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African Nations Join Coalition To Fight Boko Haram


Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group in northeastern Nigeria, grabbed the world's headlines when it kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls and forced many into marriages with its fighters. Last weekend, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State though it's not clear what that means on the ground. Troops from Chad and Niger advanced into Nigeria on Sunday. And several other African nations are joining a coalition to fight Boko Haram. For more, we reached Dr. Comfort Ero. She is the Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. And she joined us via Skype from Dakar, Senegal. Welcome.

COMFORT ERO: Good morning. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, Boko Haram started out in Nigeria but is now staging attacks on Nigeria's neighbors. Those include Chad, Cameroon and Niger. How are Nigeria and the other African nations dealing with this?

ERO: Well, it's not the first time that we've seen Boko Haram launching its conflict or extending its own conflict into the neighboring countries. But this is the first time in the last year or so or since Boko Haram's campaign started, more so in the last four years, that we've seen the region coming together now to fight against Boko Haram.

MONTAGNE: And what does this pledge of fealty by Boko Haram to ISIS mean in a practical sense?

ERO: Well, I mean, there've been various interpretations. I mean, I think the one thing to say is that it's not surprising for those of us who've been watching it. But in terms of what it means practically, substantively - again, it's not certain that it may translate immediately into joint collaboration or passing of supplies of militaries or anything like that. What it certainly does is that it - at one level, it's opportunistic and clever and propaganda. But it's also, I think, a sign that maybe the group is under some kind of severe pressure.

MONTAGNE: Well, you're right. The new coalition with troops from Chad and Niger seems to be gaining ground. But what challenges does it face going forward?

ERO: Well, I mean, there are a number of issues. I mean, certainly we're seeing now a major, bloody campaign, particularly by Chad. And it certainly provides temporary gains, but it's doubtful how sustainable it is without a proper, coherent long-term political strategy. What we've learned from other offenses is that a short-term immediate military action doesn't lead to a more sustained outcome, especially if it doesn't deal with the root causes of that conflict.

MONTAGNE: Well, sort of the flip of that, what then needs to happen in order for this coalition to succeed? What would be the sort of things they'd have to do?

ERO: It's very important, especially from the Nigerian side, that there is a very clear sociopolitical initiatives. There's been so much focus on the military dimension of this and not much thought given to the socioeconomic dimension, the humanitarian crisis. And I think that what has to accompany this current military campaign is both humanitarian and a clear political roadmap to deal with the aftermath as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, that gets us to Nigeria's own political system. I mean, finally Nigerians will elect or re-elect a president in two weeks. How big of a role does the fight against Boko Haram play in that election?

ERO: I mean, it can go either way. Certainly, a lot has been done to downgrade or degrade Boko Haram. But a number of Nigerians will ask, why now? Why wait until this final hour? This was the strategy that a number of people had been calling for. There are also questions as to whether the communities of the northeast will be able to vote in the midst of the heightened fighting and whether Boko Haram still has the capacity to disrupt the elections. They still do hold some of the rural areas and some of the smaller towns. And we should not forget that fact which makes it more difficult for the various communities out there to go and register and to vote for the elections.

MONTAGNE: Comfort Ero is Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. She spoke to us from Dakar, Senegal. Thank you very much.

ERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.