Nigeria and its neighbours have launched a major military offensive that has retaken a string of border towns from Boko Haram. The move comes just ahead of talks in Cameroon to agree details of the 7,500-strong taskforce proposed by the African Union to tackle the militant Islamist group.
Chadian troops have crossed into northeastern Nigeria and re-captured at least three border towns, including Gamboru, Ngala and Malam Fatori.
“They [Chad and Cameroon] are acting out of their own national interest, to push Boko Haram back into Nigeria,” political scientist and columnist, Jibrin Ibrahim, told IRIN.
The Nigerian military, revitalized by new equipment - including upgraded T-72 tanks and helicopter gunships - has also gone on the attack and reportedly won back a number of towns in Borno and Adamawa states. There is a growing perception among some security watchers that Boko Haram is on the back foot.
A major Boko Haram assault on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, was repulsed on 1 February with heavy casualties inflicted on the militants. Analysts have speculated the attack, the second in a week, was a result of Boko Haram having been driven from the border areas it has effectively controlled for close to a year.
New threat for civilians
But the renewed military vigour has raised concerns over the protection of civilians in the remote regions where the fighting has been fiercest and has involved air strikes with unguided munitions.
“We know what [violations] Boko Haram is capable of, and in the past there have been reports of violations by Nigerian troops,” said human rights lawyer Clement Nwankwo. “Certainly we must also be worried about the activities of the Chadian and Cameroonian military.”
The coordinated offensive comes ahead of the 5-7 February meeting in Yaounde to finalize details of the AU’s planned Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). At the table will be representatives of the AU, UN, Economic Community of West African States and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) all hoping to agree issues of command and control, rules of engagement, and intelligence sharing, an African diplomat based in Addis Ababa, the AU headquarters, told IRIN.
A global fight?
The AU’s Peace and Security Council decision to deploy a taskforce is the result of continent-wide frustration over the inability of the Nigerian government to crush Boko Haram, the diplomat said. The failure to solve an essentially local issue allowed the insurgency to spread beyond the country’s borders, threatening neighbouring Cameroon’s North West region in particular. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also warned of the mounting threat the group poses.
Nigeria’s preference has clearly been for bilateral security arrangements with its neigbours rather than the internationalisation of its Boko Haram problem. But after five years of military failure, “we are on our knees – it’s time for begging, not for pride,” said Ibrahim. With elections due on 14 February, the government is keenly aware its military shortcomings and political miscalculation is a vote loser.
Casting the conflict as part of the global fight against terror serves to spare some of Nigeria’s blushes. The AU’s deployment decision is based on a request made in January by the six-nation LCBC for a mandate to expand on an existing MNJTF – made up of Nigeria, Chad and Niger – originally conceived as a counter-smuggling initiative, with limited cross-border collaboration.
In 2012 the MNJTF was handed the additional task of tackling Boko Haram. The capture of its headquarters in Baga, Nigeria, by the militants in January underlined the extent of its incapacity. Chad and Niger reportedly withdrew in the aftermath of the setback.
Safety in numbers
The AU envisages something far more ambitious for an expanded MNJTF. The 29 January declaration authorizing its creation includes language on protection of civilians; support for the initial stages of a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme; and the facilitation “within the limit of its capabilities” of “humanitarian operations and the delivery of assistance to the affected populations”.
The MNJTF will be “truly multinational” said the diplomat; so far only tiny Benin has been signed up as a troop contributing nation, beyond the core group of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. But the AU is crucially seeking a UN Security Council mandate, which would open the door to financial and logistical support, London-based analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza told IRIN.
However, getting to the full “ceiling” of 7,500 troops will take time. So too will potentially winning permission to deploy inside Nigeria from a political and military class still accustomed to regarding the country as an African superpower, the Addis Ababa-based diplomat said.
But the AU proposal has been generally welcomed by Nigerians. “It’s better than having US or French forces on Nigerian soil,” said Nwankwo. “There is overwhelming popular support for it … and with the backing of the UN, the advantage would be a relatively more disciplined force, with rules of engagement defined by the international community.”