The war against Boko Haram, credited for uniting Africa, could instead spur divisive rivalries

The region likes to insist on its own solutions. But sovereign pride may be getting in the way of gains against the Islamists.

IT was always going to get African. The terrorism menace that is Boko Haram has been with us for all of six years, but it was only this month that Nigeria decided it was a problem that could be fixed in six weeks. 

So serious were Nigerian authorities that they postponed a presidential election, arguing that the military blitz would leave few soldiers available to secure the poll.

As many skeptics struggled to digest this piece of information, action on the ground however suggested there indeed is a concerted effort to take out for good the threat posed by the militants.

Matters had been helped by regionalisation of the conflict by the militants, who appeared to have bitten more than they could chew by targeting neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

The African Union subsequently announced plans for a 7,500 regional force drawn from the three countries in addition to Benin, and the host, Nigeria.

A fund was quickly cobbled up, even if a large part was to be funded by international donors, including a reluctant United Nations. A high-level summit in Cameroon pledged $110 million in emergency funding to combat the Islamists, a step announced by Gabon’s president on his personal Twitter account.

In true African fashion, the proposed mission has struggled to take off the ground, although in fairness, the nature of such undertakings is always hobbled by the bureaucracy, as officials thrash out minute details. 

Daily reports of hundreds of militants killed served to strengthen the perception that however late the international effort has been, the operation was finally on, raising hopes that the new firepower would run the terrorists out of town.

It has however not taken long for the cracks to show. Nigeria had for months rejected outside offers of help, afraid that the region’s biggest economy would be seen as unable to take domestic matters.

It took a series of humiliating knocks to its army—which once had a reputation for being the fiercest in the region—to force Abuja to back down from its pro-sovereignty stance.

But it would appear the fears are coming true. The different armies involved in the region have been desparate to claim kills, as they seek to buffer national pride and score political points, both regional and domestic. 

On Tuesday, thousands of Nigerians marched in the capital Niamey, led by prime minister Brigi Rafini.

“Niger will be the death of Boko Haram,” President Mahamadou Issoufou told a cheering crowd at the end of the rally.

“Nobody attacks Niger with impunity and Boko Haram learned that to its cost on February 6.” Niger’s army has claimed it killed more than 200 Boko Haram fighters on that day.

Cameroon’s army separately announced it had killed 86 militants and arrested over 1,000 suspected others.

Nigeria’s own military has also been loudly trumpeting its gains, while the movements of Chad, which is the fourth country in the regional force, have been widely lauded internationally even by Africa’s admiring gendarme, France.

 The prominent and “in-charge” role taken by Chad president Idriss Deby has already caused bristling, with many observers suggesting he was providing the leadership the anti-book Haram fight has always lacked.

The result has been Abuja’s message of a “joint effort” is increasing being lost, leading to exasperation.

“Please, let’s stop advancing this misleading idea that Nigeria has become so weak and helpless to the extent that it’s only being helped by Cameroon or Chad hence is obliged,” Nigeria’s defence spokesman Chris Olukolade told wire agency AFP last week.

Even the AU has joined in; it was reported to be nursing hurt feelings after the countries involved asked for UN support first, undermining its ‘African solutions for African problems’ mantra.

With the vicious jostling for recognition, unless the countries involved can close ranks and remain on-message, the campaign against the militants could instead turn out to be regionally divisive.

The winners would be only the Boko Haram, whose insurgency has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced more than one million people since 2009.


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