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Fight against Boko Haram turns into ‘regional war’

A man described as Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has appeared in a new YouTube video
A man described as Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has appeared in a new YouTube video FRANCE 24

Niger is joining a new regional force to combat the Nigerian radical Islamic militia Boko Haram after repeated attacks on a border town where French liaison officers are already based. Cameroon, Chad and Benin are also on board.

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As yet another deadly bombing hit the main market in the border town of Diffa on Monday afternoon, Niger’s parliament in the capital Niamey voted unanimously to join a new African Union-backed force, bringing together the five countries now under threat from Boko Haram.

The resolution, backed by all 102 lawmakers who took part in the vote, authorises the country to send some 750 troops to Nigeria, a member of parliament told AFP.

“We already know that Chadian troops have conducted on-the-ground attacks in Nigeria against Boko Haram and there have been cross-border attacks in Niger and Cameroon, but also we’re now hearing that Benin, another neighbour of Nigeria, is going to get involved; it does increasingly seem to be turning into a regional war,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Lagos Anna Cunningham.

Regional leaders pledged 8,700 troops for the force on Saturday at a meeting in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde. Suspected Boko Haram fighters hijacked a bus with at least 18 passengers on board in Cameroon’s northern border area on Monday and drove it into Nigeria along with looted food and livestock.

The husband of a passenger later told AFP that the gunmen had killed 12 of the abductees.

Although regional cooperation has begun, Cameroonian academic Léon Koungou told FRANCE 24 that it remains insufficient to defeat the Islamic rebellion. He welcomed the announcement of an integrated regional force as “a first step”.

“Chadian troops, who arrived in Cameroon a few days ago, have the right to pursue Boko Haram fighters into Nigerian territory, but Cameroonian ones don’t,” said Koungou, who wrote a book about the threat of Boko Haram in Cameroon and teaches at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

“Since the Paris summit in May 2014, there has been no meeting between Presidents Jonathan of Nigeria and Biya of Cameroon – you would almost think they are avoiding each other,” he added.

French drones

Koungou thinks such lack of communication, as well as reluctance to accept support from former colonial power France, have hampered the response to the rebellion. “In this asymmetrical conflict, we need to shift efforts towards intelligence gathering,” he said.

“The four French drones based in Niamey are very efficient – let’s be realistic,” he added.

Last week, the French military announced that it had set up a liaison unit “through which the countries surrounding Lake Chad can share intelligence and coordinate their response”, including a base in Diffa. The defence ministry said in a statement that efforts against Boko Haram formed part of its 3,000-troop Barkhane operation against “terrorist armed groups” across the Sahel.

Monday’s bombing in Diffa was the latest in a string of attacks since Boko Haram militants controlling swathes of neighbouring north-eastern Nigeria opened a new front against Niger last week.

“Everything exploded. I saw bodies everywhere,” a market trader told AFP after the blast. Militants have also targeted the town’s prison and border crossing in repeated gun battles since Friday.

On Sunday, defence ministry officials inspecting troops came under fire from suspected Boko Haram fighters across the strategic Komadugu river. “This forced the troops who were defending the bridge to unleash a deluge of fire under our eyes,” reported a correspondent for Radio France Internationale who was accompanying the officials.

Niger’s forces have so far repelled the attacks, but the area under threat is fragile. “Just like all activities in the region, we are affected by movement restrictions,” Ibrahim Niandou of CARE told FRANCE 24. The international charity has been assisting Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram into Diffa as well as returnees who had fled ethnic strife in Niger in previous decades.

According to the United Nations, more than 150,000 Nigerians have fled the country since the Islamist insurgency flared up in 2013 and the authorities in Niger estimate that more than 100,000 people, both Nigerian refugees and Niger nationals, have arrived from Nigeria.

Martial statements

Although the funding and timeframe of the new African force remain to be agreed, regional leaders have accompanied its launch with martial statements. “We shall eradicate the Boko Haram plague in the region,” Niger’s Defence Minister Mahamadou Karidjo told national television on Sunday. “The boys are chomping at the bit to go.”

FRANCE 24's Anna Cunningham on Nigerian election delay

Nigeria’s national Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, who obtained a delay to Nigeria’s presidential election this weekend because of insecurity, assured AFP that “all known Boko Haram camps will be taken out” by the time of the rescheduled vote on March 28.

Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau appeared unfazed. In a lengthy video message in Arabic, a man presented as Shekau defied the new regional force on YouTube on Monday. “Your alliance will not achieve anything. Amass all your weapons and face us. We welcome you,” he said.

Islamist activists posted the video along with two others showing recent Boko Haram attacks and archive footage of battles between British colonial soldiers and fighters from the historic Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria. The videos also included pictures of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group seeking to establish an Islamist caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups, Wassim Nasr, reported on Monday that IS group sources were predicting “good news from Africa”, hinting at the hope of formal allegiance from Boko Haram.

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