France is ready to foster cooperation among West African states in order to better combat the growing Nigeria-based insurgency Boko Haram. According to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, France will assist with the coordination of a regional military force. While the defense minister excluded the possibility of French intervention in Nigeria, he offered the aid of dozens of military advisors to be based at a regional command center in N’Djamena, Chad.
Here, Le Drian is aiming his remarks at Abuja and the three states that neighbor Nigeria, which has failed to contain the Boko Haram insurgency within its borders. The radical Islamist group has ramped up its attacks in northern Nigeria in the lead-up to presidential elections in February, and has also extended its activities to nearby Niger and Cameroon. Authorities in Chad fear the violence will soon spill over their borders. Despite the gravity of the threat – reports indicate the group’s rate of violence is comparable to that of ISIS in Iraq – Nigeria’s military has largely fumbled the ball, doing little to slow Boko Haram’s spread, and indeed inadvertently exacerbating it by alienating local populations and employing elephant gun tactics.
But why is France concerned? The European power has some 5,000 soldiers deployed in nearby Mali and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), and can ill afford a further disintegration of regional stability. (The C.A.R. is particularly at risk if Boko Haram manages to expand past Cameroon.) That said, French commitment to Nigeria has been largely hypothetical. This summer, the Elysée made a pledge of cooperation while African powers committed to the creation of a joint military force, as well as greater coordination in intelligence sharing and the surveillance of shared borders.
The lack of tangible progress is due to, according to Le Drian, distrust on all sides. On Tuesday, the defense minister noted, “They need organizational, structural, command and inter-operational help. France is offering to do that.” Though it’s hard to imagine Paris in a position to diffuse the tensions. After all, a little over one year ago, President François Hollande attempted to draw back France’s involvement in Africa, and shift the policing burden to African states. Easier said than done, however. Now, one can’t help but wonder if, in addition to the Elysée’s tactical objectives, there isn’t a domestic calculus at play. After all, a show of leadership on the African front salvaged Hollande’s approval ratings once before, if only briefly. (See Mali campaign boosts Hollande’s popularity.) A public, if tempered, role in combatting Boko Haram – which has targeted a number of French nationals – could provide a much-needed boost to the unpopular French president.
In the meanwhile, various pledges of cooperation notwithstanding, there are few obstacles slowing Boko Haram’s current trajectory. If France wants to assist in a multi-tiered campaign (and presumably take partial credit for any success), Le Drian needs to start wrangling the troops – for real this time.