At last, a show of force tips odds against Boko Haram

The well-respected Chadian military has entered Cameroon. EPA

Suspected Boko Haram militants have attacked Northern Cameroon in another escalation of their now regional war against Nigeria, Cameron, Chad and Niger. In a cross-border attack, the militants kidnapped around 80 people.

It now seems as though at least 20 of those people have been freed as troops from Chad enter the country to help fight back. It’s a good sign that the piecemeal and badly co-ordinated approach that has allowed Boko Haram to expand its influence across a regional caliphate is finally being addressed.

The latest kidnappings are on the largest scale to be seen on Cameroonian soil but were typical of Boko Haram tactics. Around 30 adults and 50 children were taken and around 80 homes destroyed. The militants then attacked villages in the far North of Cameroon and exchanged fire with soldiers for more than two hours.

A region under threat. CIA WFB Map

The attack is part of an escalation of violence from the group as Nigeria’s election approaches on February 14. But Abubaker Shekau, the man widely believed to be Boko Haram’s leader, has also warned there will be more violence in Cameroon unless the country renounces its constitution and embraces Islam.

Boko Haram has attacked Niger and Chad too, but violence in northern Cameroon directly threatens trade routes to the Chadian capital N’Djamena which relies on imports from the Cameroonian city of Douala. Chad’s crude oil is also transported through a pipeline that runs from southern Chad to a floating facility off the Cameroon coast.

Cameroon has already deployed thousands of troops to its border area, but convoys of Chadian troops have now arrived in Maroua, the main town in Northern Cameroon. This followed a unanimous vote in the national parliament to take action.

Around 2,000 Chadian troops and 400 vehicles, including armour and attack helicopters, will take the fight to Boko Haram. Chadians troops enjoy one of the best reputations in Africa, having worked with the French to drive militants out of Northern Mali in 2013.

Chad’s intervention is likely to be supplemented by ECOWAS and African Union support once regional leaders appeal for help next week to establish a new joint force to fight Boko Haram.

A turning point?

Until now, Boko Haram has been able to build a secure zone within Nigeria because confusion has surrounded many of Nigeria’s attempts to regain control. From this safe base, the militants have been able to exploit regional differences and the lack of regional security mechanisms and coordination to create a wider caliphate. As a result Boko Haram has become a regional threat, not just a threat to Nigeria.

The presence of Chadian troops could make a real difference since previous efforts have all concentrated on securing individual borders. Cameroonian troops have inflicted casualties on Boko Haram and the militants had their fingers burned when they tried to take a military base at Kolofata recently. Around 143 fighters died, while Cameroon lost just one soldier.

But the Chadian troops are better equipped and well trained – primarily in desert warfare. The presence of French advisers within the Chadian military and at training facilities means that this is an experienced and hardened force that could pose a significant threat to Boko Haram. In such warfare, the ability to use vehicles and particularly helicopters in rapid deployment is also key. The Chadians could therefore play an important role in stopping Boko Haram raids and taking the fight to them.

Despite this optimism, it should be noted that military success is not necessarily the answer to an insurgency that has gained ground by recruiting dispossessed and alienated people from the Northern States of Nigeria and wider afield. A long-term solution has to be grounded in social justice, inclusion and far better economic prospects than exist at the moment. The best way to stop people picking up arms is to give them a job.

For now at least though, Boko Haram appears to have finally angered the regional governments sufficiently to take action. If the Chadian and Cameroonian troops can really start collaborating effectively, along with support from ECOWAS and the African Union, then the militants might just have taken on too much. We might finally see a way to end this long-running insurgency.

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