environment where there is no peace to maintain,” he said, and that the troops “are very, very exposed” despite the UN’s doing “their best to provide intelligence and equipment.”
Chad’s proposal, backed by the G5 Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — would create an intervention force to operate outside the UN but be modeled on the brigade in the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That battalion — formed by Africans to neutralize Congolese militias — has been successful but also controversial because of its militaristic nature.
“I think the idea of deployment of a special unit is not totally shared by the UN side,” Chérif said. “If peacekeepers are threatened by terrorists, should they protect themselves or not? It’s a big issue.”