West Africa: What Role for the Multinational Joint Task Force in Fighting Boko Haram?

Badge of Multinational Joint Task Force (file photo).
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The Executive Summary of the ICG report,"What Role for the Multinational Joint Task Force in Fighting Boko Haram".

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) is an effort by the Lake Chad basin states - Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria - to pool resources against jihadists that threaten all four countries. The joint force has carried out periodic operations, often involving troops from one country fighting in the country next door. Offensives have won victories and helped instil an esprit de corps among participating troops. But nimble militant factions have regrouped fast, and the MNJTF's effectiveness has suffered from confusion over priorities, the four states' reluctance to cede command to the force itself, and funding and procurement delays. A successful response to militancy in Lake Chad will depend not only on the joint force but also on whether states can improve conditions for and inspire more trust among residents of affected areas. But an improved MNJTF could help such a strategy. Lake Chad states should boost its planning and communications capacity, intelligence sharing, human rights compliance and civil-military coordination. They should then reach consensus with donors on financing.

The Lake Chad countries, plus Benin, created the MNJTF in its current form in late 2014 and early 2015. Together they committed just over 8,000 troops to the joint force. The African Union authorised the force on 3 March 2015 and envisaged that a subregional body, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), would assume civilian oversight. The MNJTF established a critically important multilateral framework to combat Boko Haram insurgents, more and more of whom were launching attacks across borders.

The joint force has brought some dividends. Working together has enabled forces from different countries to learn from each other, promoted the idea of cross-border cooperation and improved tactical coordination. Joint operations, mainly involving Chadian troops deploying into the other countries, helped stem Boko Haram's spread in 2015 and 2016 and squeezed the group, resulting in its split into at least three factions. Short MNJTF offensives in 2017 and 2018, along with a more sustained operation in 2019, also reversed militant gains, freed civilians captured by them or trapped in areas Boko Haram controlled and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Yet advances against Boko Haram and its offshoots have mostly been short-lived. Jihadist factions have consistently weathered offensives.

Their resilience owes partly to their ability to escape to other areas and partly to the inability of the states themselves, particularly Nigeria, to follow military operations with efforts to rebuild and improve conditions for residents of recaptured areas. That earlier operations were not sustained likely did not help, though jihadists have bounced back from even the longer campaign in 2019 - a March 2020 militant assault on a base on Lake Chad was one of the conflict's bloodiest yet, killing some 90 Chadian troops. A subsequent Chadian operation to secure the lake was conducted mainly outside the MNJTF's auspices and militants appear likely to regroup again.

The MNJTF also suffers structural limitations. Its chain of command is weak, even by the standards of multilateral forces, because it comprises units of national forces fighting mainly in their own countries. Many MNJTF troops rotate in and out of the force as national commanders see fit. The under-resourced civilian oversight body, the LCBC, has struggled to exert authority over the force or curb abuses by soldiers who remain accountable to national hierarchies. The AU authorises the force but also has little oversight over it, though the body has tried to forge common practice on treatment of captured militants and their associates. Funding and procurement delays - the EU funds the force through the AU, but European money was long held up in Addis - have delayed critical gear and fed recrimination among the actors involved.

True, the MNJTF's shortfalls only partly explain why militancy persists around Lake Chad. Efforts against jihadists depend mostly on policies of the states themselves, of which joint operations are only one component. Still, the force's flaws limit its effectiveness.

Some shortcomings reflect national sensitivities. Abuja tends to see the MNJTF as a face-saving way to portray operations by other countries' forces, mainly Chad, on Nigerian soil as international cooperation. But it still aims to preserve primacy in counter-insurgency efforts and regards fuller integration among the forces warily. Cameroon, Chad and Niger see the MNJTF as lighttouch coordination for their offensives, and some of their officials also oppose deeper integration. Indeed, national military hierarchies' resistance to greater cooperation is a reality that any efforts to reform the force will have to factor in. Chad's December 2019 withdrawal of over 1,000 troops fighting with the MNJTF in Nigeria, without fully informing other capitals, dealt the force a further blow. President Idriss Déby voices increasing frustration that Chadian troops do the bulk of the fighting with what he portrays as scant support from neighbours. All four countries' forces are stretched thin, dealing with multiple security challenges in addition to militancy around Lake Chad.

To make the joint force a more effective part of efforts to tackle the region's jihadist insurgencies, Lake Chad countries should:

  • Build up its planning, coordination and intelligence sharing.
  • Governments and military leaders should lean toward sharing more information with the joint force and give senior officials greater leeway to determine what can be shared and what should be withheld for security reasons. They should commit troops for more sustained periods and clarify when national forces are acting under MNJTF command.
  • In conjunction with the AU, step up human rights training and monitoring of abuses in order to improve MNJTF units' compliance with international humanitarian law and emerging AU standards on conduct and discipline. The MNJTF should pay particular attention to the treatment of captured or surrendered Boko Haram fighters, ensuring that units hand them over rapidly to civilian authorities. Doing so will help Lake Chad states improve ties with locals who may otherwise see troops mistreating their youth.
  • Enable the MNJTF to better support the AU's 2018 Regional Stabilisation Strategy, which aims to improve services and create new livelihoods in conflict-affected areas. This would entail boosting the joint force's and the LCBC's capacity to co-operate with civilian actors responsible for the strategy. To ensure improved oversight, especially on human rights, Lake Chad states should gradually shift the force's AU-funded civilian components, which now report to the military commander, into the LCBC.

The AU and donors, principally the EU, should support the above steps.

They should push for making such improvements without creating a weighty bureaucracy. Also urgent is that donors, the AU and Lake Chad states reach a lasting consensus over financial support.

The regional jihadist threat shows no sign of abating and the situation in Nigeria's north east is, if anything, deteriorating. An effective response will entail not only military action, but also civilian efforts to deliver public services, improve conditions for residents in hard-hit areas, regain - or simply establish for the first time - popular trust in public authority, offer militants paths to demobilise safely and even potentially engage some in talks. Yet military operations are critical to creating space for all these activities and a reinforced MNJTF, standing as a symbol of regional co-operation, can support such an approach.

Nairobi/Brussels, 7 July 2020

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