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In the Midst of the Boko Haram Crisis, Where are Nigeria’s Neighbors?

by Mark Hay

January 27, 2015
Cameroonian Navy Sailors in 2006. Photo by USAF Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey

Almost three weeks after Boko Haram’s (belatedly) notorious massacre at Baga, Nigeria, which escalated their five-year insurgency to new levels of boldness and brutality, the Nigerian military has finally announced a massive counter-offensive against the militants’ northern strongholds. This new push by the nation’s beleaguered military will involve support and coordination with forces from neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. This cooperation is a welcome development, given widespread acknowledgement that the Nigerian military lacks the skills and resources to address Boko Haram on their own. Yet it raises serious questions as to why, despite all the global platitudes about the transnational threat of Nigeria’s foes and recognition of the state’s troubles confronting them, we’re only seeing regional support materialize now.

It’s almost a given these days that when a weak state in a strategic region faces serious Islamist foes, their neighbors and global partners promptly swing in with military support. Whether fond of Iraq’s regime or not, almost every country in the region rapidly sent aid or military support to fight the Islamic State after they started seizing territory. Even in West Africa, in 2013 the rise of Islamists in Mali led to the rapid deployment of troops from neighboring Burkina Faso and Chad, alongside a strong contingent from France. It’s a questionable norm—one worth debating—but it might have saved a lot of bloodshed in ill-equipped and hard-hit Nigeria. Yet such support materialized late in the game against Boko Haram, and only at low levels.

Nigeria’s neighbors can’t be ignoring Boko Haram under the guise that it is a contained, endemic Nigerian problem—because it is expressly not. The militants control over 150 miles of the border with Cameroon, and lands butting up with Niger, across which they’ve been launching attacks since they started their most aggressive campaigns last spring. Cameroon alone has lost dozens of men to attacks that grew progressively larger until this month, when Boko Haram issued a video claiming it would bring its operations full-force to the nation lest they drop their current constitution and embrace Islamic rule. Even beyond the borders, every neighboring nation has felt the strain of the conflict at their core as they absorb Nigerian refugees, face the threat that Boko Haram could enter amongst these masses, and relocate their own scared peripheral citizens.

A Boko Haram flag flies across from the Bosso, Niger border crossing. Photo by European Commision DG ECHO

It might seem like Nigeria’s neighbors only realized Boko Haram’s true threat after Baga: Over the past week, Chad launched an elite force to help out on the Cameroonian border, striking onwards towards the massacred town; Russia and the United States agreed to support Cameroon’s troops; and Ghana proposed the creation of a combined force under African Union auspices.

Yet plans for a combined military reaction have actually been in the works since way back in May 2014, when France convened a rare meeting of all the regional heads of state to work out coordinated border controls, resource and intelligence sharing, and military cooperation. But these talks resulted in little concrete action, save token forces in Nigeria from Niger that provided little real aid. In this light, the post-Baga response is a belated attempt to, under the spotlight, scramble some action that everyone knows should have happened much sooner. 

Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum recently admitted as much, declaring that Boko Haram’s current power “reflects our slowness and our inability [as a region] to put up a robust response.”

This slowness to act decisively, even after international summits like one held last May, has nothing to do with a lack of clarity about Boko Haram’s regional threat, or a nefarious incentive to hold back. It stems from deep-seated and unfortunate mistrust between these regional nations.

Cameroon is perhaps simultaneously (and tragically) the most strategically important partner in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, as well as the most suspicious of Nigeria. The two nations have, since independence, had bitter disputes over their borders and oil rich regions. These aren’t long-forgotten spats—some believe Cameroon’s small-yet-sturdy military is constantly prepared for conflict with Nigeria. And for the past year, even after the May cooperation summit, Nigeria has constantly accused Cameroon of being the weak link in the fight against Boko Haram. They shift the blame upon their neighbor, saying that Boko Haram’s elite operates mainly out of Cameroon thanks to the government’s ineptitude (which Cameroon of course vehemently denies, taking this accusation as a great insult). It’s hard not to feel a little historical bile in those proclamations.

Amina Aboukar, a Nigerian refugee from Damassak. Photo by European Commision DG ECHO

As a result, despite keeping thousands of elite forces on the border and holding back Boko Haram’s encroachments, Cameroon has made no bids to support Nigeria. Instead they have resisted Nigeria’s right to pursue Boko Haram into Cameroonian territory on missions (which Chad and Niger have consented to) and openly mock the notion of coordinated patrols. Many soldiers express their bitterness over having to clean up what they see as a Nigerian mess, rather than their willingness to take the fight to Boko Haram across the border. And critics in Nigeria suspect they may be actively avoiding the type of intelligence sharing they ostensibly agreed to during the May 2014 summit (although both states’ governments deny this charge).

Nigerian commentators are similarly wary of Chad, which has now stepped in, but held back much longer than it did in Mali two years ago. The tensions may not be as strong between these two nations as they are between Cameroon and Nigeria, but a general sense of mistrust certainly has hampered a more robust response over the past year from everyone involved.

This mistrust, even after Baga, weighs heavily upon future military actions. We’re not even sure now what sort of support the neighboring nations will provide Nigeria in its new push against Boko Haram. It’s possible that the spotlight of the massacre, the pressure on Nigeria to embrace Ghana’s multinational force proposal and Chad’s proactive support will force a great alliance that can finally beat back the militants. But it’s just as likely that as in May, pledges will collapse, leaving Nigeria largely on its own while the regional nations merely tend to their own borders.

Nigeria’s leaders seem to prefer the latter option, eager to prove that they can handle their own affairs before a contentious election. Maybe attitudes will change after all the politicking dies down, leading to cooperation even with traditional enemies (as we’ve seen in other parts of the world) against a mutual foe. Or maybe the region’s mistrust is too hard to overcome. Either way, while the conflict drags out, Boko Haram continues to escalate the bloodshed, riding roughshod over Nigeria's supposedly vamped-up military, as we witnessed just days ago with the latest assault, on the 100,000-person Nigerian town of Maiduguri.

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In the Midst of the Boko Haram Crisis, Where are Nigeria’s Neighbors?