Chad has ended a months-long mission fighting Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria and withdrawn its 1,200-strong force across the border, an army spokesperson told AFP on Saturday.
“It’s our troops who went to aid Nigerian soldiers months ago returning home. They have finished their mission,” Colonel Azem Bermandoa told AFP. “None of our soldiers remains in Nigeria,” he added, without specifying whether they might be replaced following Friday’s pullout.
“Those who have come back will return to their sector at Lake Chad,” Bermandoa said.
They will be “deployed in the Lake Chad region to strengthen security along the border,” a senior local official told AFP.
However, Chad’s chief of general staff General Tahir Erda Tahiro said that if countries in the region which have contributed to a multinational force were in agreement, more troops will likely be sent in.
“If the states around Lake Chad agree on a new mission there will surely be another contingent redeployed on the ground,” Tahiro told AFP.
The Chad troops crossed the bridge back towards their capital N’djamena via the Cameroon border town of Kousseri, an AFP reporter said.
News of the pullout, coupled with a local report of Nigerian troops also leaving the vicinity, sparked concern among local people in the small town of Gajiganna. Chadian soldiers had been based there, and at nearby Monguno.
A counter-jihadist militia source told AFP that “as soon as they left most residents of Gajiganna fled to Maiduguri for fear of attacks by the terrorists. They left because Nigerian troops working alongside the Chadians also left the base soon after the Chadians had moved out.”
One Gajiganna resident told AFP he had left with around 300 other people on learning of the troop pullback as people felt exposed and unprotected from Boko Haram attacks.
“I left Gajiganna and moved to Maiduguri on Wednesday when I realized that Nigerian soldiers had left their base soon after the withdrawal of Chadian soldiers,” he said.
The jihadist group known as Boko Haram began its bloody insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, but it has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military response.
The four countries banded together in the Multinational Joint Task Force to fight the insurgency, with support from civilian defense committees.
The MNJTF launched Operation Yancin Tafki in February 2019 with Chad contributing 1,200 troops. A spokesperson said it was aimed at “making islands and other settlements in Lake Chad untenable for Boko Haram Terrorists.” Actions have been conducted in Nigeria and Niger as part of the operation.
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. One, which is also known as JAS, is headed by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau and is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians. Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in March 2015, but ISIS central only gives formal backing to the other faction, which it calls Islamic State West Africa Province.
ISWAP largely focuses on attacking military and government targets. Its main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and to a lesser extent Cameroon, but the group has intensified attacks on military locations in west of Borno state capital Maiduguri in recent months.
Attacks carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants further north in the Sahel were previously attributed to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara but since May 2019, Islamic State has also attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP, rather than ISGS.
The U.S. assesses that Boko Haram and ISWAP are responsible for more than 35,000 deaths since 2011. More than two million people have been displaced by the conflict, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region.
Media reporting on incidents involving Boko Haram and ISWAP has reduced in recent months, although ISWAP in particular continues to claim attacks, primarily in the Lake Chad area.
On September 13, the army said Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai had warned that referring to Boko Haram, JAS or ISWAP by name “could amount to supporting or encouraging terrorism,” and that “giving prominence to the criminal activities of the terrorists group through sensational headlines and fake news in both electronic and print media could also amount to tacit support to terrorism which violates the Terrorism Prevention Act 2011.”
That came after repeated statements from the army and President Muhammadu Buhari that Boko Haram had been defeated.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on January 4.