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Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram: how can France help?
11 March 2014

On 25 February, terrorist organisation Boko Haram struck again when it ruthlessly killed more than 50 students at a school in the Nigerian town of Buni Yadi. The students had been asleep in their dormitory. This attack, along with many others, led the governor of Nigeria’s Yobe state, Ibrahim Gaidam, to make a desperate plea imploring the government to do something. Gaidam warned that if no action were taken, the northern population would be ‘gradually wiped out'.

Boko Haram has posed a threat to the people and authorities of Nigeria for years. Despite the state of emergency decreed by the government in May last year, the northern-Nigeria-based terrorist group is still carrying out its indiscriminate and deadly campaign against the population and the state.

Echoing the governor’s plea, the Nigerian government has now called on France for assistance in its fight against Boko Haram. This raises the question of how France would be able to intervene, given that Nigeria is already cooperating with the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) in a counter-insurgency to defeat the terrorist group.

For a long time, Nigeria viewed Boko Haram as a domestic problem and insisted that a domestic approach is needed to resolve it. Despite the difficulty it experienced in containing the notorious Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), Nigeria has always believed itself to be capable of dealing with its own security problems. It has done so in the past purely by relying on its army’s capacity to project force even beyond national borders.

Currently, more than 20 000 soldiers have been deployed in affected regions in the north. However, the threat posed by Boko Haram ought to be thoroughly evaluated. It does not fit the logic of a conventional threat, and therefore does not warrant a conventional military response.

The fight against Boko Haram now demands more than a localised response

Additionally, the Nigerian army and security agencies are facing acute internal problems. This has undoubtedly contributed to the government’s abysmal response to Boko Haram. In some cases, the radical group’s firepower has exceeded that of the national army. The latest attacks in Mafa, a village in Borno state, saw soldiers flee as insurgents unleashed their orgy of violence on innocent citizens.

The fight against Boko Haram has now developed to demand more than a localised response. The group has become a regional, if not global, security threat. Its deadly attack on the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Abuja, and the proven capacity of the group to kidnap as far afield as in Cameroon, prompted the US to classify it as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. This came despite opposition by many stakeholders in Nigeria that the move would internationalise a domestic problem.

The call on France to help is not a coincidence. In addition to other Western countries, France has important interests in Nigeria – especially in the oil fields around the Niger Delta, which have been threatened by the radical Islamist group.

It must, however, be noted that Nigeria is not a former French colony, and the countries do not have a history of military cooperation. If anything, bilateral relations have been punctuated by suspicion, acrimony and tension over France’s alleged attempts to undermine the country’s regional hegemony. A significant number of former French colonies (eight out 14 French-speaking countries in Africa) are located in this region.

Cooperation between France and Nigeria against Boko Haram represents an important opportunity for the countries to revive their relations. Essentially, France could provide the logistical support (drones) that Nigerian security services need in their fight against the radical Islamism insurgents. For France, this could be a rare chance to seize economic opportunities. France sees Nigeria as a potentially important economic and political partner in sub-Saharan Africa, which fits perfectly with its aims to expand its sphere of influence beyond francophone countries.

Acute problems in the Nigerian security agencies contribute to the government’s abysmal response to Boko Haram

France’s experience in Mali, where it has helped to keep extremist groups at bay, could be seen as an important motivating factor in President Goodluck Jonathan’s call for help. France could also make an important contribution with respect to intelligence gathering and political reform.

However, the European country’s assistance could be fruitless without vigorous internal reforms and coherence in Nigeria’s counter-terrorism approach. The recent spate of killings highlights the flaws within the national army, especially in terms of their strategic approach. According to Abdullahi Begho, spokersperson of the Yobe state governor, security guards patrolling the school mysteriously withdrew shortly before the February attack. Furthermore, the rescue committee took a long time to respond since communication channels had been cut. This seems to give credit to the allegation of some experts that Boko Haram has infiltrated the national army.

In addition to its call on France, Nigeria has also expressed a wish for deeper cooperation with its francophone neighbours. In a recent interview, the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, said that Nigeria also needs cooperation from French-speaking West Africa ‘before it becomes a major problem.’ He added: ‘It will devastate French interests if we allow this terror to go on.’ As part of his reform of the security sector, Jonathan has also recently sacked all his military chiefs to give impetus to the fight against Boko Haram.

In the short term, the country’s security forces require attention at three levels if it is to take full advantage of a contribution from France. Firstly, improving coherence, trust and confidence within the security services is necessary and urgent.

Secondly, regional cooperation with neighbours needs substantial and practical engagement in terms of effective border control, joint military operations and, most importantly, information gathering and sharing. Cameroon, Chad and Niger are said to form a secondary base for Boko Haram. They are also directly affected by the violence in the north of Nigeria, with significant numbers of potential victims fleeing across the border. Finally, a working synergy must be established between national, regional and extra-regional actors and initiatives.

Beyond upsetting the anti-colonisation rhetoric, Nigeria’s call for help from France and other actors can be seen as an acknowledgement of the limitations of national efforts. Responding to Boko Haram requires collective action, and failure to contain it would undeniably regionalise the chaos associated with the group and increase instability in an already volatile region.

David Zounmenou, Senior Research Fellow and Mouhamadou Kane, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

The publication of this article was made possible by a grant from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.
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