Greater African Union support needed to fight Boko Haram

Lake Chad Basin countries appeal for more intervention as insecurity, violence and killings spread.

From 2021 to date, security challenges have increased in the Lake Chad Basin (LCB). So far in 2022, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction of Boko Haram has dominated insecurity. There has been a high civilian death toll due to attacks by Boko Haram, particularly the remnant elements of the Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (JAS). Simultaneously, banditry and intercommunal conflicts have persisted, compounding the devastation in the LCB and beyond, with Nigeria being the epicentre of these challenges.

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) has been a key stakeholder supporting LCB states’ responses to these security threats. The issues will again be discussed during the extraordinary African Union (AU) summit in Malabo at the end of the month and at a PSC session on 31 May.

Cameroon, the PSC chair for May 2022, is among the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) members involved in the struggle against violent extremism in the region. The PSC’s positioning should be strengthened to better support the LCBC and its member countries.

Pre-existing and new threats

Since mid-2021, the number of intercommunal conflicts has increased, with far north Cameroon most affected. There have been hundreds of casualties, with many injured and enormous material damage exerted on communities. Relative calm has prevailed since January 2022. However, the humanitarian impact of the conflicts remains significant, with more than 30 000 Cameroonian refugees in Chad and thousands of internally displaced persons in Cameroon.

Banditry and abductions have remained rife in Nigeria, with attacks rampant in the country’s northwest and northcentral zones. Rural communities in Zamfara in the northwest suffered significant losses following a major attack in early January, claiming at least 200 lives.

The PSC has been a key stakeholder supporting LCB states’ responses to security threats

In late March, militants targeted a train travelling from Nigeria’s capital city Abuja. Explosives were detonated and the incident appeared to bear the trademarks of violent extremism, with indications of perpetrators working in collaboration with a Boko Haram breakaway faction, Ansaru. The sophistication of the attack points to assistance beyond the ranks of so-called bandits.

During the first quarter of 2022, JAS fighters from Niger and Nigeria attacked civilians as the group continued to sustain its presence through the leadership of Bakura Doro. On 9 March, JAS killed 45 individuals in the Diffa region of Niger suspected of aiding security forces.

ISWAP follows a ‘hearts-and-mind’ approach in appealing to communities – helping to secure livelihoods while extorting money. ISWAP’s affiliation to the Islamic State or ISIS was reaffirmed as the former declared allegiance to the new ISIS leader, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

The group also persisted with attacks against security forces, as well as humanitarian and development entities, as evidenced by the abduction of aid workers in Monguno, Borno state. Meanwhile, ISWAP appears to be expanding its operation beyond the states already affected in Nigeria (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe). Indeed, it claimed the attack on a police station in Kogi state in April and that of Suleja, near Abuja, in May.

Ansaru appears to be experiencing a resurgence, particularly in Nigeria. At the start of 2022, the group reaffirmed allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Similar to ISWAP’s community-focused strategy, Ansaru appeals to (Muslim) communities as it claims to defend the Ummah.

Waves of disengagement of former fighters and associates of JAS have continued into 2022, even though massive numbers left the group in 2021 following the death of Abubakar Shekau. These disengagements are mainly in Nigeria and Cameroon, involving a mix of civilians and combatants across gender lines.

AU support to combat Boko Haram

Since the beginning of joint kinetic responses to Boko Haram, LCB member states have appealed to the AU, mainly the PSC, to authorise the implementation of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). Boko Haram threats were on the agenda of the 469th PSC meeting on 25 November 2014, which focused on efforts of affected countries within the LCBC framework.

The PSC’s positioning should be strengthened to better support the LCBC and its member countries

On 29 January 2015, the PSC authorised the deployment of the MNJTF and validated its concept of operations on 3 March that year. The AU established a strategic support cell within the peace and security department to oversee the force, and to coordinate and manage assistance to partners. A team was set up at headquarters for technical and logistical support to the MNJTF. The AU is an important fundraiser for the structure.

As the LCBC adopts a more comprehensive approach against violent extremism through its Regional Strategy for Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience (RS-SRR), the AU’s contribution will again be crucial. The RS-SRR emerged from extensive consultations between LCBC and AU experts, as well as United Nations agencies, including the UN Development Programme, and other stakeholders.

The strategy was adopted on 30 August 2018 in Abuja. Its nine pillars include political cooperation, governance and the social contract, socioeconomic recovery and environmental sustainability, preventing violent extremism and peacebuilding, and disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement.

Call for enhanced PSC support

After well over a decade of effort, the situation remains as volatile, despite varied responses by LCB states and their partners. Moreover, 2021 and this year seem to have been characterised by increased threats. This necessitates a deeper commitment to implementing RS-SRR’s pillars, complemented by scaling of responses. It also entails addressing the pace at which responses occur, considering especially how long community infrastructure replacement takes after destruction by Boko Haram factions.

Ansaru’s allegiance to AQIM means that subsidiaries of the deadliest violent extremist groups, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda, are now present in the region. Studies have already shown the propensity of these groups to exploit the economies of violence and manipulate community conflicts to their advantage to continue to thrive in their criminal enterprises.

Harmonisation of inter-regional efforts is needed between entities such as the LCBC and G5 Sahel

This crystallisation of these adverse circumstances does not augur well for the defence and security services, which are already severely tested by existing threats. This calls for even greater support from the AU – support that considers the specifics of current developments in devising adequate responses.

The affiliates of these violent extremist groups are also found in the Sahel. A country such as Niger, which straddles the Sahel and LCB, for example, has subsidiaries of these groups in both regions at the same time. Linkages between the Sahel and LCB are no longer just an idea, but a clear possibility.

This calls, on one hand, for harmonisation of inter-regional efforts between entities such as the LCBC and the G5 Sahel (if this one survives the actual crisis) and, on the other, proactive global support for these regions. This may take various forms and consist of technical, material, tactical and financial support to enhance security agendas.

It could be from the UN through the UN Security Council, the European Union or other donor countries already supporting the stabilisation agenda. This entails greater cooperation with global coalitions that have responded in the past against ISIS, for example. As the continental organisation that convenes all sub-regional entities, the AU should remain at the forefront of these processes to mobilise resources, coordinate inter-regional collaboration and inspire the sequencing of agendas.

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