On 17 October, the Nigerian government unilaterally declared that it had entered into a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram Islamists. In the same communique, Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh, further asserted that the agreement would also see the release of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist extremist sect from the town of Chibok some six months ago. Yet, nearly two weeks after the declaration, neither goal has been achieved. Insurgent attacks have continued unabated across the north east, while Boko Haram have ironically sought to kidnap more adolescent girls as opposed to releasing those already held hostage.
The prevailing situation has sparked widespread debate on varying aspects of the alleged ceasefire. Some have questioned the terms of the agreement, speculating as to what bargaining chips could be traded at the negotiation table. Others have questioned the credence of the agreement, knowing very well that previous ceasefires have been decried null and void by the sect almost as quickly as they were announced. One aspect of the ceasefire which has not garnered as much attention, however, is the role Chad is playing in the negotiation process. What does the country have to gain by facilitating talks between Nigeria and the extremist group? Moreover, could the government of Idriss Deby be placing itself at any significant risk should the talks falter?
Chad’s brokering of a peace accord, and the concomitant chance at formulating a binding peace, is advantageous to the Deby regime for many reasons. For one, a ceasefire agreement improves regional stability and, perhaps more importantly, limit’s Chad’s susceptibility to Boko Haram’s increasing regional contagion. In recent months, Boko Haram has expanded its operational presence outside of Nigeria’s borders. Attacks by the sect have become particularly pervasive in Cameroon’s Far North administrative, many of which have focused on Kouserri — a settlement straddling the ill-defined and porous Cameroon-Chad border. With the sect seemingly establishing an operational foothold in northern Cameroon, there are undoubtedly growing concerns that Boko Haram may willingly or even unknowingly be operating in Chadian territory.
A second consideration for Chadian involvement speaks to the country posturing itself as somewhat of a regional hegemon. In responding to recent crisis in Mali and the Central African Republic, Chad demonstrated that it possessed both the political will and capacity to act decisively to insecurity outside of its own borders. And for this the country has been rewarded. In October 2013, Chad was awarded an inaugural seat on the United Nations Security Council — a decision many attributed to the pivotal role the country’s military is playing in maintaining continental security. Chad’s status as a regional power broker was further bolstered by the French government’s decision to base its ambitious and costly Sahel-wide counter-terrorism operation, coined Operation Bharkane, from the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. While Operation Barkhane’s hosting in Chad makes sense from a geographical perspective, given the country’s proximity to multiple jihadist theatres of conflict, the decision was undoubtedly influenced by the country’s relative stability and military prowess.
However, apart from drawing further regional and international recognition, President Deby may also be personally motivated in responding to the Boko Haram threat. In September 2014, New York-based online news agency Sahara Reporters published an article fingering Deby as a possible Boko Haram sponsor. The report, which was purported to be based on information delineated in a classified Nigerian intelligence dossier, suggested that Deby intended to use Boko Haram as a quasi-presidential guard in 2011, when his then beleaguered administration was facing dissent from within the Chadian armed forces. If the report is to be believed, Deby’s linkages to the sect was reportedly facilitated through his close friend and former Borno State governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, which himself has long been accused of being a Boko Haram patron. Although the credence of these claims cannot be independently verified, Deby would well be keen on dispelling any linkages to the Boko Haram sect, particularly given his rapidly growing international standing. Brokering a ceasefire between the Nigeria government and insurgent group may go a long way in achieving this.
As mentioned, however, the Deby regime’s involvement in the Boko Haram insurgency does not come without risk. With the real possibility that negotiations may falter, in addition to the fact that Chad has committed troops to a regional anti-Boko Haram force, there is an ever-present threat that the country could be subject to Boko Haram reprisals. This is of particular concern given that the sect has demonstrated that it possesses an operational presence in areas proximate to Chadian territory. Nonetheless, Boko Haram will be aware that exporting its insurgency to Chadian territory is itself a high risk endeavour.
The Chadian army remains one of the most battle-hardened forces on the African continent and is particularly skilled in counterinsurgency operations in Sahelian settings. Attacks against Chadian interest runs the risk of mobilizing the full might of the Chadian military against Boko Haram. This could not inflict significant casualties on the Boko Haram war machine but may also place the group Cameroonian bases, thought to be its operational lifeline, at risk of being nullified. Targeting Chadian territory also runs the risk of pulling the French military into the equation. With France hosting a large portion of Operation Barkhane’s logistical and operational assets in N’Djamena, located less than 100km from Boko Haram’s primary area of operation in Nigeria’s Borno state, a direct attack on Chadian territory could well be perceived by Paris as an act of aggression. This could translate in France directing military action against Boko Haram which, as of yet, the administration of Francois Hollande has been hesitant to initiate.
In November 2014, Chad, along with the governments of Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, will cumulatively commit a 2,800-strong military force to combat Boko Haram. Given his growing experience in conflict intervention, however, Deby will likely recognize that a military option alone is unlikely to serve as the panacea to the myriad factors driving the insurgency. The facilitation of dialogue is likely the best chance at catalysing a process which could lead to the establishment of a holistic and binding peace in northern Nigeria. A peace which, if achieved, would ultimately permeate outside of the country’s borders. If Deby happens to be the facilitator of such a peace, it would be a gambit which only further entrenches his position, and that of Chad as a whole, as a beacon of stability in the ever troublesome Sahelian sands.