Can Chad Tip the Balance against Boko Haram?

As Boko Haram pledges allegiance to Daesh, recent military successes spearheaded by Chadian forces bode well for the new multilateral response to the group. But, without a longer-term domestic political and military strategy, hopes for an enduring solution to the insurgency should not be raised.

Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to Daesh of 7 March reinforces a growing recognition of the militant group as more than just a Nigerian problem. This is a trend well underway; 2015 has seen all of Nigeria’s neighbours commit to fight the insurgents as the threat beyond national borders has grown more tangible.

In recent months, the group has launched attacks on Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian soil. With its pledge to Daesh, this threat picture could broaden further, although it is unclear as yet how the situation will unfold.

A Regional Response

As it is planned, the current regional response – which has seen the AU authorise a 10,000-strong Multinational Joint Task Force – has been greeted enthusiastically. Western states have already provided training to particular troop contributors; many hope that the force could finally defeat the insurgents.

Chadian troops have led the effort. In mid-January, President Idriss Déby pledged support for the fight against the militants, sending troops to Cameroon at that country’s request (over half of Cameroon’s small total force of 12,500 having already deployed to the north to battle the insurgents).

On 29 January, the chairperson of the AU’s Commission on Regional and International Efforts to Combat Boko Haram applauded Chad’s response as ‘a clear display of solidarity’. Whether this solidarity – and that of other contributors – will translate into full-scale military victory has yet to be seen.

Many are optimistic; large numbers of Chadian soldiers belong to the Kanuri and Shuwa-Arabic groups whose languages are widely spoken – making them well placed to gather intelligence. Chad’s fierce desert-fighting force has a reputation for effectiveness. It has extensive experience putting down domestic armed rebellions. And it contributed significantly to the liberation of northern Mali in 2013 – its success attributed to familiarity with this type of terrain and warfare. This record should, it is argued, translate into similar success in Nigeria.

Though long opposed to external involvement, Nigeria clearly needs the help. Its own response has been deeply flawed, allowing Boko Haram militants – believed to number over 9,000 – to scale up their deadly insurgency.

Data from the University of Sussex Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project show Boko Haram casualties rising threefold to 3,418 in 2014, accounting for one third of all civilian conflict casualties in Africa that year. 2015 has been no less violent.

January witnessed what was likely the group’s deadliest-ever attack on the lakeside town of Baga. In the run up to postponed national elections due later in March, the group has continued to ramp-up its suicide bombings: over fifty were killed in Borno State capital Maiduguri on 8 March – the deadliest attack since failed attempts to capture it in January.

A Group under Pressure

Yet rather than growing strength, the rising violence may signal strain under growing pressure: instead of holding territory, Boko Haram appears to be reverting to a mobile terror campaign.

The group has suffered losses as Nigerian and Chadian forces have each retaken a series of towns and villages. In early March, Chadian forces seized Dikwa – a key access point to Maiduguri. The Chadian military claims to have killed over 200 Boko Haram members. It maintains that it could defeat the insurgents alone.

Yet a quick victory should not be expected. No matter the Chadians’ strengths, success will depend on effective co-operation. This has been hampered by regional power dynamics. The Lake Chad Basin states have a history of fraught relations, linked to territorial disputes around the resource-rich lake.

With Nigeria traditionally highly defensive of its sovereignty, the sensitivity surrounding cross-border operations has threatened co-operation. The Chadian military reports that no operations have yet been undertaken jointly with Nigerian forces. Key questions over logistics and intelligence-sharing remain. And Nigeria – clearly still reluctant to host an international force – has at times denied partners permission to proceed with operations.

This links to domestic political considerations. In the run up to elections, the Jonathan administration will want to claim victories for Nigerian troops, and to avoid being overshadowed by Chadian successes. Opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari has described dependence on Chad as a ‘disgrace’; he has pledged to defeat the insurgency independently.

This posturing, alongside concern over foreign intentions, has impeded greater progress. Chad, in particular, is viewed with suspicion. Accused of supporting proxy militias in Darfur, it has also been blamed for fostering instability in the Central African Republic (CAR) – Chadian peacekeepers are accused of colluding with the rebel Séléka movement in 2013.

Certainly, Chad will be acting in its own interest. Nervously watching the insurgents cross borders, Déby has doubtless calculated the risk of Boko Haram inflaming rebel issues on his own soil.

Economic motivations will also be pivotal. Though previously viewing Boko Haram as a Nigerian problem, landlocked Chad abandoned its indifference as fighting choked key access routes to the sea. This has stemmed the import of manufactured goods, prices for which have skyrocketed. It has also impeded access to market for Chad’s vital livestock industry, and raised concerns over oil exports through Nigeria’s Adamawa State.

In light of this, some fear that Chad’s involvement will come on its own terms. As in Mali and CAR, some worry that it could depart swiftly, to its own agenda. With Boko Haram an adaptive force, however, long-term commitment may be required. If Chad, as the dominant external contributor, were to leave prematurely, the conflict could return in the militants’ favour.

A Nigerian Issue at Heart

Indeed, ultimately, success will depend on domestic Nigerian commitment. Geographically, the task force’s area of engagement is limited, reportedly covering only 10–15 per cent of the territory on which Boko Haram is active. Nigeria’s wider military strategy will thus remain critical. As will efforts to disrupt the group’s financing – and to address the key grievances so successfully exploited by insurgents.

With the future form of Nigeria’s political landscape uncertain, however, this is by no means assured. Some see the current momentum as closely tied to elections, and likely quickly to subside. In the meantime, the task force may go on to achieve further successes. At the time of writing, Chad and Niger had launched a joint ground and air operation. Co-operation may improve, and the force may overcome other issues raised to date.

But, although a truism, victory on the battlefield will not address the structural issues that have allowed the group to thrive. This will require enduring commitment in a country plagued by stark geographical division – and a deep sense of marginalisation in a poorer north facing unequal access to resources, pervasive corruption and a lack of state capacity. Ultimately, it is on this commitment that lasting stability will depend. Without a well-conceived long-term domestic military and political strategy, there is only so much that Chadian military prowess can achieve.


Cathy Haenlein

Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Organised Crime and Policing

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