Cameroon shares a 500 km border with Nigeria on the east and Chad shares a much smaller border above the Cameroon/Nigerian border from Lake Chad north.
Boko Haram controls virtually all the Borno State of Nigeria, which is its far northeastern province. Parts of two other Nigerian states, Yobe to the north of Borno and Adamawa to the south, are also contolled by Boko Haram.
Both Chad and Cameroon are holding Boko Haram at bay and, in fact, freeing hostages and securing border posts that Nigeria has abandoned. The few times that Boko Haram has tried to enter either country, it’s been pushed back into Nigeria.
Both countries are less powerful than Nigeria on paper, i.e. in terms of available military hardware and defense budgets. The U.S. which has strategic military arrangements with all three countries has a far greater one with Nigeria than the other two.
Why, then, is Nigeria incapable of defeating Boko Haram?
While the Chadian army is less powerful than Nigeria’s on paper, it’s a much better fighting force. It led the charge, so to speak, in the successful fight against Mali Tuareg Islamists last year, taking a role there second only to France.
Despite its much longer border with Nigeria, many fewer refugees are fleeing into Cameroon than into Chad. This is because the thrust of Boko Haram’s military advances has been to the northeast, driving directly towards Lake Chad.
So the refugee problem, which is a trigger for all sorts of conflicts worldwide, provides Chad with all the rational it needs to ratchet up the fight, and Cameroon – and possibly even Nigeria – don’t mind a bit.
Chad is the most militaristic society of all three countries and that’s essentially the short reason that it’s succeeding in fighting Boko Haram as it would – and has – any insurgency.
Last year when trouble in its neighboring Central African Republic erupted, battles spilled over into Chad for a very short time. Chad’s military response was so severe that while the CAR remains very unstable and its capital in constant turmoil, the fighting has been contained at the border by the Chad military.
Nigeria was once a country like Chad. It became independent from Britain in 1963, but within three years it was a military dictatorship. Military dominance continued in Nigeria right through its bloody Biafran Civil War and after, with several weak and unsuccessful attempts from time to time to move towards civilian democratic rule.
The 1980s were pivotal for Africa because of America’s president, Ronald Reagan. He insisted that all embassies throughout Africa have a chief “Democracy Officer” and that any aid be contingent on moves by that country towards democracy.
Nigeria was dependent almost completely upon British and American investment. New discoveries of oil were being made daily, and a rich future looked possible but only if the west would invest.
The military agreed to Reagan’s initiatives and elections in Nigeria were held in 1993, but as often happens the man who won was quite radical. The general who had agreed to the elections annulled them, and the U.S. and Britain promptly suspended aid.
Not until 1999 was a truly democratic government in place.
Ever since then Nigerian politicians have had a tricky balance: the educated mostly urban populations thrive on democracy. They depend upon goods and investment from the west which insists on democracy.
The rural populations – particularly in places like Borno State – are marginalized, ethnically divided and with local governments mastered by little dictators. They are supported by insurgents and increasingly, radical Islamists.
Most importantly, though, the Nigerian military has been systematically eviscerated by the Lagos civilian government so that it cannot return to power. Defense budgets have been cut and military commands intentionally fractured.
Nigeria is in the midst of still another national election. The last thing that the current president running for reelection wants is to empower the military. In essence, that means ceding at least for now large swaths of his country to Boko Haram.
Democracy is not everything that it’s made out to be: definitely not a one-size fits all. If democratic Nigeria is to survive, it will probably mean so will Boko Haram.