Regional military cooperation must improve to defeat Boko Haram

In February 2015 the African Union authorized the mobilization of a multinational force drawn from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to tackle Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria and northern Cameroon.

Prior to this, a loosely-arranged multinational military collaboration between Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger had served to somewhat disrupt the activities of the group. But the greatest weakness of current multinational responses has been a lack of mutual confidence between the participant nations. For this reason, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) confronting Boko Haram has not achieved its optimal operational capacity.

After stumbling over an attempted ceasefire negotiation last year, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, accused Chad of links with the group’s leadership. In January, and on several occasions since, Chadian troops unilaterally crossed into Nigeria and notched several victories over the group. Niger added to this by labeling Nigerian troops as “cowards”. With matters degenerating, the Nigerian Defense Headquarters responded by calling Nigerien forces “serial looters”.

Cameroon, for its part, has largely kept quiet regarding the Nigerian military’s counter-insurgency capacity. This being said, the Cameroonian authorities did release statements confirming that Nigerian troops had fled into Cameroon following Boko Haram attacks. Cameroon was also unhappy with Nigeria for preventing its soldiers from pursuing fleeing Boko Haram members into Nigeria.

Nigeria, for its part, believes that its neighbour’s refusal over several years to act against Boko Haram gifted the group a safe haven, allowing it to grow into a sub-regional menace.

If the countries participating in the Joint Task Force had a shared aspiration and common mission then their troops have the strength and military capacity to defeat the insurgents. Each party or coalition partner brings its own capabilities in understanding the region’s communities and topography. But Nigeria, it appears, prefers to work with South African mercenaries, rather than effectively partner with its neighbours.

Does the Multinational Joint Task Force actually exist?

The requisite command structure does not yet exist for MNJTF to achieve sustained success. There is no effective central command from which instructions can flow to the rank and file. In reality, the only countries in a multinational operation against Boko Haram at present are Cameroon and Chad, with General Rene Claude Meka acting as the alliance Commander. Chad also acted alone when it entered Nigerian territory in January, receiving assurances for its actions from France.

A source within Nigeria’s military command revealed that there was no need to send a contingent to join Cameroon and Chad under the existing operational command since “we will soon have an African Union 7,500 strong force from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin.”

A trusted inside assessment of the impact of the recent military action  by Cameroon and Chad, which was matched by the Nigerian Army in January and February, had killed a substantial number of the insurgents’ foot soldiers and weaponry, forcing them, especially their elite fighters, to retreat to the Gwoza and northern Mandara mountains. A source close to the insurgency said that Abubakar Shekau has vowed to stay with his fighters to the end.

Colonel Azem Bermandoa, the Chadian military spokesman, revealed that, “after we seized the town of Gamboru and other villages and towns including Dikwa, we had to turn back because Nigeria did not authorize us to go any further.” Had the joint military force been authorised to push on, many more insurgents could have been destroyed. The failure to pursue Shekau into Nigerian territory has provided respite for the group to embark on a rebuilding and a re-strategizing process.

Nigeria’s spokesman for operations in the North East, Mike Omeri, said cooperation between Chadian and Nigerian forces had brought forth a major military breakthrough. But officials in Chad and Cameroon insist that no such cooperation with Nigeria exists.

Bermandoa also lamented that when his contingent offered to join a Nigerian offensive to capture the fishing town of Baga in January, the request was  denied. Today, parts of Kukawa local government, where Baga is located, still harbour hundreds of insurgents in contested locations.

Kukawa is also thought to be the location of Boko Haram’s recent beheading of two young men accused of spying. These executions were viewed internationally as an ‘Islamic State’-style video was made available on the internet. A source with links to the insurgents stated that “now that the Nigerian Mujahideens are taking on soldiers from four countries, we will also need multinational Jihadis to assist us.”

In spite of the challenges that dog the multinational forces, they have been able to achieve some success on the battlefield.  However, the success of the regional operation has been overstressed. Boko Haram remains operationally effective and was still able to move its tanks to Sueram village last Saturday, just a few kilometers from Fotokol, which in February saw Boko Haram’s most deadly attack on Cameroonian territory. There were also violent attacks by Boko Haram in Adamawa and Borno states on Monday and Tuesday.

Boko Haram is likely to lose its control over large areas of Borno State due to the continued actions of multinational forces, but the issues fueling violence and bloodletting are too complicated to be fully solved on the battlefield.

Insider opinion informs us that Boko Haram, and especially its leadership, is structured into several different protocols. These include a spiritual component, as well as intelligence, welfare, recruitment, liaison officers, public enlightenment, and the operational command structure (closely linked to the militants on the battlefield). Not all of these components are currently in the theatre of war and are spread across the region. To subdue all parts of the Boko Haram network will require a deep, strategic domestic security framework that is yet to be put in place.

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