Niger and Chad sent troops backed by warplanes and artillery into northeastern Nigeria this weekend, reportedly capturing two towns as part of a fresh offensive against Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
Troops gathered at the Niger border before launching the attack, and officials now claim to now control the towns of Malam Fatouri and Damasa — the latter of which lies six miles inside Nigerian territory.
"We have kicked the enemy out of these areas and they are now under our control," a Niger military source told Reuters.
He also said that about 300 Boko Haram militants had been killed, and that the armies had received permission from Nigeria to launch the attacks.
A Chadian military source told Reuters that around 10 soldiers had been killed, while 20 were wounded.
Warplanes conducted air raids in support of ground troops, a military official in Niger told CNN.
"It is an intensive operation that is aimed at pulverizing Boko Haram and crippling their capability," the source told the network.
Nigerian Armed Forces Spokesperson General Chris Olukolade published a long string of tweets on Monday, apparently in response to the actions of Niger and Chad's armies. Olukolade said the media had been using the "fruitful collaboration" between the Nigeria and its neighbors as a way to bring the military into "disrepute." Both "foreign media and their local collaborators" had been "mischievously and exaggeratingly reporting the supportive roles of foreign allies to the detriment of our operational success in the fight against terror."
He added: "Much as we value and appreciate the ongoing collaborative effort of the troop-contributing nations of the Multinational Joint Task Force, there has been NO compromise of any aspect of Nigeria's sovereignty or soil to any foreign force. This counter-terrorist operation is comprehensively driven by Nigerian forces."
Olukolade went on to suggest that any deviation from this opinion was "unpatriotic." "When the country is at war it is not only the military that should be involved but every segment of the society," he said.
Speaking from the central Nigerian city of Jos, political analyst Chris Ngwodo told VICE News that "some might think of this (offensive) as the final push."
However, Ngwodo noted that Boko Haram's still controlled an estimated 6,000 square miles of territory, though "the situation in the field is really very fluid."
Terrorism experts estimate that Boko Haram has between 7000 and 10,000 "core'" fighters.
Chad and Niger appear to have acted with the consent of the Nigerian government, though coordination attempts between the neighbors have not always been straightforward or without friction. However, Ngwodo opined that anyone from the Nigerian government who raised issues of sovereignty is missing the point. "I think the boat of sovereignty has sailed and sunk somewhere a long time ago because I think Nigeria lost sovereignty when Boko Haram set up a caliphate almost unchallenged," he said. "So the argument of sovereignty has faded into the background."
On Saturday, Boko Haram released an audio message in which they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The clip — posted online — is believed to feature Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, and specifically name-checked Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Ngwodo said the announcement of allegiance with the Islamic State could be interpreted as a "cry for help." He said that it was possibly issued with the hope that it would lead to increased support and funding from the Iraq and Syria-based caliphate, but "there is no guarantee that that will happen."
Nigeria will hold presidential and legislative elections on March 28, and they are expected to be the most contested since the country became democratic in1999. Former military ruler and President Olusegun Obasanjo told VICE News last month that Boko Haram's explosive growth was a clear result of "inadequate action," and that as a result he couldn't support incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, even though they are members of the same party.
The uncertainty created by the upcoming elections has also impacted an economy already in crisis. Nigeria, the continent's largest producer of oil, depends on crude for about 70 percent of its income, but the price of oil has been tumbling. The value of Nigeria's currency has also decreased, falling in value by 20 percent during the past six months.
Ngwodo described the current atmosphere in Jos — a city that has experienced multiple suicide bombings — as "anxious impatience."
"Everything had paused for the election to take place and people want to get on with their lives," he said.
Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that her organization is grappling to understand the legal basis for the ongoing offensive, as it is not covered under the Lake Chad Basin Commission's Multinational Joint Task Force.
In light of this, she said, "we are concerned that if the forces from these countries, including Cameroon, do not act in full accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law…their conduct [will] not meet their obligations as AU and UN member countries, [and] the abuses they commit in the name of fighting Boko Haram are only likely to increase the group's appeal among local residents, who have already born the brunt of abuse by all parties."
"In the conduct of military operations, the forces should take constant care to spare the civilian population, including residents trapped in Boko Haram-held territory as well as those who were kidnapped and forcefully recruited," Segun said. "Human Rights Watch is urging that all feasible precautions should be taken to minimize harm to civilians, and to ensure they are not exposed to retaliatory attacks by Boko Haram as we have seen happen in recent days."
Political analyst Ngwodo also highlighted the importance of recognizing the ideological nature of the battle. He said that destroying Boko Haram as an insurgent group that controlled territory denotes one battle, but that "destroying them as a terrorist group that carries out bombings in Nigerian cities is another matter entirely."
"The capacity of Boko Haram to hold territories will be very limited by the onslaught of the four armies, but their capacity to carry out bombings in public places" will not be impacted by the current offensive, he said.
Ibrahim Abdullhai, a Nigerian lawyer who was one of the instigators of the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign launched last year to raise awareness about the kidnapping of over 200 girls from the town of Chibok, told VICE News that most of the people he has spoken to in the region are "happy" with the coordinated offensive against Boko Haram.
"We hear stories of occupied territories by Boko Haram being recaptured by the Nigerian and our neighbors' troops. Some few displaced people have even returned to their villages," he said.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan sent a government minister to visit the families of some of the missing Chibok girls last week. Minister of State for Power, Mohammed Wakil, reassured the community group that efforts were still being made to rescue their daughters. Abdullhai said that he personally remains hopeful that the Chibok girls can be rescued, although others — including former military ruler Obasanjo — have stated that they believe this is unlikely.
Last week the Nigerian Defense Forces' Twitter account tweeted a poem about "the dress." When asked for his opinion on this, political analyst Ngwodo told VICE News that he hadn't seen the tweets, but noted that the Nigerian army had suffered huge reputational damage over the past few years, and their social media efforts were probably symptomatic of their attempts to address that.
Meanwhile, the international community continues to debate how to best deal with the rise of militant Islamic groups like Boko Haram.
John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, told the BBC World Service that Boko Haram is a phenomenon that is "not as well understood" as the more publicized Islamic State. "Everyone is experimenting to figure out what are the right tactics for this kind of terrorism," he said.
In general with terrorist groups, McLaughlin said, the best approach is three-pronged: "Destroy the leadership, deny the safe haven, and you need to change the conditions that give rise to the phenomenon."
He added: "Of these, the third is the largest problem by far, and a lot of that will come down to the actions of the government in the state."
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