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Niger Joins Multinational Fight Against Boko Haram as Residents Flee Nigerian Border

Amid intensifying attacks from the Islamist terrorist insurgency, Niger’s parliament voted to approve the deployment of troops to combat Boko Haram in Nigeria.

by Pierre Longeray
Feb 10 2015, 9:45pm

Image via Flickr

Late on Monday, Niger's parliament adopted a resolution to send ground troops across the border into northern Nigeria as part of a regional military campaign against the Islamist terror group Boko Haram.

In response to Boko Haram's intensified attacks in the region, officials from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad met in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé last Saturday to formalize the creation of the FMM (Force Multinationale Mixte), an 8,700-strong regional military alliance to combat the militant group.

Opposition deputies endorsed President Mahamadou Issoufou's call to join the effort against Boko Haram, whose bid to extend the limits of a self-conceived "caliphate" modeled on a similarly dubious declaration in Iraq and Syria has spread fear across the area surrounding Lake Chad.

"Our country has never failed in its solidarity with our neighbors," Niger's parliamentary speaker Adamou Salifou said after Monday's vote.

But despite their new mandate to cross over into northern Nigeria and support the fight against Boko Haram in the areas that the group has seized, Niger's troops are being kept plenty busy at home as a result of Boko Haram's intensifying cross-border incursions.

The insurgents have repeatedly targeted the southeastern border town of Diffa in Niger since launching an offensive along the border on Friday.

Boko Haram militants storm prison in Niger. Read more here.

Niger's army repelled a Boko Haram attack on Monday after militants attempted to storm a prison in the town center. Later that day, the group fired a rocket into the town's pepper market, which had already suffered a blast on Sunday.

Ryan Cummings, chief analyst on Africa at the crisis management assistance company red24, thinks the group's increased attacks against Niger are part of a ploy to confine the army in the country and prevent it from attack Boko Haram positions in Nigeria.

"Niger's army is not battle-hardened like the Chadian army," Philippe Hugon, a research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), told VICE News.

He explained that Niger's soldiers will compose one-tenth of the FMM troops mobilizing against Boko Haram, and described them as being "less equipped than the Chadians and less capable than the Cameroonian troops."

"Niger's troops will mostly intervene alongside the other armies that together constitute the coalition," said Hugon. "This coalition is operational as of now, but there are still some logistical and financial issues that need tackling."

He added that a considerable problem facing the armies combating Boko Harm are the links made between the Islamic group and the local population, some of whom have been helping them.

"This infiltration of Boko Haram in the local population is a longer-term issue," Hugon noted. "The area around Diffa, which borders [Boko Haram stronghold] Borno State, has been undergoing radicalization for close to 20 years."

'It was as if the town had never existed': Residents of Nigeria's Adamawa State flee attacks as Boko Haram advances. Read more here.

Eyewitnesses in Diffa told VICE News that residents have been fleeing the area in droves to find refuge away from the border.

The head of a local radio station in Diffa on Tuesday confirmed to VICE News that many residents had escaped the town.

"People are fleeing," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety. "All the stores are closed and motorcycles — the attackers' favored mode of transport, because they are easy to hide — have been banned."

"Between 70 and 80 percent of people have left town to seek refuge inland," he added. "Some are trying to reach Niamey [Niger's capital] or the villages they left behind to settle in Diffa. Some people have stayed back, but they are terrified. The army is stationed around town. It's conducting a sweep and doing checks. People have been arrested, but I couldn't tell you how many."

A 40-year-old humanitarian worker who lives and works in Diffa told VICE News that a mass exodus unfolded on Monday afternoon.

"Buses out of town are being stormed, and you can't book a ticket until next Friday," the man said on condition of anonymity, fearing the danger in the area.

He described how an explosion had rocked the town on Monday night, triggering the evacuation of several neighborhoods, including the administrative districts where government buildings are located.

Mugabe picked as next African Union leader as fight against Boko Haram ramps up. Read more here.

All of the town's markets are currently closed.

"I have enough supplies for two or three days," said the humanitarian worker, who had decided to remain around Diffa. "If things settle, I'll go into town. Otherwise, I'll just wait."

He told VICE News that despite the prospect of tough weeks ahead, he hoped Niger's army would eventually repel the insurgents completely.

"If we leave, we're leaving Boko Haram an open playing field," he remarked, adding that he was trying to encourage his neighbors to remain in Diffa.

The humanitarian worker echoed Hugon's acknowledgment of the risk posed by the insinuation of Boko Haram into the community, saying that it was "infiltrating the local population in order to come out as a group and launch a collective assault."

For Hugon, a military intervention is just one part of a multi-faceted solution that hinges in no small part on "regaining the support of the population."

Boko Haram also claimed responsibility for a recent attack in the northern region of neighboring Cameroon. On Sunday, the group hijacked a bus traveling close to the Nigerian border, abducting 20 passengers. According to witnesses cited by AFP, eight women were later released, but 12 men were executed.

The extremists killed at least 70 people in a cross-border raid on the northern Cameroonian town of Fotokol last Wednesday before being pushed back by Chadian and Cameroonian troops.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Image via Flickr