Operation Lake Sanity: MNJTF and the restoration of peace in the Lake Chad Basin

The Multinational Joint Task Force MNJTF, unknown to many Nigerians, has been in existence since the mid-1990s. Its purpose is to counter the activities of the mainly Chadian bandits, who used to terrorize the lake Chad basin areas during the administration of Sani Abacha. Nigeria deployed two battalions, and later added a battalion each from Chad and Niger who complemented their Nigerian counterparts. For some time, the criminality was largely contained. This Force was headquartered in Baga, and commanded by a Nigerian Colonel.

Strategic importance of the Lake Chad and it’s Basin

Sitting within the Sahel, a semi-arid strip of land dividing the Sahara Desert from the humid savanna of equatorial Africa, Lake Chad is economically important. It provides water to more than 30 million people in four countries surrounding the central part of the Sahel, in western and central Africa, including Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. It is rich in aquatic resources and has very fertile soil in its basin. At its peak, in the 70’s and 80’s, it was the sixth largest lake in the entire world. If situated in other parts, it would have been the richest parts of these countries with year-round fishing, farming and animal husbandry.

But the multiplying effect on agricultural productivity, health and security of the region is affected by the decrease in water levels of the Lake. It has led to a decrease in the level of biodiversity and consequently has impacted fishing activities. This in turn, has led to a struggle for survival, and resources among its inhabitants. The depletion of Lake Chad has become an economic and security issue, and is driving one of the most serious security problems facing West Africa and the Sahel.

MNJTF and its mandate in Lake Chad Basin
For more than a decade now, the people in the Lake Chad region have suffered from an intertwined humanitarian and security crisis. Clashes between military forces and Boko Haram over territory, and attacks on civilians by Islamists, have continued to worsen displacement, food insecurity and erosion of trust in political authorities.

The MNJTF, in its old format, did well to stabilize the area and agricultural activities and commerce thrived. However, government presence and impact were scant. Fast forward to 2010, following the insurgency in northern Nigeria caused by the Boko Haram terrorist group, who wanted an Islamic state in Nigeria and most of Africa. They grew stronger by the day and had their adherents from the critical mass of uneducated and futureless young people found in their millions in the areas. By 2014 they sacked the MNJTF headquarters in Baga, Borno State, and carted away weapons, ammunition and other sophisticated equipment.
However, in 2015, the Nigerian government felt the need to have a collective approach with its neighbours in fighting the scourge of Boko haram. Countries were lobbied and supported by the African Union, AU, and the United Nations, UN. The MNJTF was operationalised in 2015 with mandates for creating a safe and secure environment in areas affected by the Boko Haram/ISWAP saga, as well as returning normalcy to the areas by ensuring internally displaced and refugees return to their ancestral homes. Lastly, they were expected to facilitate humanitarian assistance to needy populations and help them rebuild their lives in the lake Chad basin areas.

As it stands today, a lot has continued to change with the ongoing Operation LAKE SANITY, which has sustained the pressure on Boko Haram (BH) and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists with robust clearance operations in the fringes of the Lake Chad. They have collaborated with the troops of Operation Hadin Kai in Northeast of Nigeria, and over 50,000 terrorists and their families have surrendered to troops. Hundreds of terrorists have been sent to meet their maker, while recovering large caches of arms in addition to the rescue of scores of kidnap victims. Only recently, Abu Ibrahim who was an ISWAP leader (Khalifa) in the Lake Chad Tunbumas and was a leader before in the Timbuktu general areas was eliminated while about 4 IED making factories were destroyed in the course of the operation. The Forces of the MNJTF have also redoubled their efforts in putting pressure on insurgents within the general area whose only option is to surrender and turn a new leaf.

The successes of the MNJTF are largely due to the pro-activity of Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Irabor, and other Service Chiefs whose working synergy is obvious for all to see and emulate especially their Field Commanders whose strategies involves synergy with other security agencies and strengthening bilateral military ties, in addition to a resolve to seeing the end of insurgency not just within Nigeria, but the entire West Africa and the Sahel. This strategy has proven to be as potent as seen by the dwindling rate of insurgency in Nigeria today. His directive is to clear remnants of hibernating ISWAP and Boko Haram fighters from the fringes of Lake Chad.

The acquisition of more potent air assets including Super Tucanos and attack drones has assisted as the troops of operations Lake Sanity (MNJTF) and Operations Hadin Kai (Nigeria) have cleared areas in the tunbuns (Lake Chad islands) like Greda, Daban Gajere, Daban Masara, Tudun Fulani and Fedondiya among others. These are areas that have never been penetrated before by the MNJTF and this surely portends great tidings in this war. Civilians have returned to mallam Fatori and for the first time in about 8 years Eid (Sallah) prayers were held.

The MNJTF over the last year has improved its synergy, visibility and operational efficiency in its fight against the Boko Haram and ISWAP insurgents in its operational environment. Worthy of note also, is the renewed and visible synergy between Operation Hadin Kai and the MNJTF, the Force Commander MNJTF, Gen Ibrahim and Theatre Commander Operation Hadin Kai Major General Chris Musa who were said to be in the Nigerian Defence Academy NDA together and are both Infantry generals and perhaps that is why they complement each other.
Other strategies the MNJTF has used to succeed is the non-kinetic approach towards de-radicalising insurgent elements and the involvement of the civil populace. According to the Force Commander Major General Abdul Khalifah Ibrahim, the fight against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach. Speaking during the Joint Integrated Operations Planning Course in N’Djamena, Chad. General Ibrahim said: “It has been established that the fight against terrorism in general requires a comprehensive approach, integrating various skills held by both civilians and the military. According to him, “… the fight against Boko Haram / ISWAP insurgents cannot be considered as the sole prerogative of the military, whose actions alone cannot solve the problem, hence the need for a multidimensional approach to face.

This, therefore stressed the need for different stakeholders to work together to isolate and evacuate terrorists from the Lake Chad Basin area in order to completely restore security and stability in the region even though with ongoing operations, most inhabitants have started to return home to commence farming and other commercial activities.

But despite the huge successes of the MNJTF, and accolades received, it still faces a number of challenges. To achieve success in going forward, there must be a renewed commitment from Troop Contributing Countries to swell the ranks of the Force with additional deployment, provide more Mine Resistant Ambush Protected MRAP vehicles for the various contingents in other to achieve completely its mandate, while development partners like the European Union, the United Nations and others must in all sincerity step up funding and logistics for its operations.