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Concern as Niger withdraws from anti-terror task force

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Picture: Pfc Eric Holman / US Army via ACCORD – Niger’s exit may result in a resurgence of terrorist assaults, the writer says. The governments of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria established the MNJTF in response to the challenges of terrorism, political conflicts, drug and human trafficking, ethno-religious crises, trans-border crimes, farmer-herder conflict and insurgency, the writer says.

By Joshua O Bolarinwa

The withdrawal of the Niger Republic from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) may impede the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts in the Lake Chad Basin region, and by extension, the greater Sahel. The exit may result in a resurgence of terrorist assaults, particularly targeting internally displaced person’s (IDPs) and refugee camps.

In response to the challenges of terrorism, political conflicts, drug and human trafficking, ethno-religious crises, trans-border crimes, farmer-herder conflict and insurgency; the governments of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria established the MNJTF. The objective was to effectively combat and eliminate all forms of illegal activities that occur across the borders, with a specific focus on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Examining the potential concerns and challenges that may arise after Niger’s withdrawal from the MNJTF in West Africa is crucial. This withdrawal might potentially leave neighbouring states vulnerable to a large increase in terrorism, with limited or no counter-terrorism measures in place.

The absence of Niger will create a void and may lead to an increase in attacks on the outskirts of Lake Chad and the influx of a substantial number of weapons and militants from the Sahel

The MNJTF was established by Nigeria in 1994 to curb banditry and facilitate free movement of individuals and belongings along its northern border. Initially, the force adopted a national stance, with Nigeria being the sole participant. However, starting in 1998, the force adopted a more international approach with the participation of Niger and Chad to combat cross-border crimes and terrorism. The aim was to ensure the security of the borders in the Lake Chad region.

In 2015, its scope was expanded to incorporate not just representatives from Nigeria and Niger, but also from Chad, Cameroon, and Benin; with the task of putting an end to the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin region. With the headquarters in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, the MNJTF engages in both kinetic and non-kinetic operations. MNJTF was assigned to collaborate with other counterinsurgency operations such as Joint Task Force Operation Restore Order and Operation Lafia Dole which were already established by Nigeria.

The MNJTF has significantly broadened its operations since its establishment in 1998 and subsequent re-activation in 2015 in order to address the security risks posed by the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin. With a strengthened force of approximately 10,000 soldiers, the coalition’s mandate was to eradicate the Boko Haram extremist group, which has conducted several violent campaigns against Nigeria and the entire Lake Chad Basin.

However, as a result of the MNJTF’s vigorous operations and their widespread military offensives, the menace of Boko Haram drastically reduced. The MNJTF conducted its inaugural significant operation in 2016. Notwithstanding significant obstacles, it achieved substantial progress in combating the Boko Haram insurgency. With co-ordinated military actions, it liberated territories and hostages and successfully neutralised a significant number of Boko Haram insurgents, retrieved weapons, and dismantled several Boko Haram training camps. The efficacy of the MNJTF was acknowledged by the United Nations Department for Political Affairs for its successes in curbing the insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin.

The withdrawal of Niger from the MNJTF was not surprising, given the coup that took place on 26 July 2023. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) suspended and placed several sanctions on Niger. It is widely believed that, due to the Ecowas sanctions, demands, conditions and the threat of using force on the junta if diplomacy fails, might have led to the withdrawal of its soldiers from the borders.

However, the head of the Nigerien military junta, General Abdourahamane Tchiani refuted the withdrawal from MNJTF by stating, that “Niger is still a member of MNJTF”. Niger is landlocked and shares boundaries with seven countries-Algeria to the north (951 km), Libya to the northeast (342 km), Chad to the east (1,196 km), Benin to the southwest (277 km), Burkina Faso to the south (622 km), Mali to the west (838 km), Nigeria to the south (1,608 km). The Nigeria-Niger border is the longest, which fosters interactions and interdependence in trade, security, and cultural exchanges.

The withdrawal of Niger from the MNJTF will create a void that may increase the level of terrorist and insurgency activity

The absence of military patrols at the borders may provide Boko Haram and other insurgent groups, especially ISWAP with additional incentives to escalate their attacks. In fact, the absence of Niger will create a void, leading to an increase in attacks on the outskirts of Lake Chad and the influx of a substantial number of weapons and militants from the Sahel and ISIS, based in North Africa.

If it contributes to a resurgence of terrorism and insurgency, by implication it may result in a big setback on the earlier successes recorded by the MNJTF. Niger has been a significant participant in the ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency endeavours at both regional and global scales, which should be encouraged to continue. In a recent report, several areas in the region, particularly Gaidam in Yobe State, Mallam Fatori, and Damasak near Lake Chad, are experiencing a continuous and consistent influx of foreign combatants due to porous and unguarded borders as a result of Niger withdrawing its soldiers from those points.

The withdrawal of Niger from the MNJTF, creates a void that will increase the likelihood of heightened terrorism and insurgency, undermines the accomplishments of the MNJTF, and emphasises the necessity of ongoing regional cooperation in response to shifting security challenges. A great setback to the current counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency endeavours.

It will not only undermine the collective security arrangement, but also Niger’s internal security, the security of its neighbours and the entire Sahel. Thus, it is crucial to enhance diplomatic efforts, bolster regional collaboration, and explore opportunities for Niger’s reintegration for cohesion and effective response to the security challenges.

Dr Joshua O Bolarinwa is an Associate Professor and Head of the Division of Security and Strategic Studies at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), based at Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria.

This article was first published on ACCORD