African troops to join Boko Haram fight. Is Nigeria's army all in?

The African Union has decided to send 7,500 troops to help fight the spread of Boko Haram into the region. But Nigeria has sent mixed messages on if it even wants intervention from other African countries.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Motorists drive past the Bauchi city gate along the Bauchi-Gombe highway in Bauchi state, Nigeria, January 29, 2015. African leaders have agreed to send 7,500 troops to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.

African leaders have agreed to send 7,500 troops to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, forcing the West African giant to work with its fellow African Union (AU) countries in ways it never has before.

The formation of a multinational force is new territory for Nigeria. Boko Haram was once solely its problem. But the group's spread into neighboring countries has turned it into a regional issue, forcing Africa’s largest economy to receive help from its smaller, less developed neighbors.

Laja Odukoya, a political science professor at the University of Lagos, says the AU’s decision, though late, is “a welcomed initiative” to Nigerians, who head to the polls on Feb. 14 to elect a new president. The decision came after AU leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a bi-annual summit over the weekend.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also at the summit, welcomed the decision and condemned the “murderous campaigns” waged by Boko Haram.

“Regional and international efforts must focus on protecting communities in northern Nigeria and across borders,” he said. "More than a million internally displaced people and refugees must be able to return home."

The Nigerian government, however, has sent mixed messages on its stance on intervention. National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki told the BBC in late January that there was no need to deploy UN or AU troops because the country and its neighbors were in "good shape" to confront the militants.

Yet presidential spokesman Reuben Abati told Deutsche Welle last week that the government approved the troop plan and refuted reports that Nigeria had rejected any external help.

"Nigeria has never been against cooperation among neighboring countries," Mr. Abati said. "President Goodluck Jonathan has always said both regional and international cooperation was required."

But why would Nigeria reject foreign aid? Experts say corruption within the Nigerian military has prevented the government from asking for international assistance. Critics argue that the government has encouraged – rather than thwarted – growth of the Islamist group to justify more spending on national security.

“The officials working with [President Goodluck Jonathan] are more interested in the defense budget which is in billions of Naira and which is sunk into their pockets instead of being used to prosecute the war,” said Abdullahi Wase, a security analyst, citing the 2014 national budget in which defense received the largest share.

Nigeria's National Assembly also approved a $1 billion loan to President Jonathan last September to procure sophisticated weapons for the country's army.

“As long as the insurgency lasts, the government will continue to allocate funds to fight it, but the funds will not all be used to prosecute the war,” Mr. Wase said.

National pride

Deciding whether to accept assistance may also be a question of pride. Nigeria has typically been the one to offer aid, not received it.

With almost 3,000 troops deployed outside its borders, Nigeria is the world's eighth largest contributor of peacekeepers to UN missions and the third largest in Africa. Nigerian forces are involved with peacekeeping campaigns in South Sudan, Congo, Mali, Liberia, and Sudan’s Darfur region. The country also provides troops to AU missions.

Nigeria, which has indicated that it may bring home many of its troops to fight the insurgency, would rather use its own forces than those of the AU –perhaps in part because of the AU's lackluster intervention history. 

“There has not been one country where the AU or its predecessor, OAU (Organization of African Unity), sent troops and there was a high-profile performance," Wase says.

Chad and Cameroon have already been pulled in to fighting the extremists in recent months. On Friday, the Chadian military reclaimed the Nigeria-Cameroon border town of Michika, which had been overrun twice by Boko Haram.

President Jonathan celebrated the victory during a campaign stop Friday and announced that more towns in the region would soon be liberated.

Nigeria’s fight against the insurgency has become a major factor in the run up to this month’s presidential election. Many, including presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, blame Jonathan for the government’s failure to stamp out the group. Mr. Buhari, a retired army general, has promised to personally lead the fight against Boko Haram if elected.

AU leaders will meet in Cameroon next week to detail a coherent strategy for the campaign against the group.

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