Chad’s President Idriss Deby has secured control of regional operations against deadly Boko Haram Islamists, riding roughshod over his supposed allies in a week-long diplomatic and military offensive.
The strategy bore fruit on Wednesday, after a day of talks in Niger’s capital, Niamey, when the African Union confirmed that the headquarters of a new regional force would be based in N’Djamena.
There have been months of disagreement among the countries directly threatened by Boko Haram — Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger — on exactly how to take on the jihadists.
Each country agreed at a meeting in Paris last May to provide 700 soldiers for a regional force that was supposed to be deployed in November last year but has yet to materialise.
The issue came into sharp focus after the insurgents on January 3 captured the town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, where the borders of the four nations converge. They also overran the headquarters of an existing multi-national force.
Concern about the wider threat from Boko Haram has not just been regional. France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday said African countries must take action.
“It’s important that the countries in the region can organise themselves to be able to respond to this dramatic offensive which could destablise the whole of this region,” he told RTL radio.
– ‘Vital interests’ –
But veteran strongman Deby’s bid for control of the proposed new force had all the appearance of unilateral action as he invoked “the vital interests” of his country.
The first salvo came on January 14, when Chad’s government said it was minded to provide Cameroon’s military with “active support” in its response to the “criminal and terrorist acts of Boko Haram”.
“Faced with this situation which dangerously threatens the security and stability of Chad and harms its vital interests, the Chadian government would not stand on the sidelines,” it added.
The following evening, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya announced that N’Djamena “has decided to send a large contingent of Chadian armed forces to come and support the Cameroonian armed forces”.
On the morning of January 16, lawmakers hardly had time to vote on a motion authorising military deployment to Cameroon and Nigeria before columns of armoured vehicles set off from N’Djamena.
Nigerians, on the back foot for months over their willingness to lead regional military operations, appeared to be taken by surprise.
“Any support to our operations will be welcome but it has to be properly channelled to key into our own ongoing operations, considering the fact that place is a territory of Nigeria,” defence spokesman Chris Olukolade told AFP on January 17.
His words went unheeded as rumours swirled about the advance of Chadian troops.
A contingent is already in the Cameroonian town of Maltam, which is virtually opposite N’Djamena, to secure the Chadian capital’s airport.
French Rafale fighter jets are based there as part of Operation Barkhane targeting jihadist groups in the Sahel region.
Paris controls the fight against Islamists in Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania from N’Djamena, where it has long stationed troops.
Yaounde was guarded about the methods of its neighbour, saying on January 19 that “a large contingent” of Chadian soldiers was now in the country.
Leaders of both nations’ militaries needed to meet to work out precisely where to send the troops and when, said government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary.