It appears that attention after the Baga attack may have contributed to jumpstarting renewed regional, multinational efforts to countering Boko Haram. Significant and meaningful progress has been made a both the diplomatic level, and in terms of actual combat troop deployments in and around north-eastern Nigeria. Questions about how sincere that commitment to a regional task force, and how effective such a force might be, remains unanswered.
Proposed multinational efforts appear to be gaining momentum
By diplomatic standards, progress on the planned formation of a multinational joint task force has been extremely rapid – if we take Baga to be the decisive catalyst. The Baga attacks occurred in the opening days of 2015, but international outrage only really hit its stride at the end of that first week. It was subsequently announced on 21 January by ECOWAS leaders after a meeting in Niamey, Niger, that UN Security Council authorisation for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram would be sought through the African Union. That plan was duly presented at the 24th AU Summit, where it received approval on 31 January.
While the UNSC appears supportive of the planned force, the proposal will not even be entertained until certain critical issues are dealt with by the AU. Experts are set to meet in Cameroon on 5 February to hammer out a Concept of Operations document which will stipulate key matters such as the nature of the command and control of the task force, as well as rules of engagement, and guidelines for support needs.
A UN Mandate will open the door to potential, much needed, international support, both in terms of logistics, and perhaps most crucially, financial support. It is worth noting that the plan has already attracted gestures of international support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signalled that the European Union (EU) will provide financial and logistical support to the proposed regional force.
That support will certainly be needed. Peter Dorrie makes the point that the 7,500-man force proposal could in actuality result in little more than a re-hatting of many forces already committed to the fight against Boko Haram. The reality is that finding additional combat troops to deploy to the conflict is as much a challenge to Nigeria, as it is to the other potential participants. Chad, Cameroon and Niger, are already committed to other security challenges. Moreover, logistically maintaining any large deployment by force in the region has historically proven nearly impossible without significant international support.
Chad is leading the way
While the Baga attacks certainly appear to have provided much needed impetus, it is evident that much of the momentum behind this latest regional initiative began with Cameroon’s requests for assistance, first murmured in late 2014, and then made outright by President Paul Biya on 7 January. It was Chad who then took the first meaningful steps toward answering that request.
Certainly, Chad has shown demonstrable resolve in its mobilisation to take on Boko Haram, as per a 14 January Chadian response to Cameroon’s request for support: “Faced by this situation that seriously threatens the security and stability of Chad … the Chadian government will not sit here and do nothing… The government expresses its solidarity with Cameroon and is ready to provide active support in the courageous and determined response of its armed forces against the criminals and terrorists of Boko Haram.”
On 16 January Chad’s Parliament voted in favour of dispatching forces to provide direct combat assistance to Cameroon. This resulted in a large convoy of armoured vehicles leaving N’Djamena, to much fanfare and speculation. It was even briefly speculated that the convoy might hook up with Cameroonian forces, with the intention to secure Baga town and the surrounding area themselves.
On 17 January that convoy arrived instead in Maroua, a town in Cameroon’s Far-North Region – but by 29 January, Chadian troops engaged in a cross-border offensive against Boko Haram fighters holed up in Malam Fatori village. Nigeria’s role in supporting or even permitting that incursion remains unclear, to say the least. The next day, Chadian forces claimed to have killed the likely exaggerated figure of 120 militants in a fight in the north of neighbouring Cameroon near the town of Fotokol.
It is too soon to say that this is a unified regional response
While these action would seem to form a good solid foundation for the regional task force, all is not necessarily well. Chadian forces, though battle-proven, have a mixed reputation for professionalism and human rights protection. Chadian President Idris Deby is a controversial figure with a well-deserved Machiavellian reputation in the region. Cameroon too has its own national security first and foremost in mind, and its ramped up levels of activity against Boko Haram should not be mistaken for any particular regional compatriotism toward its neighbour, Nigeria.
Nigeria itself remains the big unknown for the future of the regional task force. Indeed, Solomon Dersso, Head of the Institute for Security Studies’ Peace and Security Council programme provided a gloomy initial analysis on any regional response to Boko Haram in the run-up to the AU Summit. He suggested that any such regional effort cannot move forward without a wholehearted commitment by Nigeria. Dersso also predicted that: “The continental response is plagued by mistrust and lack of coordination, and no progress is expected to be made before Nigeria’s elections are concluded”.
Peter Dörrie, writing for War is Boring, has speculated that the new regional commitment is indicative of a shift in Nigerian security policy: that their participation in the joint initiative is akin to admitting that they cannot contain the threat posed by Boko Haram alone. If this assessment is accurate, then it should however be noted that the Nigerians are still dragging their feet. It appears that there was only a token Nigerian representation at that meeting in Niamey amongst the potential joint task force participants.
The big reveal may well come with that meeting on Thursday in Cameroon. Nigeria has a reputation for bullying multinational operations into allowing them to take the lead. This has caused tensions in the past, and is rumoured to have contributed to Nigeria’s withdrawal from AFISMA/MINUSMA in Mali. On one hand, Nigerian may be justified is seeking control over a task force fundamentally focussed on Nigerian territory, although the case could be made that Nigerian General Staff have had their shot at beating Boko Haram already. This is just one hurdle that may yet disrupt planning and implementation.
Other tests must also be overcome. Poor communication and near non-existent intelligence sharing between neighbours has previously hampered combined efforts in the region – nevermind the inherent operational challenges facing multinational forces.
Previous multinational efforts have been ineffective gestures at best
A Multinational Joint Task Force base just outside Baga was overrun prior to the sacking of town itself. That MNJTF pre-dates this latest initiative. It is also worth noting that that earlier regional task force existed in name only. Originally formed between Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to interdict criminals operating in the Lake Chad border zone, the initiative was essentially re-purposed to combat Boko Haram in mid-2014.
Since that re-purposing, very little if anything ‘joint’ or ‘multinational’ occurred in the area. There do not appear to have been any multinational forces in place at the time of the attack, and only a token Nigerian garrison was stationed at the base. Based on a crowing video posted by Boko Haram after the attack, that base did appear to hold quite a large stock of weapons and ammunition, which the insurgents helped themselves to.
It appears that this latest joint initiative is far more sincere. However, there is still a long way to go before it can receive the UNSC approval, and international support necessary to bolster the current efforts being undertaken, albeit separately, by Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian forces against Boko Haram.