N’DJAMENA, CHAD — In Boko Haram-affected areas in Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, a force of more than 10,000 African troops is working to degrade and destroy the terrorist group.
Boko Haram is responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 people since its fighters began their insurgency in 2009 in northeastern Nigeria. Their atrocities have caused the displacement of 2.3 million people across these four countries, known as the Lake Chad Basin, where more than 20 million people are under threat.
In 2015, the African Union authorized the Multinational Joint Task Force – or MNJTF as it is known – to tackle Boko Haram in its strongholds of northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.
The force has slowly been reversing the terrorists gains, retaking territory Boko Haram had seized for its goal of establishing a self-described caliphate in West Africa, and pushing back its fighters to seek cover in the forests and among the hundreds of islands in Lake Chad.
But that progress has come at a price for many civilians.
In July 2015, Chad’s army evacuated the lake villages in order to conduct military offensives against Boko Haram, upending the lives of many fishermen and farmers. With their livelihoods gone and forced from their homes, more than 100,000 people had to find assistance at displacement camps in the country’s north.
In the past year, the MNJTF says it has killed 828 Boko Haram fighters and arrested 615 more. More than a thousand combatants have surrendered to the task force, which has freed more than 20,500 hostages in the region since January 2016 and destroyed at least 32 terrorist camps.
“The enemy is now on the back-foot and being held on the back-foot,” Cameroon’s Defense Minister Joseph Beti Assomo recently told a visiting U.N. Security Council delegation. After Nigeria, Cameroon is the second most-affected country in the region by Boko Haram.
Assomo said Boko Haram has turned to asymmetric tactics, such as suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices.
“Before they used to attack our military posts with 400 men, no more,” he said.
The force is tasked with restoring security in Boko Haram-affected areas, helping reestablish the state’s authority in liberated areas, and assisting with the return of the internally displaced and refugees. The troops also help to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries.
Government officials in the region and military commanders say part of their success against Boko Haram has to do with the group’s internal divisions.
Last August, the group split, one faction following Abubakar Shekau and the other following Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s founder and a loyalist of the so-called Islamic State. Shekau’s group has shifted tactics from military combat to stepped up attacks with suicide bombers (often women and children) and improvised explosive devices.
In terms of size, the force commander of the MNJTF, Nigerian Major General Lo Adeosun, told the visiting U.N. delegation that Boko Haram operates in “many layers.” Of the al-Barnawi faction he estimated there are perhaps 3,000 formal fighters, but said other combatants materialize for operations only, making it difficult to give an exact figure.
He added the majority of the weapons the task force has seized from the terrorists are from military posts Boko Haram has previously attacked.
Elsewhere in the region, leaders complained that conflicts in Libya and Mali are fueling Boko Haram with arms and fighters who penetrate porous borders.
“It is having a destabilizing effect on all the Sahel,” Niger’s president Mahamadou Issoufou said of the insecurity in the two neighboring nations.
“The multinational task force needs financial, material and legal support,” Chad’s Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacké said.
At MNJTF headquarters, there was a call for more night fighting capabilities, flat-bottomed patrol boats, and helicopters to help evacuate wounded.
The task force receives backing from the United States, Britain and France, who mainly provide intelligence and training support through a small coordination and liaison team on the ground in N’Djamena.
In each of the Lake Chad Basin countries, top officials made clear they do not consider Boko Haram to be an Islamic extremist group. “They are not jihadists, but terrorists and bandits,” Cameroon’s defense minister stressed.
“Ideology is one of its weapons,” General Adeosun said of Boko Haram’s manipulation of Islam. He said the group exploits the uneducated with distortions and lies to recruit them.
While the task force looks for a military solution to the problem of Boko Haram, governments are seeking to address the root causes that have made their people susceptible to recruitment.
“Once we create jobs, once we engage with the youth, this madness will evaporate,” said Kashim Shettima, governor of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state.