Boko Haram’s high-profile abduction of hundreds of young women from Chibok, in Nigeria’s Borno State, has drawn international attention. Despite differing estimates, the number of young women abducted now appears to have been 276. Of these, dozens were able to escape, but over 200 are believed to still be in captivity. It was in this atmosphere of widespread public outcry against Boko Haram, both in Nigeria and throughout the global community, that the summit was convened.
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria called Boko Haram “an al-Qaeda of West Africa.” Jonathan also commented that Boko Haram is clearly not a local terrorist group any longer, given its al-Qaeda affiliations. President Jonathan has faced a great deal of criticism in Nigeria and abroad for not doing more to try to rescue the young women from Boko Haram.
For his part, President Paul Biya of Cameroon was adamant that the purpose of the summit was to declare war on Boko Haram. Although Boko Haram’s roots are in northern Nigeria, it has extended its operations in the broader region, especially in parts of Cameroon that are adjacent to northeastern Nigeria. Chad’s President Idriss Deby took a similarly militant and resolved line, speaking of launching “a total war on Boko Haram.”
In order to put into effect their declaration of war against Boko Haram, the five African nations will share intelligence, exchange weapons, and cooperate in a system of patrols. The patrols will be coordinated by Nigeria. The five African nations will monitor borders and exchange information on human trafficking. Western countries will provide training and technical support.
Hosting the summit was France’s President François Hollande, who emphasized the threat that Boko Haram poses to the stability of not only northern Nigeria, but also the broader region. Hollande spoke favorably of the capabilities of Nigeria’s military forces, and was very clear that there will be no French military intervention.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign minister, offered a somewhat different assessment of the capabilities of the Nigerian armed services before the meeting started. Hague expressed the view that the Nigerian military needs to be reorganized if it is to deal with Boko Haram effectively. To this end, Hague offered the services of British military advisers.
During the summit , new information emerged regarding a Boko Haram attack on a Chinese firm in northern Cameroon, which took place Friday night. The Islamist militants killed one Cameroonian soldier, and 10 Chinese citizens are now missing.
The fate of the captured school girls has drawn the attention of the world to Boko Haram, and unquestionably provides the context for the effective declaration of war issued by Nigeria and four other African nations. However, Boko Haram has been waging an insurgent campaign in the north of Nigeria since 2009. By some estimates, the conflict has already taken 12,000 lives and wounded 8,000.
Much has been made of Boko Haram’s links to al-Qaeda, as seen with President Jonathan’s commentary. This notwithstanding, analysts have pointed out that Boko Haram is firmly rooted in developments in Nigeria’s north. The group has drawn on and exploited such local grievances as the extreme poverty of the region, dissatisfaction with government corruption and long-standing tensions between Nigeria’s Muslim north and highly Christian south.
In the early 2000s, Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf started the group as an alternative to the patronage network run by the governor of Borno State. His ability to provide jobs and welfare aid won Yusuf a great deal of support. Conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian authorities broke out in 2009, leading to Yusuf’s televised execution at the hands of Nigerian security forces.
Since 2010, the group has been nominally led by Abubakar Shekau, although its six different divisions are thought to operate fairly autonomously. Shekau has drawn outrage from around the world for threatening to sell the captured young women into slavery.
In order to combat Boko Haram, Nigeria has deployed some 20,000 troops to its northern regions, complete with air support and intelligence capabilities. However, Alice Friend, African Affairs director for the U.S. Department of Defense, argued that Nigeria is in many ways outmatched by Boko Haram. According to Friend, Boko Haram has noted advantages in capabilities, training, and equipment over Nigeria’s 7th Division, the one tasked with the majority of the combat duties.
It may have taken the abduction of hundreds of young women to focus the attention of the world on Boko Haram, but the summit in Paris is a clear signal that the militant group is being taken seriously by policymakers in African nations and the Western world. The effective declaration of war on Boko Haram issued by the five African nations, with the support of the West, comes with indications of clear intent to deploy more military and intelligence capabilities in the conflict.