Conflict and Fragility


From neglect to hyperactivity: the regional force against Boko Haram

16 Feb 2015 - 16:00
Source: Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, in a video made public on October 2, 2014 / Wikimedia commons

On 29 January 2015, at the African Union (AU)’s 24th Summit in Addis Ababa, African leaders approved the setting up of a multinational force to fight Boko Haram, the Islamist movement based in northern Nigeria. Supplied by the Lake Chad Basin Commission countries (Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon) and Benin, this force will consist of 8,700 troops, with headquarters in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.[1]

Regional governments are currently discussing the military coalition’s operational mandate and budget, a necessary step before the AU seeks funding and authorisation to deploy the force from the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has been accused of killing at least 13,000 people, creating more than 1 million refugees, and attempting to impose Sharia law throughout Nigeria. The failure of the Nigerian army to curb the insurgency, coupled with an apparent lack of interest from regional neighbours, has allowed Boko Haram to prosper and extend its sphere of influence.

In that regard, the AU’s agreement marks a shift in the response to Boko Haram. After years of reluctance, Nigeria has decided to welcome help from surrounding countries – which seem determined to take quick action.

However, this sudden activity raises several questions: Why is Nigeria now willing to allow a regional operation on its territory? Why are its regional neighbours so eager to intervene? What are the main elements that could endanger the effectiveness of this initiative? Will it be enough to contain Boko Haram?

The Nigerian turnabout and the willingness of regional neighbours to intervene

Historically defensive when it comes to its national sovereignty, Nigeria has recently allowed regional military forces to intervene and fight Boko Haram on its territory. Chadian troops, acting within the framework of a bilateral agreement with Nigeria, began launching attacks against Boko Haram on 3 February 2015, starting in the city of Gamboru in Nigeria’s Borno state. While N’Djamena was quick to emphasise that this was ‘neither an incursion, nor an operation, but a retaliation to an Islamist attack under the right of hot pursuit’, it is the first time since the beginning of the Islamist insurgency that Nigeria has allowed neighbouring troops to enter its territory in order to hunt down Boko Haram elements.[2] To date, no Nigerien, Cameroonian or Beninese soldiers have entered Nigerian territory. However, this is likely to change as the setting up of the regional force is, in part, intended to resolve the issue of the right of hot pursuit in the fight against Boko Haram. Eventually, soldiers integrated into the regional coalition should be able to move freely into Nigeria.

Even though Nigeria has argued that accepting the presence of foreign troops on its national soil is not testimony to its failure to deal with Boko Haram, this change of attitude is surprising. One of the reasons behind this unexpected openness to accepting outside help could be the Nigerian government’s acknowledgement that internal problems within its military prevent it from tackling the movement on its own. Heavily equipped both in terms of troops and firepower, the Nigerian army should in theory be able to do much better to counter the threat posed by Boko Haram. On the ground, however, it seems to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Divided and plagued by corruption, insubordination and desertion, the army has supplied Boko Haram with both men and weapons. A diplomat stationed in Abuja further confessed that, ‘there is no doubt that some Nigerian soldiers, disgruntled or corrupted, inform Boko Haram about the movements of the army.’[3] The military’s disastrous management of the Boko Haram threat on the ground has lost it the support of local northern populations, a precious asset for the collection of intelligence.

The failure of the Nigerian army to formulate an adequate response to Boko Haram has been strongly criticised by neighbouring countries. Having at first thought that the Islamist threat was a local problem limited to the north-east of Nigeria, these countries grew worried as terrorist elements provoked massive displacement and started crossing into their territories. As well as increasingly presenting a regional security threat, Boko Haram also endangers the economies of countries in the sub-region by cutting off their trade routes. Moreover, international outrage at Boko Haram’s abduction of 279 girls in April 2014 and the murder of 2,000 people in a single attack on the north-eastern city of Baga intensified calls for action. When African representatives gathered in Addis Ababa for the annual AU Summit, leaders of Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin expressed the need to act quickly before the Islamist group fully enters their territories. Having seemingly put previous failed attempts at tackling Boko Haram[4] and historical tensions aside, Nigeria’s neighbours look more determined than ever to confront the Islamist movement threatening the stability of the sub-region.

The road ahead: some questions regarding the effectiveness of the regional force

While a clear momentum was gained in Addis Ababa, several factors could endanger the effectiveness of the regional military force and extinguish the enthusiasm and determination that followed the AU meeting.

The financial viability of the regional military force will be one of the main determinants of its effectiveness. Representatives of the sub-region have warned that the establishment of a UN trust fund is needed to ensure the sustainability of their military efforts. In the words of Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, Cameroonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘We have been on the front line for eight months to defend ourselves against the attacks of Boko Haram. We support the financial burden by ourselves but our resources are limited, hence the need to get help on a larger scale.’[5] Given the complicated institutional mechanisms preceding the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution, doubts remain regarding the speed with which such a trust fund could be set up. Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcoming the creation of a regional force, some diplomats in the corridors of the AU have already expressed concern that the enthusiasm of the Addis agreement will quickly fade if this process takes too long. A long delay between the AU Summit conclusions and their effective implementation risks creating unmet expectations and frustrations, and could even revive animosities between regional partners.

Another element that could further complicate the multinational coalition’s capacity to take on Boko Haram is the internal situation in Nigeria. Elections, initially planned for 14 February 2015, have been delayed to 28 March. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has argued that logistic difficulties and regular attacks by Boko Haram in the north-east of the country would not allow for a safe electoral process. Some observers have expressed concern that this delay is a political manoeuvre by the party of the outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan. His People’s Democratic Party (PDP), having more financial resources than its main competitor, the All Progressive Congress (APC) of Muhammadu Buhari, has been accused of using the prolongation of the presidential campaign to financially wear down its competitor and restore its electoral lead. It appears that, at present, Nigerian politicians are more concerned with the elections than they are about the threat of Boko Haram. If the Nigerian government does not fully invest in the regional coalition, the effectiveness of the initiative will be compromised.

In addition to all this, episodes of sectarian violence between voters, similar to those following the 2011 elections,[6] could worsen instability in the country. Combined with the potential intensification of attacks by Boko Haram during the elections, this would severely hinder the regional force’s ability to contain the Islamist group.

Overall, Nigeria’s decision to accept foreign help after the AU Summit and the willingness of regional partners to step up their military efforts could mark a decisive turn in the way the Boko Haram threat is handled. However, even if the regional force manages to address the caveats highlighted above, intensified military action alone will not solve an essentially deeper rooted problem. Unequal access to power, economic opportunities and basic services, along with rampant corruption, has alienated the poorest segments of Nigerian society. In the country’s north, Boko Haram has managed to successfully mobilise and benefit from the resulting widespread discontent. While its neighbours may have a role to play in containing the immediate security threat posed by Boko Haram, only Nigeria itself can address the political and socio-economic disparities and institutional weaknesses on which the group and other subversive elements tend to thrive.       

[1] The exact composition of the force has not been made public yet but, according to corroborating sources, Nigeria should mobilise 3,250 soldiers and Chad should provide 3,000. Cameroon has planned to send 950,  while Benin and Niger are each expected to contribute 750.  

[2] N’Djamena and Abuja concluded an agreement allowing the Chadian troops to do so. Such an agreement doesn’t exist between Nigeria and Cameroon for instance, which explains why the Cameroonian military has stuck to its side of the border, until now.

[3]Thiénot, D. (2015) ‘Nigeria: contre Boko Haram, y a-t-il un pilote dans l’armée ?’, Jeune Afrique,  (accessed 10 February 2015)

[4] See for instance the failed cooperation between Abuja and Washington,  (accessed 19 February 2015) or the attempt by France to initiate intelligence sharing between countries of the sub-region,  (accessed 19 February 2015)

[5] Wuilbercq, E. (2015) ‘L’incertaine force multinationale mixte de l’UA’, Le Monde   (accessed 19 February 2015)

[6] In 2011, episodes of sectarian violence followed the election of Goodluck Jonathan. Muslim supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, and Christian supporters of the newly-elected president clashed. 800 people died and more than 65, 000 people were displaced.