Niger and Chad Launch Major Offensive Against Boko Haram

Boko Haram
Chadian soldiers drive through the town of Gambaru, Nigeria, February 26, 2015. Emmanuel Braun/REUTERS

Hundreds of Chadian and Nigerien vehicles transporting troops have crossed the northeastern Nigerian border, initiating a ground assault on the radical Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to military officials.

The combined regional force retook two Boko Haram-held towns in northeastern Nigeria, Malam Fatouri and Damasak, in the offensive, with the support of air strikes. The move came ahead of the Nigerian presidential election which has been delayed until March 28 due to security concerns caused by the group's insurgency. Damasak is situated 10km (6 miles) south of the Niger border.

"We have kicked the enemy out of these areas and they are now under our control," a military source from Niger told Reuters. In the assault on the towns, which the source added had been sanctioned by Nigeria, 10 Chadian soldiers were killed and approximately 30 Nigerien and Chadian soldiers were wounded.

Chad's Brigadier General Zakaria Ngobongue confirmed the entry of Chadian and Nigerien troops into Nigerian territory, while a journalist in the Niger border town of Diffa told CNN that the military convoy heading for the border consisted of armoured tanks, ambulances and cargo trucks.

Nigerian military spokesperson Brigadier General Chris Olukolade took to Twitter to denounce an alleged smear campaign against the Nigerian military by domestic and foreign media who he said are keen to "attribute recent defeats inflicted on terrorists to the invincibility of other forces" than that of the Nigerian army. He confirmed Nigerian involvement in the operation to root out Boko Haram from the northeastern towns it controls.

Imad Mesdoua, political analyst at Africa-focused risk advisory Africa Matters, says that Olukolade's public frustrations with the perception that regional partners are spearheading the fight against Boko Haram comes at a crucial time in the domestic election cycle, as the military increasingly seeks to convey its successes against the terror group.

"There are two sides to this. The first is the operational side where pragmatism has led to increased military cooperation between states," he says. "The second side is communication, where officials make comments aimed at their own domestic constituency, especially now that we are in an electoral period."

"Security and Boko Haram, specifically, as themes for the election, are highly politicised," adds Mesdoua. "The Nigerian army's communication prior to recent successes was perceived by some as inefficient, so now they are playing a catch up game in terms of public relations to showcase their successes."

On Saturday, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in an audio message, purporting to be from their leader Abubakar Shekau, released on their Twitter account. "We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity," said Shekau. "We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph."

Malte Liewerscheidt, principal Africa analyst at leading risk analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, believes that the terror group's pledge of allegiance is a sign that the combined military operation is succeeding.

"Boko Haram's pledge to ally itself with the Islamic State comes at a time when the group faces meaningful resistance for the first time in years, signalling that the joint military offensive is actually gaining some ground," says Liewerscheidt.

On the same day, the extremists, who have waged a six-year insurgency against the Nigerian authorities in hope of establishing an Islamic caliphate, detonated five bomb blasts in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, killing over 100 people, local media reported.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the terror group killed over 10,000 people in 2014 and they have already reportedly slain over 2,000 people in the first months of 2015 following a series of mass killings in the town of Baga, in the state of Borno.

The Nigerian government has pledged to eliminate Boko Haram from all of its captured territories by the March 28 vote which will see People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader and incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, face opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, Muhammadu Buhari.

The PDP has won every election in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999 and is the favourite heading into this election.

The Hunt for Boko Haram, an in-depth ebook on the terrorists tearing Nigeria apart by Alex Perry, is available now from Newsweek Insights.