Surrounded with dozens-strong security detail for protection, Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum addressed a crowd of refugees seated quietly on dusty, sun-baked flats.
“You’ll all be able to go home soon. Boko Haram is nearly finished,” Said Bazoum, a statement which was perceived to be overly optimistic.
Seven years into an insurgency that spread from Nigeria into Chad, Niger and Cameroon, regional armies are now in a final push to defeat Boko Haram, a deadly ultra-hardline militant group.
But lingering divisions in the countries’ multi-national joint task force (MNJTF) are complicating that mission.
“If there’s no strategy to attack Boko Haram together, we won’t ever finish with them,” Mahamadou Liman Ali, an opposition lawmaker from southern Niger, said when speaking to Reuters in Niamey.
At a time when the world’s wealthy nations are focused on the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda, financial support for the MNJTF’s efforts against Boko Haram, which has pledged its allegiance to ISIS, have fallen short of targets.
That has left the task force’s members – including Chad, the region’s capable but increasingly reluctant military powerhouse – to shoulder the bulk of the costs of fighting the group.
Boko Haram’s victims, which include 2.4 million displaced, live in hope that this month-old offensive – dubbed Operation Gama Aiki, literally means “finish the job” in the local Hausa dialect – might succeed where others have failed.
Some have doubts. From where he stays in southern Niger, refugee Usman Kanimbu sees smoke rising from the coalition’s air strikes on insurgent positions in Nigeria, the home he fled.
The skies above the borderlands now rumble daily with the sound of fighter jets. Chadian troops have ventured onto Lake Chad, a Boko Haram stronghold. Regional military officers say they are taking back ground from the insurgents.
The task force may indeed be making headway against Boko Haram, which has fewer footholds than it once did. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, is assumed be dead.
However, the need for operational integration in the fight against an enemy that knows no borders was further revealed during a similar regional offensive early last year.
After troops from Chad and Niger drove Boko Haram from a string of towns in Nigeria’s far north, they waited in vain for the Nigerian army to arrive and hold them.
The AU has struggled to rally contributors to foot the bill for the MNJTF’s $700 million budget, however. Donors, led by Nigeria and France, pledged $250 million in February, just over a third of what was needed, but dispersal has been slow. The United States has also aided with intelligence and training.