Can the joint task force against Boko Haram stay the course?

2017-01-13

Boko Haram’s latest incursions in Cameroon and Nigeria, specifically in the towns of Mora, Madagali and Maiduguri, claimed many victims – both military and civilian. The resurgence of attacks around the Lake Chad Basin and the controversy after the capture of the Sambisa Forest confirm Boko Haram’s capacity to destabilise the region, and question the effectiveness of current counter-terrorism strategies.

The severity of the crisis presented by Boko Haram motivated Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, later joined by Benin, to collaborate on a joint military response. These efforts boosted the Multinational Joint Security Force created by the Lake Chad Basin Commission in March 1994; and the widening of its mandate to the fight against Boko Haram in April 2012. In October 2014, the force was renamed the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram (MNJTF).

In January 2016, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council renewed the MNJTF’s mandate for 12 months. That mandate is nearly up, so the time is right to assess the force’s actions and its relevance as a means to defeat Boko Haram.

During its first year of deployment (in 2015), the focus was on setting up the force and defining how it would operate – no small task considering the diplomatic cooperation required between its four member states. In 2016, the MNJTF took to the field proper, and despite some setbacks, recorded consecutive victories against Boko Haram.

Analysts are skeptical about the MNJTF’s ability to deal with an ever-changing threat

A significant offensive was carried out from June to November 2016 around Lake Chad and in Borno state. Referred to as Operation Gama Aiki (‘finish the job’ in Hausa), it involved simultaneous and cooperative military action by all four of the force sectors: Baga in Nigeria, Baga-Sola in Chad, Diffa in Niger and Mora in Cameroon.

No definitive evaluation of the operation is available, but it has been hailed as a notable success in the fight against Boko Haram. Sources point out, among other achievements, the release of hostages, the liberation of certain areas previously occupied by Boko Haram and the losses and defections from within the ranks of Boko Haram. In early November, an offensive by MNJTF Sector 2 headquartered in Baga-Sola in western Chad resulted in the surrender of at least 240 Boko Haram combatants.

Between February and May 2016, the operations of MNJTF Sector 2 headquartered in Mora in Cameroon neutralised numerous Boko Haram combatants. The force secured the release of hostages, seized guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and destroyed some of the group’s training camps.

Relations between the four principal MNJTF countries remain tense

These interventions required strategic coordination from the MNJTF headquarters in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, backed up by responses from the different sectors on the ground. Good communication encouraged the local population to collaborate with security forces in their attemps to recapture the areas that remain under Boko Haram control. Real success can only be measured in the medium to long term, but these actions nevertheless showcase the dynamism of Sector 2 and its efforts as far as the stabilisation of the area is concerned.

Despite these notable achievements, several challenges still plague the MNJTF – especially when it comes to difficulties linked to its command and coordination. In 2014, the urgent need to respond to the worsening situation forced MNJTF member states to put aside their differences. Today, relations between the four principal contributing countries remain tense. Evidence of this includes the persistence of uncoordinated actions by states, and claims of victory against Boko Haram by individual countries during joint operations.

Despite its weakening on many fronts, Boko Haram remains a threat. The group has demonstrated its resilience on the ground, with an increase in sporadic as well as suicide attacks by its members. This means the war against Boko Haram is far from over. In fact, many analysts are skeptical about the MNJTF’s ability to deal with an ever-changing threat.

The MNJTF was configured in 2014 to tackle a more or less conventional security threat. Since then, Boko Haram has become a much looser organisation with two distinct factions that operate in secret while fighting asymmetrically against national security forces. If the MNJTF is to maintain its relevance, it must be flexible in its approach and able to adapt as the threat evolves. This was precisely what the Dakar Forum on Peace and Security in Africa recommended when it met on 5 and 6 December 2016, calling for defense and security forces to adapt to the current threats.

The MNJTF has faced financial challenges which hinder its effectiveness

The force also needs to become fully operational. Since its setup, the MNJTF has faced financial challenges which will no doubt hinder its effectiveness. The contributions of Nigeria, the United Kingdom, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and the European Union are not enough to cover the initial budget, estimated at US$700 million. This situation is further complicated by the fact that Chad and Nigeria, the two biggest military contributors to the MNJTF, are currently facing an economic downturn as oil prices drop.

The MNJTF is ready to work with whatever resources are at its disposal, but these challenges must surely impact its capability to fight Boko Haram.

As the deadline for renewing its mandate approaches, there is little doubt that the MNJTF remains a relevant regional anti-terrorist mechanism. Its member states and strategic partners should boost the MNJTF’s operational capacity to stabilise and reclaim territory captured by Boko Haram. This will, in turn, create an environment in which much-needed humanitarian aid can be provided.

Wendyam Aristide Sawadogo, Junior Fellow, ISS Dakar

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