The joint efforts of Lake Chad countries and Benin against the activities of terrorists in the region are weakened by the lack of coordination and Nigeria’s poor commitment, the International Crisis Group has noted in a new report.
Released on Tuesday, the report documented the achievements and shortcomings of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and is based on interviews conducted between November 2018 and May 2020 with government officials, military officers, diplomats, humanitarian workers, and informed observers.
The MNJTF, a military project headquartered in Chad, was first formed in the 1990s. It currently comprises military units from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. With the emergence of Boko Haram, in 2012, the task force’s responsibilities were expanded to include the war on terrorism.
The International Crisis Group observed that the MNJTF suffers structural limitations and has a weak chain of command. The civilian oversight body, Lake Chad Basic Commission, is underfunded and has struggled to exert authority over the force.
“The MNJTF is an expression of the willingness of the states involved to cooperate, yet their commitment to the joint force has ebbed and flowed,” the transnational non-governmental organisation stated, adding that “Nigeria’s commitment has proven particularly variable.”
“The country faces a dizzying range of threats, from Boko Haram itself to herder-farmer violence largely in its middle belt, mounting banditry in the north-west and a still unstable Niger Delta.
“In 2016 and 2017, Abuja’s attention to Boko Haram dwindled. Many top officials may have taken their eye off the ball, as President Buhari declared at the end of 2015 that militants were on the verge of defeat. Many military units were redeployed for law enforcement around the country.”
It reported that the Nigerian government is criticised by diplomats, journalists, and other observers as having a weak commitment to counterinsurgency operations in the northeast.
“Even the longer MNJTF operations over 2019 and 2020 do not necessarily show that Abuja is taking the threat more seriously. Those operations were largely spearheaded by Chad, and the most recent offensive aimed to clear militants from the lake area along Chad’s border rather than entering deeper into Borno state,” Crisis Group said.
The group noted that the commitment of other MNJTF members to the force has also waned because of local challenges. Chad is facing increasing insecurity in its northern and eastern regions, the Cameroonian government is battling Anglophone separatists in the country’s northwest and southwest provinces, and Niger is also grappling with another militant threat as well as tensions along its borders with Mali.
“The on-again, off-again nature of military offensives, including by the MNJTF – which, as described, carried out only one three-month operation in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 – may have created space for the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP),” the report observed.
“More sustained operations that would have secured areas recaptured and created space for civilian-led efforts to work with communities and improve services might have helped prevent the insurgents from regrouping, provided, of course, that those reconstruction efforts actually took place.”
Chad’s President, Idriss Déby, has been vocal about Nigeria’s poor commitment to ending insurgency in the Sahel region. He complained about the non-participation of Nigerian forces during a raid by the Chadian forces in 2015 within Nigerian territory.
“We want the Nigerians to come and occupy, so we can advance,” he said. “We’re wasting time, for the benefit of Boko Haram. We can’t go any further in Nigeria. We’re not an army of occupation.”
In 2019, Chadian troops reinforced their positions in an MNJTF operation known as Yancin Tafki (Lasting freedom), which was extended to the end of the year and put ISWAP under significant pressure. However, in January, Chad’s troops were withdrawn from Borno, ending the operation, without prior discussion with other members of the task force.
Quoting a Chadian official, Crisis Group said, “N’Djamena was motivated in part by the need to redeploy the units to the Chadian side of the lake, where many had previously been stationed and which has also suffered a spike in attacks, and in part by the mission’s ongoing costs.”
“Reportedly,” it added, “N’Djamena was also unhappy with the weak support its forces received from the Nigerian army.
“ISWAP reacted by immediately attacking the Nigerian base at Monguno where some Chadian forces had been based. Militants failed to take the base, but the attack demonstrated their tactical awareness and ability to exploit the MNJTF’s weaknesses.
“During the operation, on 9 April, Déby, in a seemingly unplanned outburst, criticised what he called other Lake Chad countries’ inaction against jihadists, which he argued left Chad doing the bulk of the work in both the lake area and the Sahel.”
The international NGO said the Nigerian government sees the MNJTF as a way to save face by presenting operations by foreign forces, especially Chad, in the country as international cooperation.
HumAngle observed in June that the Nigerian military claimed credit for an offensive conducted by the Chadian forces, in which 1000 terrorists were reportedly killed over the course of one month. Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, had included this huge figure in the accomplishments of the Nigerian Army within the period.
Crisis Group urged the Lake Chad countries to not only focus on military action but also establish their authority and gain the trust of communities in recaptured areas while also holding talks with the militants.
“A reinforced MNJTF can contribute to such a strategy. Lake Chad governments are, not surprisingly, reluctant to create a fully integrated force. But by being more open to sharing plans and intelligence, improving human rights compliance and civilian-military cooperation, and working with the African Union and European Union on sustainable funding arrangements, they can improve its effectiveness,” it concluded.
“It will not be easy for the joint force to secure and hold territory to create space for reconstruction, stabilisation work and peacemaking in border areas, but the right reforms would improve its prospects of doing so.”