BRUSSELS, March 19, 2015 — After years of spectacular attacks and territorial gains made in West Africa, Boko Haram seems to be on the defensive. Finally, the seemingly endless series of kidnappings, killings and overall havoc-wreaking has lessened as regional and international powers have stepped up their efforts to help Nigeria combat the Islamist threat. Now, not only has Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, set its sights on the total destruction of the organization, but it has also received the subtle support of both Washington and Paris.
Chad and Niger have pushed deep into northern Nigeria, defeating Boko Haram forces in a series of successful clashes. The two sub-Saharan nations, along with Cameroon and Benin, have committed 8,700 troops to a pan-African force dedicated to eradicating the terrorist group. While Chad and Niger pushed from the north, Nigeria has struck from the south, forcing the terrorists to fight a two-front war. This increased regional willingness to confront the organization will lead to the ultimate defeat of Boko Haram, perhaps even by the end of the month, as the Nigerian government has promised.
After meeting with leaders from Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin in Paris in 2014, Nigeria began to put in place measures to ensure that these nations could put aside old tensions in their fight against Boko Haram. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s “commitment to a regional approach” is now paying dividends.
In a last-ditch attempt to regain some of the lost territory, Boko Haram recently joined hands with ISIS, raising fears of an imminent flow of jihadists from the Middle East. Prior to this, President Jonathan claimed that Boko Haram was receiving training and support from ISIS. However, it is not just Boko Haram that is garnering international support, as Nigeria is also beginning to work with partners in Europe and the U.S. to eradicate the extremist threat.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has declared that France will increase its West African contingent, based in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, from its current level of 3,000. Drian has been emphatic in his resistance to using these forces in combat against Boko Haram, but the force will serve as a deterrent and provide support to African forces fighting in the Lake Chad region. Diplomatically, France is pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a 10,000-strong fighting force made up of African forces with the express purpose of fighting Boko Haram.
The United States has sent assistance since the mass kidnappings of the 276 girls from Chibok in the summer of 2014. Besides endorsing the #BringBackOurGirls viral hashtag, the White House deployed 80 advisors and has launched drones to assist in information gathering operations under an agreement that allows American intelligence to share analysis and information with Nigerian officials. American forces are also working with Nigerian counterparts to build the capacity of the Nigerian military to plan, lead and execute counter-terrorism operations. Nigeria has also enlisted hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa to make a final push to secure the northeast before the March 28 presidential elections.
Indeed, after several years of half-hearted efforts at tackling Boko Haram, the upcoming elections provided the Jonathan administration with sufficient motivation to grab the bull by its horns. His main opponent, former military general, oil bigwig and authoritarian head of state Muhammadu Buhari, turned Boko Haram into his main campaign issue.
Hiding his dismal streak of human rights abuses, arbitrary executions and crackdown on the media and civil society during his tenure as head of state in the 1980s, Buhari vowed to adopt a harder stance towards the terrorist group. To put the frustration of Nigerians into perspective, the general has gained support the in spite of his comments that he will stop at nothing to spread Sharia law throughout the country, in spite of the fact that almost half the population is Christian.
At the end of February, the two candidates were polling neck and neck in what was slated to become Nigeria’s most contested election, but with Boko Haram taking a beating, the 72-year-old general has seen a big part of his political platform eroded. Despite his multiple failings and reluctance to stamp out corruption, Jonathan could still go on and win the March 28 poll.
Boko Haram’s unexpected positive effect
Nothing can bring people aboard the same boat better than a common enemy. Boko Haram, which seemed unstoppable at the beginning of the year after the devastating attack on Baga that left 2,000 dead, overplayed its hand when it challenged the sovereignty of Nigeria’s neighbors and pledged its allegiance to ISIS.
Unwittingly, not only has Boko Haram convinced the African countries to set aside old disputes and suspicions, but also it gave Nigeria the impetus to forge new partnerships with Western powers.
These developments will not only have a positive effect on current affairs in West Africa, but also may turn into long-lasting relationships between old enemies, while developing the possibility of regional military and security consensus, with Nigeria at its center.