Elias Asmare / AP

African Union forces may exacerbate Boko Haram threat

The militarization of northeastern Nigeria will engender further revolt and violence

February 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Feb. 6, Boko Haram attacked the border town of Bosso in Niger, leaving at least five Nigerien soldiers wounded. Two days earlier, the Nigerian armed group went on a rampage near the town of Fotokol in Cameroon, killing an estimated 100 civilians. The latest escalation follows Boko Haram’s warnings to Nigeria’s neighbors after the African Union (AU) approved a 7,500-strong force from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin to fight the insurgent group.

Nigeria’s military has proved incapable of containing the insurgency, which in recent weeks has overrun many villages and displaced tens of thousands of people. A strong multinational force may rout the militants and help stabilize northeastern Nigeria and border communities in Niger and Cameroon, but the regional plan faces a number of obstacles. For one, as demonstrated by Boko Haram’s latest offensive in Niger and Cameroon, it risks regionalizing a largely domestic insurgency. Second, it does not address the conditions that gave rise to Boko Haram.

The creation of a Multi-National Joint Task Force was greeted with international approval. “They have committed unspeakable brutality,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said of Boko Haram in a speech at of the AU summit in Ethiopia in January. “Those terrorists should be addressed with a regional and international cooperation.” His support is likely to bolster AU’s request for funding from the U.N. Security Council. The mission’s structure and mandate remains unclear, but countries as ideologically diverse as Iran and the United States have pledged support.

However, the scope of foreign military intervention in Nigeria needs to be clearly delineated to avoid undermining the country’s sovereignty. West African governments have a history of meddling in one another’s domestic politics, sometimes through tacit support for competing rebel groups and ethnic militias. For example, Chad, which deployed troops to Cameroon to counter Boko Haram even before the establishment of the AU force, has been accused of supporting coups in the Central African Republic. Chad and Nigeria have gone to war over the rights to the territory currently threatened by Boko Haram. In 1983 disagreement over the mineral rich area near Lake Chad led to Nigeria’s first major military operation since independence.

Localized insurgency

Nigeria’s neighbors have a real stake in defeating the insurgency. Many have been affected by waves of refugees. The armed group has threatened to expand its campaign to some of these countries. Intermittent Boko Haram attacks have been reported in Cameroon. But the AU’s response to Boko Haram should not be undertaken in haste.

Unfortunately, it appears that this nuance is missing from the specific mandate of the AU’s task force. The mission’s indeterminate timeline and nebulous mandate threatens to regionalize the insurgency. AU forces are expected to shoulder the responsibility of searching for and freeing those kidnapped during Boko Haram’s frequent raids, including the more than 200 girls kidnapped from Chibok in April. Such broad mandate could mean a semipermanent foreign presence along Nigeria’s borders.

The creation of a regional military force does little to address the roots of the insurgency.

Boko Haram was a remarkably localized insurgency until recently. Since its founding in 2002, it has gone from an anti-Western, radical religious group engaged in the assassination of local political and religious elites to a lethal terrorist group engaged in attacking the symbols of the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram has morphed in response to numerous factors, including the availability of resources such as weapons from Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the nature of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency strategies. A coordinated regional response may now encourage the insurgent group to make good on its threats and expand the geographic scope of its campaign. “We only fight those who fight us,” Boko Haram’s spokesman Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi said in a video released on Jan. 27. It urged Chad and Cameroon not to engage it militarily. This week’s attacks in Niger and Cameroon show that Barnawi’s rhetoric was not all bluster.

Lessons from Somalia

The AU should not overlook lessons learned from its intervention in Somalia. Recent attacks in Kenya by Somali armed group Al-Shabab should give African leaders pause. First, a military solution is no silver bullet. The AU’s mission in Somalia had an initial mandate of six months. But nearly eight years later, the operation remains active. Over the years, the mission’s mandate evolved from peacekeeping to directly confronting Al-Shabab. This led to the increase in the number of troops deployed in Somalia from about 8,000 to more than 20,000 fighters. Second, while African fighters in Somalia, aided by U.S. drone strikes, have dealt a significant blow to Al-Shabab, the group continues to alter its targets and tactics. Its attacks in Uganda and Tanzania, both of which contribute troops to the AU’s mission in Somalia, demonstrate how foreign intervention can regionalize local conflicts.

This is already occurring in Nigeria. Chad has officially launched airstrikes across the border, killing an estimated 200 Boko Haram fighters as of Feb. 4. Undeterred, the group had renewed its attacks, overrunning Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, and two surrounding towns on Feb. 2. The intensity of Boko Haram’s latest offensive appears to prove a point about its strength.

In addition to potentially expanding and intensifying Boko Haram’s attacks, the creation of a regional military force does little to address the roots of the insurgency. The region has long struggled to address local grievances, ranging from economic underdevelopment to political marginalization. The international community must pressure the AU to provide its regional force with a strict mandate and avoid indefinitely militarizing the region. In tandem, the roots of this crisis must be addressed. Nigeria needs large-scale security sector reform along with the political and economic integration of marginalized northeastern communities.

In the absence of meaningful economic and political change, the AU’s militarization of northeastern Nigeria may serve only as a recipe for continued revolt and violence. 

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst at the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U. S. government.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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