ABUJA: Regional and Western powers gathered in Nigeria yesterday for talks on quelling the threat from Boko Haram as the UN warned of the militants’ threat to African security and ties to the Islamic State group.
French President Francois Hollande told reporters after meeting his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja that “impressive” gains had been made against the Islamists by greater cooperation. But he warned: “This terrorist group nevertheless remains a threat.”
Buhari has invited leaders from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, whose troops will make up a new regional force against Boko Haram, which has been pushed to northeast Nigeria’s borders around Lake Chad. The 8,500-member force, which has African Union backing and is based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena under a Nigerian general, was supposed to have deployed last July.
Plugging gaps and improving coordination between armies that are currently operating largely independently is seen as vital in the remote region where borders are notoriously porous. The waters of Lake Chad form the border between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which have all been attacked by the militants in raids and suicide bombings.
Nigeria is seeking closer military cooperation to bring to an end nearly seven years of violence, which has left at least 20,000 dead and displaced more than 2.6 million people in the northeast. The UN Security Council on Friday said talks should help develop “a comprehensive strategy to address the governance, security, development, socio-economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis”.
But it also expressed “deep concern” at Boko Haram’s threat to security in West and Central Africa and “alarm at… linkages with the Islamic State”, which operates in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Boko Haram’s shadowy leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to his IS counterpart Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year, although there has since been little evidence so far of direct support on the ground.
The summit-two years after a first such high-level gathering in Paris-comes as Nigeria’s military pushes deep into Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold after recapturing swathes of territory. Former military ruler Buhari has vowed to defeat Boko Haram before the end of his first year in office later this month and the army has portrayed the Islamists as in disarray.
But there have been warnings against any premature declaration of victory. Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington, which is flying surveillance drones over northeast Nigeria from a base in northern Cameroon, did not see Boko Haram as defeated. But he conceded “they have been degraded” and said the US was “extremely vigilant” about the connections, amid reports of Boko Haram rebels fighting in lawless Libya and the group’s ties to Al-Qaeda affiliates in the wider Sahel region.
“This is again something we are looking at very, very carefully because we want to cut it off,” he told reporters in Abuja on Friday. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also warned on Boko Haram’s ties to IS and said progress was being made against the group with help from London, Paris and Washington. “But we must maintain the momentum to win the war, and build the right conditions for post-conflict stability in the region,” he added in a statement.
With Boko Haram on the back foot, attention has turned to the plight of the displaced. Two million Nigerians have been internally displaced and are living in host communities or camps. The government of Borno state-the worst-hit by the violence-has said the displaced face a “food crisis” and $5.9 billion (5.1 billion euros) was needed to rebuild shattered infrastructure. US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who visited northeast Nigeria and northern Cameroon last month, said 9.2 million people in the wider region were affected by the conflict. – AFP