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Niger joins fight against Boko Haram

Julia Hahn / mc
February 10, 2015

Niger has joined Chad in approving the deployment of troops to northern Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. But the Islamist militants may prove a more formidable challenge than many anticipate.

African soldiers in Diffa, Niger, on a U.S.-led international training mission
Image: Reuters

The fishermen stay on land, many farmers no longer tend their fields and the schools are closed. Residents living in the towns of Diffa and Bosso in southern Niger close to the border with northern Nigeria now live in fear. Boko Haram jihadists are a major threat to their country's security. "They are barbarians with no respect for the law. They steal, kill, rape," said Abdou Lokoko, who works for a nongovernmental organization in Niger.

In recent weeks the Islamists have begun attacking targets on Niger's side of the border. On Monday (09.02.2015) they launched an assault on a prison in Diiffa, but the Nigerien military said they were able to repel them. There were also reports of bomb explosions. Hundreds of Islamists, as well as several soldiers and a civilian, are said to have been killed in similar, earlier attacks.

Map of Nigeria and Niger
Boko Haram has long since ceased to be just a domestic threat to three northeastern Nigerian states

Ryan Cummings, chief analyst for Africa for the crisis management assistance company red24, told DW that Boko Haram's presence in Niger is not a new development. "We do have evidence of Boko Haram operating with Niger that goes back as far as 2012 when a number of suspected Boko Haram insurgents were actually arrested and detained by Nigerien security specifically in the Zinder and Diffa regions which border Nigeria," he said. The Nigerien military sent reinforcements to Diffa in December 2014.

An army of insurgents

In the Nigerien parliament in the capital Niamey on Monday a motion on the deployment of troops to neighboring northern Nigeria was carried unanimously. Over the weekend the governments of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin agreed to form a 8,700 strong intervention force. The figure of 8,700 includes not only the contingent of 7,500 troops endorsed by the African Union, but also police officers and civilian personnel. Chadian soldiers have been engaged in combat operations in northern Nigeria's border region since January. Cameroon has also mobilized more troops. "Those who want peace, must prepare for war," said Lokoko, whose NGO normally campaigns for improvements in local education.

"If we don't do anything, they [Boko Haram] will attack us again. Our soldiers are committed and courageous," he said.

United States intelligence estimates the strength of Boko Haram at somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. They have occupied around 30 towns and villages to which they can withdraw and use as sanctuary. These figures come as no surprise to Ryan Cummings. "The number being touted of four to six thousand is basically the more well-trained, the more hard core insurgent cohort that the group has. It might obviously have additional forces which are more unskilled and possibly forcibly conscripted into the group or even possibly paid to fight for Boko Haram, because there has been a lot of speculation that it has been utilizing armed gangs that operate as potential guns for hire," he said.

Piece of Boko Haram field artillery captured by Nigerian troops
Boko Haram field artillery captured by Nigerian troopsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Boko Haram is no longer just a terrorist organization, it is an army. Its leader Abubakar Shekau courts publicity and in a recent video urged his followers to defeat the multinational intervention force which was lining up against them. "We can seize them one-by-one," he said.

But Cummings believes the multinational force could succeed in its mission. "Boko Haram has just been fighting the Nigerian army from the west. However obviously with Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerien forces, they may potentially have to fight along an eastern front and a northern front, which as one can imagine is a really intensive exercise. It would require significant resources in terms of materials, equipment and weaponry but also in terms of manpower. That would be a significant challenge for Boko Haram which in itself could cripple the group significantly," he said.

However, the intervention force also faces difficulties. The mutual distrust between the participating nations and a dispute over the Lake Chad region and its natural resources are just two obstaclesd which need to be overcome. It is also far from clear who will fund the mission. The UN has only committed itself to logistical support.

Insecurity blamed as elections are postponed

Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission has postponed the parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for February 14, for six weeks. The official reason given was the terrorist threat. The opposition has criticized the move saying insecurity was just an excuse to call off the poll. Nonetheless President Goodluck Jonathan's main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, acknowledges that the security situation is precarious. "Our country is going through a difficult time in the hands of terrorists. Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges that the country faces," Buhari told his supporters.

Nigerian soldiers waiting in their vehicle before going on duty
Analysts doubts whether the Nigerian military can dislodge Boko Haram in six weeksImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Gambrell

Nigeria's National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki has announced that "all known Boko Haram camps will be taken out" by the time of the rescheduled vote on March 28.

Cummings has grave doubts about whether this can achieved.

"Boko Haram effectively controls 20 of the 27 local government areas in Borno state and they control a further two each in neighboring Adamawa and Yobe states. We don't even know what areas they currently have under their control in neighboring Cameroon and Niger. In Nigeria alone, it is suggested that as much as 30,000 square kilometers of territory may be under the control of Boko Haram - that's roughly the size of Belgium. From my side I'm extremely skeptical as to whether the Nigerian government will be able to dislodge Boko Harm from the northeast within a six week period."