Boko Haram is waging one of the deadliest hybrid wars (both conventional and asymmetric) Africa has ever seen. While the consequences are devastating and costly both in terms of human lives and property; paradoxically, this conflict is also contributing positively to a nascent form of results-driven cooperation between countries of the Lake Chad basin (Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger) in the frontline of this conflict.
As I look at the evolving situation, I can’t help but to think of a book by Lewis Coser, which I read more than a decade ago: The Functions of Social Conflict. In this book, Coser identifies one of the functions of social conflict to be the reinforcement of in-group cohesion in a conflict against an out-group, when there is already some level of order and centralization. Inversely, he continues, conflict can lead to the disintegration of the in-group where there is already despotism and division. I argue that the first part of Coser’s argument can explain the nascent results-driven cooperation Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin; while the second part may predict what awaits Nigeria, if the confusion and lack of resolve this country has shown so far, persist.
A new cooperation paradigm may be emerging out of necessity
The existentialist threat posed by Boko Haram seems to have succeeded in accomplishing what more than two decades of relentless diplomatic efforts have not been able to accomplish that is, a results-driven cooperation between countries of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) now in the frontline of this hybrid war. Since the beginning of 2015, we have observed an unprecedented coordination of military efforts between Chad and Cameroon, joined by Niger and Benin. Not even the devastating impact of climate change on the livelihoods of communities in Lake Chad Basin, nor the vicious and bloody attacks of cross-border banditry were able to bring these countries together to coordinate the simplest patrols.
The picture of Cameroonian and Chadian soldiers sharing a meal together under tents in Kolofata and Fotokol (two of the Cameroonian towns heavily destroyed by Boko Haram attacks); and of President Paul Biya of Cameroon congratulating President Idriss Deby of Chad during a Summit of The ECCAS (Economic Community of Central Africa held on January 16, 2015 in Cameroon), speak volumes. These moments of communion between armed forces and leaders of the two countries have more symbolic and strategic impact than the dozen of treaties and agreements signed between the two countries on other issues of importance.
Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin have engaged more than 7 500 soldiers in the fight. They are coordinating their operations against Boko Haram, sharing intelligence and resources. They may be receiving support from the US, France and other Western powers. However, this outside support while important, is not driving their engagement in the fight. By all accounts, countries of the region are on the front row of this battle. Cameroon is supporting the bulk of non-military supplies and logistics (Gasoline, food, etc.) of the Chadian deployment for example.
During the 24th AU ordinary session in Addis Ababa (January 30th-31st, 2015), in a long awaited move, the African Union endorsed the decision of deploying a regional force of 7 500 soldiers to support countries waging the war against Boko Haram (The plan will be submitted to the UN Security Council). This endorsement is far from adequate; but it has the merit of mutualizing regional resources, and more importantly recognizing the regional threat that is Boko Haram. It brings terrorism in the regional agenda. Africans and communities in the frontline (the borders between Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad and Niger) can’t wait for the deployment of the multinational force.
Key questions for the future
Are Cameroon, Chad and Niger re-writing the rules of international security cooperation, particularly the expected role of Western Powers when dealing with regional terrorist groups like Boko Haram? These countries, Cameroon first, took matters into their own hands. Cameroon deployed thousands troops along the border with Nigeria, dealt successfully with several hostage situations involving Westerners and Chinese in the hands of Boko Haram; while fighting relentlessly against them in border towns with Nigeria. Then Chad joined in to carry the fight to Boko Haram in Nigeria. These countries did not expect nor wait for the West to send in troops or financial resources. They are staying the course in a sort of “pull strategy”, seeming to say: “We will deal with this problem ourselves; we would like you to help us; but we will not wait for your help, nor allow you to dictate the terms of the help.” It is worth reminding that Cameroon, Chad and Niger have a security cooperation agreements with France, the same legal framework that France invoked to act in Cote d’Ivoire and recently in Mali.
Is the fight against Boko Haram helping sketch a new template of how Africa can work together to solve wicked and complex African problems? A template of a results driven cooperation based on neighboring countries working together, and the African Union marshalling resources at regional and international level to support country and sub-regional efforts. Will this cooperation that has started in the military front move to other strategic and vital sectors, such as trade, environmental, transport and free movement of goods? Let’s hope so.
It may be too early to consider this military cooperation against Boko Haram as the emergence of a new template of an African results-driven regional cooperation. It may be too premature to argue that armed forces from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Benin are midwifing the birth of a new paradigm of African solidarity. A form of solidarity that is born out of necessity sure, but based on African strengths first. In this new paradigm, the US and the West have smartly chosen to stay in the waiting room (maybe out necessity and constraints); waiting to be called in to provide needed resources when requested.
Let’s hope that the labor will not be long and painful, as I am afraid it will be!