Uh Oh—Boko Haram Opens Up a Third Front
The Islamist group launches attacks across the Niger border
After staging three attacks in recent days, Boko Haram is now officially active in Niger. That’s in addition to Nigeria—where the terror group calls home—and Cameroon.
Niger’s military claimed it killed 109 militants during separate clashes which began on Feb. 6 in the border towns of Bosso and Diffa. A third Boko Haram attack occurred early in the morning on Feb. 9 in Diffa.
Up to 3,000 Nigerien and 2,000 Chadian troops moved to defend the border. These troops reportedly fought off the militant incursion.
The timing is probably not a coincidence.
Boko Haram is opening a third front only days after the African Union formally established the 7,500-strong Multinational Joint Task Force to combat the group. The MNJTF is made up of Nigerian, Cameroonian, Chadian and Beninese troops.
Both Niger and Chad have borders along Boko Haram’s territory, but the militant group has avoided a direct fight, preferring instead to act covertly inside the two countries as a way to recruit new fighters.
Now the MNJTF’s justification for existing—to counter potential Islamist incursions—has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boko Haram is at war in Nigeria. It’s at war in Cameroon. And the militant group is fighting in Niger, too.
The Chadians are the best equipped and most experienced soldiers in the MNJTF. Chad has deployed up to 2,500 soldiers to support about 2,500 Cameroonians.
These troops pushed Boko Haram from a limited number of strongholds on the border with Cameroon last week, allegedly killing as many as 300 fighters.
Then there’s the war inside Nigeria. In recent weeks, Nigeria’s military claimed to liberate around a dozen towns and villages. Although we can’t confirm all these claims, Boko Haram is certainly under more military pressure than it has been for months.
But this hasn’t resulted in a real breakthrough for the international coalition.
The attacks in Niger are a testament to that. While its fighters clashed over the border, the group staged further attacks against government-controlled positions in Nigeria and Cameroon, demonstrating its continued military capability.
The Nigerian government seems to have recognized that it needs more time to deal with the situation. Nigeria’s electoral commission recently postponed national elections slated for Feb. 14 for up to six weeks.
The move came after the commission received recommendations from both Pres. Goodluck Jonathan and the military.
The opposition protested this move, and claimed Jonathan is using the conflict as a pretext to buy the government more time in the face of unfavorable opinion polls.
To be sure, Jonathan clearly hopes that the international intervention will bring substantial territory back under government control. Most of Boko Haram’s military successes have come under his tenure.
Muhammadu Buhari—Jonathan’s main political opponent—is a former military dictator running on a platform of bringing military experience and discipline into the country’s highest office.
But six weeks probably isn’t enough time to regain much ground. For one, Nigeria’s military strategy would have to radically transform itself practically overnight. The entry of the MNJTF is also not as significant as many commentators have made it out to be.
Officially, the MNJTF will consist of more than 7,500 troops, a substantial force by any standard. But only a fraction of these are “fresh” soldiers, meaning those not already committed to the fight.
Both Cameroon and Niger will likely deploy most of their troops to protect their long and porous borders against incursions, leaving it to the Chadians—whose border is naturally protected by Lake Chad—and Nigerians to push Boko Haram back.
But Nigeria’s armed forces have consistently failed to fight back against Boko Haram. Even worse, much of the militant group’s strength is due to weapons and supplies captured from Nigerian army depots.
Chad’s army is another matter. Besides being better organized and equipped—and having higher morale—than its Nigerian counterpart, it has lots of experience fighting similar enemies in its own territory, and in Mali.
But so far, Chadian forces have only made limited incursions into Nigeria. It’s unclear if the Nigerian government sanctioned these engagements.
Nigeria would have to allow thousands of Chadian troops to operate deep inside its territory—and coordinate closely with the Chadians—in order to have an impact.
Jonathan’s administration has given no indication it’s willing or capable of doing that.
In short, it’s highly unlikely Abuja will bring Boko Haram under control in a span of just six weeks. Even if the coalition forces can make territorial gains, Boko Haram could just revert to terrorism, undermining security by massively stepping up bombings and assassinations.
In that light, it’s indeed unfortunate the Nigerian government chose to delay the elections, thereby increasing Nigeria’s other internal tensions.
That’s not to say that the move was unexpected. In his five-year tenure, Jonathan has almost consistently placed the short-term interests of his entourage over the long-term interests of his people.
Often enough, these decisions have come back to bite him.