Following years of its evil war on Nigeria and its immediate neighbors, events in the last few weeks indicate that there is a coordinated major military offensive by these countries that has resulted in retaking a string of border towns from Boko Haram. A surprising series of military successes leading to scores of deaths of the extremist fighters come ahead of talks in Cameroon to agree on details of the 7,500-strong taskforce proposed by the African Union to tackle the militant Islamist group.

Reports suggest Chadian troops have crossed into North-eastern Nigeria and re-captured at least three border towns, including Gamboru, Ngala and Malam Fatori.  “They [Chad and Cameroon] are acting out of their own national interest, to push Boko Haram back into Nigeria,” declared a newspaper columnist in Nigeria. The Nigerian military, revitalized by new equipment – including upgraded T-72 tanks and helicopter gunships – has also gone on the attack and reportedly won back a number of towns in Yobe and Adamawa States. There is a growing perception among some security watchers that Boko Haram is on the back foot.
A major Boko Haram assault on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, was repulsed on February 1 with heavy casualties inflicted on the militants. Analysts have speculated the attack, the second in a week, was a result of Boko Haram having been driven from the border areas it has effectively controlled for close to a year.

But the renewed military vigor has raised concerns over the protection of civilians in the remote regions where the fighting has been fiercest and has involved air strikes with unguided munitions.  “We know what [violations] Boko Haram is capable of, and in the past there have been reports of violations by Nigerian troops,” said human rights lawyer Clement Nwankwo, who added: “Certainly we must also be worried about the activities of the Chadian and Cameroonian military.” The coordinated offensive comes ahead of the 5-7 February meeting in Yaounde to finalize details of the AU’s planned Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). At the table will be representatives of the AU, UN, Economic Community of West African States and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) all hoping to agree on issues of command and control, rules of engagement, and intelligence sharing.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council decision to deploy a taskforce is the result of continent-wide frustration over the inability of the Nigerian government to crush Boko Haram, according to diplomatic sources contacted by the Council. The failure to solve an essentially local issue allowed the insurgency to spread beyond the country’s borders, threatening neighboring Cameroon’s North West region in particular. UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has also warned of the international threat the group poses.
Nigeria’s preference has clearly been for bilateral security arrangements with its neighbors rather than the internationalization of its Boko Haram problem. But after five years of military failure, there is no credible alternative than to involve other countries. With elections now due on March 28, the government is keenly aware that its military shortcomings and political miscalculation are vote losers. Casting the conflict as part of the global fight against terror serves as a face-saving measure for the largely incompetent Nigerian government. The AU’s deployment decision is based on a request made in January by the six-nation LCBC for a mandate to expand on an existing MNJTF – made up of Nigeria, Chad and Niger – originally conceived as a counter-smuggling initiative, with limited cross-border collaboration.

In 2012 the MNJTF was handed the additional task of tackling Boko Haram. The capture of its headquarters in Baga, Nigeria, by the militants in January underlined the extent of its incapacity. Chad and Niger reportedly withdrew in the aftermath of the setback. The AU envisages something far more ambitious for an expanded MNJTF. The January 29 declaration authorizing its creation includes language on protection of civilians; support for the initial stages of a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program; and the facilitation “within the limit of its capabilities” of “humanitarian operations and the delivery of assistance to the affected populations”. The MNJTF will be “truly multinational” said the diplomat; so far only tiny Benin has been signed up as a troop contributing nation, beyond the core group of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. But the AU is crucially seeking a UN Security Council mandate, which would translate into financial and logistical support. We hope so.