Nigeria, France Step Up Joint Fight Against Boko Haram

AFP, APRIL 28, 2016

President Muhammadu Buhari. Image: Punch

Nigeria and France on Thursday signed an agreement on closer military cooperation, including intelligence sharing, to strengthen the fight against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.

Nigerian Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali said the agreement was evidence of a "growing partnership" between Abuja and Paris, as he met his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in the capital.

France has provided satellite images and surveillance footage from Rafale fighter jets based in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, which have flown over the main conflict area in northeast Nigeria.

Some 2,000 surveillance images have been shared and Nigerians have also been trained by French military intelligence in how to interpret them, French officials indicated.

Nigeria's neighbours, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, are all former French colonies where Paris continues to have influence and its support is vital, Dan Ali acknowledged.

Relations between anglophone Nigeria and its francophone neighbours have often been tense but Dan Ali said the French army can act as an intermediary for dialogue.

Boko Haram, whose insurgency has killed some 20,000 in Nigeria since 2009, has been pushed out of captured territory over the past year, leading to more cross-border attacks.

- Greater co-operation -

Le Drian for his part said France was primarily concerned with "the common fight against terrorism and particularly against Boko Haram".

Maritime security is also a key factor in cooperation, he added, with incidences of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria's oil-rich south increasing sharply since the turn of the year.

Both armies signed an operational cooperation document detailing 28 areas to be tackled before the end of the year, including training against improvised explosives and combat rescue.

Cross-border military exercises and joint maritime operations with other countries are also included.

A regional security summit is scheduled to take place in Abuja on May 14 with French President Francois Hollande in attendance, as well as representatives from Britain and the United States.

Britain and the United States have provided military personnel to the counter-insurgency in the form of special forces advisors in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and training.

Some 300 US troops have been sent to Cameroon's remote north, where Washington is operating a drone base for surveillance flights above Nigerian territory.

- Regional force -

Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin have agreed to set up a new regional force against Boko Haram with African Union backing but the deployment of its 8,700 troops has been severely delayed.

The troops were supposed to have been operational in July last year, commanded by a senior Nigerian officer from N'Djamena, where France has a base for anti-Islamist operations in the Sahel region.

"It (the regional force) is far from being perfect but it's starting to function," said one French military source.

"By speaking to one another they'll end up cooperating and understand their common interests are more important than their differences," he added.

Nigeria has struggled to acquire military hardware for troops fighting Boko Haram, with Western governments reluctant to provide arms and ammunition because of its army's poor human rights record.

A former national security advisor is currently on trial over a multi-billion arms deal scandal, in which cash earmarked for weapons procurement was allegedly diverted for political ends.

But French sources said Abuja could consult them about their requirements.