A turning tide? The recapture of Dikwa and MNJTF sanction

On 2 March, Chadian authorities confirmed that the country’s military had recaptured the town of Dikwa, Borno State, which had fallen under Boko Haram control in September 2014.  Dikwa is of strategic importance given the town’s location at the confluence of three major highways which not only provides access to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, but which also facilitates access to both the Borno North and Borno South administrative zones. By liberating the town, Chadian  forces have not only secured the western approach to Maiduguri from Boko Haram eastern strongholds, but  has also secured access routes to insurgent strongholds  toward Lake Chad and southward toward the Mandara Mountains.

Cognisant of its strategic importance, the Nigerian army had itself launched a number of unsuccessful counteroffensives on the settlement. I believe the major challenge that the Nigerian army faced in reclaiming Dikwa was that the town served as forward base for Boko Haram. Its resilience was likely due to the fact that it was garrisoned and enjoyed a rich supply of combatants and resources from Boko Haram’s alleged logistical bases along the Cameroonian border via the town of Gamboru.

However, with Chadian forces launching its counterterrorism operations from Cameroonian territory, its liberation of Gambaru had effectively cut supply lines to Dikwa thus weakening Boko Haram’s ability to defend the town. The situation which existed in Dikwa serves as a microcosm of the Boko Haram insurgency where the Nigerian government struggled to make inroads against the sect from its western positions due to the location of suspected Boko Haram logistical and operational bases along the Nigerian/Cameroonian border. These had been left relatively untouched until the commencement of multilateral military operations against the sect launched in late January 2015.

Reports of Dikwa’s liberation also coincided with reports that the African Union had formally backed the 8700-strong Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) which have been mandated with further countering the Boko Haram threat. While undoubtedly a positive development, we should remain considered that the MNJTF will yield significant results in the fight against Boko Haram. As reported by the BBC, the MNJTF force will only operate between the outskirts of Niger’s Diffa border town, and the towns of Baga and Ngala in Nigeria. In summary, the composite force will only be mandated with securing the Nigerian side of the Lake Chad region which, according to an undisclosed military source, comprises a”only 10 to 15% of the entire area where Boko Haram operates”.

MNJTF operations against the sect also face myriad operational and logistical challenges. For one, regional and domestic power dynamics could pose an obstacle to the unfettered cooperation on which success depends. Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party is already under domestic pressure due to the presence of foreign forces on its soil, with opposition candidate and former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari, describing it as a “disgrace.” With elections looming, the government is no doubt keen to counter such accusations by dictating the rules of engagement and asserting its primacy in any definitive victories scored against Boko Haram. Such posturing may not, however, be welcomed by the country’s alliance partners, who may themselves want to claim any victories.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, decades-old territorial disputes between Nigeria and its neighbors, particularly over ownership of the resource-rich Lake Chad, could also foster mutual distrust that could compromise cooperation. Unanswered questions regarding the financing, logistics, and coordination of the multilateral force might also threaten its efficacy.

Even if the combined forces are successful in dislodging Boko Haram from its regional strongholds, this may not bring about immediate stability. It is worth noting that the group’s recent strategy of capturing and holding territory is a novel development in its decade-long insurgency. Prior to July 2014, when it seized its first town, the sect effectively operated as a guerrilla force waging an urban terror campaign that spread as far west as the city of Sokoto and as far south as the capital, Abuja. During this time, suicide and car bombings, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, armed ambushes, and coordinated raids became a near daily occurrence across parts of Nigeria. Indeed, as noted by a spate of recent attacks in Potiskum, Biu and Jos, it appears that Boko Haram reverting to an asymmetric armed campaign appears to be in full swing. This poses some serious concerns regarding the security climate in which Nigeria’s ballot is set to take place and could potentially place millions of voters at risk.

Nevertheless, the gains being made against the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect should not be understated. Less than three months ago, Boko Haram appeared to be an indomitable force to which the beleaguered Nigerian government and its army had no answer. Today the sect is being dislodged from towns and cities which had fallen under its brutal control with the same rapidity which underpinned their initial capture. While the war against Boko Haram may still be far from over, the tide may be ever so slowly turning…

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