Last week, an African Union (AU) official reported that funding for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram’s deadly Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa remains well short of its target.
In comments made shortly after a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss funding, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council disclosed that so far, including Nigeria, Switzerland and France, have pledged about US $250 million to fund the 8,700-strong regional force. According to Orlando Bama, communications officer for the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, the US $250 million includes both previous pledges and those made during Monday’s conference. That effectively covers just over a third of the US $700 million budget that was announced for the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) last year.
The task force, which is to be made up of regional African militaries, has yet to mobilize. Instead, national armies are tackling Boko Haram individually, however they often cannot follow the insurgency across the region’s long, porous borders. Regional armies from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year, which ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance, however progress has been slow, with Boko Haram continuing to have the capabilities to launch deadly attacks both inside Nigeria, as well as in the Lake Chad Basin.
Monday’s talks come after the militant group’s latest attack, which killed at least 65 people in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday.
Aid agencies have reported that a series of suicide bombings in Lake Chad in recent months, which have all been blamed on Boko Haram insurgents, has hindered healthcare and aid delivery, effectively leaving tens of thousands of displaced people living in fear of further violence.
In early December, four female suicide bombers attacked the island of Koulfoua, killing at least fifteen people and injuring a further 130 in what is just the latest in a wave of bombings that prompted the Chadian government last month to declare a state of emergency in the Lake Chad region.
While Chad has been instrumental in forcing Boko Haram to cede territory earlier this year, ongoing operations in northeastern Nigeria have effectively forced Boko Haram militants to seek shelter elsewhere. Reports have indicated that while some have used the porous borders to slip into Cameroon, Chad and Niger in a bid to remain safe, experts believe that most militants are hiding on islands located on Lake Chad. The swampy maze of islands in the border areas between Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria has now become a main target for the militant Islamist group.
According to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), more than 50,000 people have been forced to leave their homes due to the violence and threat of further attacks, which has hampered the provision of supplies and healthcare to those in need. According to Federica Alberti, MSF head of mission in Chad, “living conditions were already poor and there was a lack of healthcare before the attack, which have left people living in fear,” further adding that “it is challenging to respond in the region because we know more attacks will happen, but do not know when and where, and we can’t go everywhere due to security constraints.” The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also disclosed that new restrictions aimed at stopping attacks, such as bans on motorised canoes, enforced after the state of emergency was extended until March, have also hindered access for aid agencies.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has also disclosed that the violence in the region has disrupted livelihoods including fishing and farming, and has hit cross-border trade and markets, adding that this has left one in ten of those uprooted without enough to eat. According to Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP country director for Chad, “we are dealing with a harsh climate and environment in a region which has limited infrastructure and development…it is a humanitarian crisis on top of a development crisis.”
While Lake Chad countries, backed by Benin, have vowed to defeat Bok Haram by using members of an 8,700-strong regional task force, security sources have disclosed that there are growing sings that national armies are instead acting alone.
While Nigeria’s government vowed earlier this year to end Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency by this month, the fast approaching deadline looks likely to be missed with hit-and-run attacks continuing as the militant group in recent weeks has increased its tempo of attacks in the Lake Chad region despite a regional response, which so far has shown little sign of effect.
In August, newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari gave his military commanders until December to build on apparent gains in recapturing territory, which was seized by the insurgents in 2014. However despite further claims successes since then there has been no let-up in deadly suicide and bomb attacks. Regional analysts are now reporting that it will be nearly impossible for the government and military to meet the deadline as “Boko Haram is still in control of Borno North senatorial district,” adding that “there are still attacks occurring in Chibok, Buratia, Gwoza (in Borno state) and Buni Yadi (in Yobe), as well as in the Gulak region of northern Adamawa.” Despite the ongoing attacks, the Nigerian army has maintained that it has control of the situation, however the weekend announcement of the arrest of about a dozen suspects, which army officials disclosed were part of Bok Haram “sleeper cells” in the capital Abuja, has increased concerns that the ongoing military operations are pushing Boko Haram insurgents further out of northeastern Nigeria and into not only neighbouring states, including Niger, Cameroon and Chad, but further south, to areas that have been less affected by the insurgency. Furthermore, military officials have also disclosed that they have again begun operations against Boko Haram bases “deep inside” the Sambisa Forest in Borno, despite indications that fighters have now moved to islands on Lake Chad.
While President Buhari, a retired army general and former military ruler, has consistently vowed to approach the ongoing conflict differently from his predecessors, many were surprised that he had imposed such a deadline. The previous administration under former President Goodluck Jonathan had made repeated pledges of a swift end to the conflict. However all of these pledges came and went, which affected the government’s and military’s credibility. While President Buhari promised to restructure the county’s military, which was hit by complaints that money and weapons were not reaching frontline troops despite massive government defense spending, there have been minimal signs of an immediate overhaul. So far the major changes have been the redeployment of the high command to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and a claimed upsurge in the morale of troops.
Since announcing the deadline in August, President Buhari has been more cautious. In September, he warned that guerrilla-style tactics would persist, while on Monday, he told army top brass that the deadline “should serve as a guide.” The ongoing conflict in northeastern Nigeria, and its spread to neighbouring countries, has proven the underlining need for a multilateral response and greater coordination rather than unilateral action. The Nigerian military has been focusing on defeating Boko Haram as a conventional fighting force. However little has been done in order to tackle the root causes of the insurgency. Furthermore, a coordinated, regional approach to ending the insurgency still looks far off despite an increasing wave of suicide and bomb attacks outside Nigeria. A new 8,700-strong multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF), comprising of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, was supposed to have been deployed in Late July however the African Union (AU)-backed force has yet to start operations, with no reason given for the lengthening delay and questions over whether the countries have the resources to commit.
According to a Chadian security source, a triple suicide bombing on an island in Lake Chad on Saturday killed at least 27 people and left more than eighty wounded in what is another apparent strike carried out by Boko Haram fighters despite an ongoing regional offensive to stop the insurgency.
The source has reported that “three suicide bombers blew themselves up in three different places at the weekly market on Loulou Fou, an Island in Lake Chad,” adding that the explosions had killed 30 people, including the three attackers, and injured more than eighty others. On 9 November, N’Djamena declared a state of emergency in the flashpoint region of Lake Chad, which also straddles Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger and which has been frequently targeted by Nigerian-based Boko Haram fighters, who this year declared allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The decree effectively granted the governor of the remote region the authority to ban the circulation of people and vehicles as well as to search homes and to seize arms. In a statement, the European Union (EU) disclosed that Saturday’s attacks were “a threat to the stability of the country and the region.” The bloc further indicated that it stood ready to “use all available means to help in the fighting against terrorism” in the region. WeDespite the state of emergency in the region, attacks have continued and have proven Boko Haram’s continued desire to carry out deadly attacks despite loosing territory in northeastern Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram fighters have stepped up their attacks and suicide bombings on Chadian villages in the lake region that lie close to the frontier with Nigeria. The deadliest attack on the Chadian side of the lake occurred on 10 October. According to officials in N’Djamena, it was another triple suicide that resulted in the deaths of 41 people at Baga Sola. Since the beginning of this year, the Chadian army has been on the frontline of a regional military operation against Boko Haram, whose attacks have spread from northeastern Nigeria to the country’s three Lake Chad neighbors. The joint operation of the four Lake Chad countries, plus Benin, has involved 8,700 soldiers, police and civilians.
United States President Barack Obama informed Congress on Wednesday that he will deploy up to 300 personnel to Cameroon for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations against Boko Haram insurgents.
In a letter that was released by the White House, President Obama disclosed that ninety personnel have already been deployed, which marks a modest but significant escalation of US involvement in the fight against the terrorist group, which earlier this year aligned itself with the Islamic State (IS) group. In making Wednesday’s announcement, the White House stressed that personnel will not take part in combat operations and would be armed only for self-defense. According to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, they are being sent under an arrangement with the Cameroonian government to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the region. US officials have disclosed that the focus will still be on a regional coalition that has tried to keep a once regional Muslim anti-colonial movement from metastasizing into a regional jihadist threat. In the statement, the president indicated that the mission will last “until their support is no longer needed.”
While Washington has largely shied away from engaging its vast military assets to combat Boko Haram, the White House decision comes as Boko Haram steadily expands operations beyond its traditional base in northern Nigeria, crossing into neighboring Cameroon and Niger.