Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

Bloomberg published an article yesterday on dynamics surrounding Chad’s involvement in fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. I am quoted in the article, and I thought I’d expand on my comments here.

First, some context: in 2014 and into this year, Boko Haram has sought to hold territory in the northeastern part of Nigeria, even as the sect continues to perpetrate urban terrorism and extreme violence against rural populations. Nigeria’s neighbors to the north and east – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – are directly affected by the violence. Boko Haram has disrupted trade and sent thousands of refugees fleeing across borders. Increasingly, Boko Haram has affected the security of its neighbors, with attacks in northern Cameroon and more recently in southeastern Niger.

Nigeria’s neighbors have become more and more frustrated with Nigeria. Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and as the violence has dragged on, nearby African countries have pressured Nigeria to cooperate with them, including at major multilateral meetings last year in Paris and London.

Cameroonian soldiers began to clash regularly with Boko Haram last year, but it is only this year that Chad (and now Niger, as part of an African Union-backed regional force that will also include Nigeria’s western neighbor Benin) has become heavily involved in the fighting. In the past few weeks, Chad has reportedly pushed Boko Haram out of several towns and villages on the border and inside Nigeria.

Chad’s role in the fight against Boko Haram deserves special attention for a few reasons, including the Chadian military’s reputation for toughness and the Chadian government’s multifaceted incentives for participating in the fight. Another reason is the juxtaposition of Nigeria’s wealth and Chad’s poverty. As Bloomberg points out, Chad is one of the poorest countries on the planet (while Niger is, by the same measure, the poorest). Hence Bloomberg’s headline, “African Giant Relies on Poorer Chad to Fight Boko Haram.”

In terms of toughness, Chadian soldiers most recently distinguished themselves in northern Mali in 2013 as participants in the French-led intervention against a coalition of jihadists. Although Chad ultimately partially withdrew its troops, during the initial fighting they joined in some of the toughest combat. Chad’s strong performance in Mali partly reflected Chadian soldiers’ experience fighting in desert conditions, but Chad has also projected military power into non-desert areas like the Central African Republic (where they were, however, accused of taking sides in the civil conflict). Despite some complications, Chad has become a valued partner for the United States and particularly France, with the latter basing its Sahel-wide security mission Operation Barkhane in Chad – for both logistical and political reasons.

Chad’s incentives for fighting in Nigeria are simple. First, Chad has genuine security concerns. An escalation in Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding areas spells trouble for Chad.

Second, there is a political dimension. Chad can hope to continue to distinguish itself as a partner for the West by asserting a role as a guarantor of regional security. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who took power in 1990, needs France’s support – when he faced severe rebellions in 2006 and 2008, France’s help was reportedly critical to his ability to weather those storms. Deby may have partly re-consolidated his grip on power since 2008, but he remains vulnerable. Protests last year in Chad did not rock the regime, but the fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year can only make Deby nervous – and armed rebellion still looms as a possibility.

Chad’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram, it should also be added, parallels France’s increasing engagement with Nigeria – France’s President Francois Hollande, on a visit in February 2014, told Nigerians that “your fight against Boko Haram is also ours.” So Chad’s involvement in Nigeria helps to support French policy as well – and the French are supporting Nigeria’s neighbors logistically.

Where is all this headed? So far, Nigerian authorities have presented Chad’s presence on their soil as part of a larger, well-coordinated plan. But Nigeria, like many other countries, is keen to protect and assert its sovereignty. Nigeria and its neighbors – for example Cameroon – have disagreed in the recent past about just how it should work when one country pursues Boko Haram fighters into another’s territory. We will see how the African Union-backed regional force shapes up; the idea of a multinational force is not new, but the level of urgency the players feel is. In the short term much of the spotlight might be on Chad.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

  1. The main concern for Chad is that Boko Haram may cut its access to the sea (the port of Douala) and pipeline (oil) if Boko haram invades the tiny Northern tip of Cameroon.

  2. I think that Boko Haram originally had 3 components: religious reformism and socio-economic frustration, and perhaps kanuri nationalism. Right now I really don’t know if it has some kind of political agenda -if it ever had- Do you feel it will evolve to a kind of LRA with little popular support, or it could grow to something more similar to ISIS and try to establish some state structure?

    While Boko Haram seems to have had at least some sympathizers or collaborators among cameroonian kanuris, ¿How do chadian kanembus perceive Boko Haram?

    • I actually don’t think there is a Kanuri nationalist element to Boko Haram – even if most of their members and leaders are Kanuri, Hausa and Arabic have long been their primary means of communication, and their rhetoric centers on religious and political themes, not narratives of ethnic self-assertion.

      From what I can tell, they have limited appeal among Kanuris/Kanembus in Cameroon and Chad, but there was this piece over the summer: http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/Boko-Haram-gathers-new-recruits-in-Cameroon-20140808 .

      On Fri, Feb 13, 2015 at 9:07 PM, Sahel Blog wrote:

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      • It would be very interesting to know more about who is being recruited (or sympathizing) into Boko Haram, in terms of class, ethnic networks, specific local dynamics, etc. Unfortunately, is difficult to get reliable information and make a step forward in understanding the conflict beyond the generalization prone periodistical articles and terrorism reports.

      • Well said. The lack of good information is the core of the analytical problem.

        On Sat, Feb 14, 2015 at 8:33 AM, Sahel Blog wrote:

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  3. Is there any potential that the presence of a regional force in North Eastern Nigeria could bring back the issue of border disputes between Nigeria and its neighbours? There are already rumours (not sure how credible) of Cameroon and Chad hoisting their flags over territory they have recaptured from Boko Haram within Nigeria’s borders. Unless there is a clear agreement reached soon over how this force is going to operate, it might spell trouble, especially since neither APC or PDP have articulated a clear regional strategy.

    • Good question. The rumors are definitely flying. All the parties have an interest in working together, but as you point out it could be contentious in the absence of clear frameworks and strategies. So yes, I think there is some potential for that.

  4. Pingback: On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger | Sahel Blog

  5. Hey Alex, what do you think about rumors that Deby is actually fuelling the crisis (http://saharareporters.com/2014/11/22/political-associate-chadian-president-idriss-d%C3%A9by-arrested-missiles-meant-boko-haram). Furthermore I read that the Borno Governor has an ambigous role and is accused by some of being involved in Boko Haram financing. He seems to be quite close to the Chadian President (http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/09/jonathan-no-liver-investigate-prosecute-ali-modu-sheriff-apc/).
    What do you think about that?

  6. Good piece, however you leave out 2 key reasons for the Chadian involvement, one id the threat to their land routes through Kouserri and potentially the Chad-Cameroun pipeline but also that Nigeria is paying Chad N145m per month.
    The Chadians might be tough, disciplined desert fighters but their abilities are very specific. They fought well in Mali but they were fighting an enemy they were used to fighting with French support, in CAR they were essentially just supporting Seleka.
    In Nigeria they have taken territory but almost always seem to withdraw a few days later, leaving Boko Haram to return. Despite the Camerounians holding Fotokol sccesfully for over 7 months the Chadians lost it the day after they took over Gamboru.

  7. Last month I have seen a stunning documentary about the situation in Boko Haram territory. The journalist reported from the front accompanying the Chadian Military in Dikwa. It definitely gives insights into the Chadian way of warfare and their motivation. It is from German/French channel ‘arte’ and you can change the language in the video.

    http://info.arte.tv/de/tschad-boko-haram-schlagt-zuruck

    • A very belated reply – I finally got around to watching this and was equally impressed. Thanks for mentioning it.

      On Sun, May 3, 2015 at 2:55 AM, Sahel Blog wrote:

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