PARIS (AFP) - Nigeria and its neighbours vowed on Saturday to join forces against Boko Haram under an accord described as a declaration of war on the Islamic militants holding more than 200 schoolgirls.
Meeting in Paris, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his counterparts from Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger approved an action plan to counter an organisation that has been blamed for 2,000 deaths this year as well as last month’s abduction of the schoolgirls from north-eastern Nigeria.
Underlining their threat, Boko Haram was suspected of carrying out another attack on the eve of the summit, killing one Cameroonian soldier and kidnapping 10 Chinese workers in Cameroon.
“We have seen what this organisation is capable of,” French President Francois Hollande said. “They have threatened civilians, they have attacked schools and they have kidnapped citizens of many countries.
“When more than 200 young girls are being held in barbaric conditions with the prospect of being sold into slavery, there are no questions to be asked, only actions to be taken,” Mr Hollande added.
The action plan will involve coordination of surveillance efforts aimed at finding the girls, the sharing of intelligence and joint efforts to secure the porous borders in the region, according to the summit’s conclusions.
In the longer term, the countries agreed to forge a regional counter-terrorism strategy under the auspices of the existing but barely active Lake Chad Basin Commission, with technical expertise and training support from Britain, France, the European Union and the United States.
The countries also agreed to push for UN sanctions against the leaders of Boko Haram and another Nigerian Islamist group, Ansaru.
Senior State Department official Wendy Sherman said these could be proposed to the Security Council as early as next week.
Ms Sherman hailed Saturday’s discussions as “very positive and very focused”. She added: “We are going to see ever improving and coordinated action.” Britain will host a follow-up meeting next month.
The west African countries have already been promised help in the form of surveillance tools and expert military advice from Britain, France and the United States as they seek to combat a group that Hollande said had forged links with terrorist groups all over Africa.
The African leaders echoed that warning.
“We are here to declare war on Boko Haram,” Cameroon President Paul Biya said.
His Benin counterpart Thomas Boni Yayi added: “Religious intolerance has no place in Africa.”
And Chad’s Idriss Deby warned: “Terrorists have already done enough damage. Letting them continue would run the risk of allowing the whole region to fall into chaos.”
Nigeria’s Mr Jonathan, who has been criticised for what many see as a lacklustre response to the girls’ abduction, stressed his commitment to finding them.
“We are totally committed to finding the girls, wherever they are,” Mr Jonathan said.
“We’ve been scanning these areas with surveillance aircraft,” he added, saying Nigeria had deployed 20,000 troops to find the girls.“Boko Haram is no longer a local terror group,” he said.
“"From 2009 to today it has changed and can be described as Al-Qaeda in western and central Africa.”
The pressure on the leaders in Paris to come up with concrete steps to address the crisis intensified overnight when Boko Haram gunmen launched an attack in Cameroon.
Militants stormed an encampment used by Chinese road workers late Friday in a region of northern Cameroon just across the border from the town where they abducted the girls a month ago.
A Cameroon soldier was killed in a firefight and 10 Chinese workers were believed to have been taken prisoner by the gunmen.
Nigeria has been under pressure to step up cooperation with its neighbours in the fight against Boko Haram for some time. But efforts on that front have been hampered by the frosty state of relations with Cameroon, with which Nigeria has a long-running territorial dispute.
The coordinator of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign hailed Saturday’s plan, saying in Abuja that she was especially pleased that Cameroon was on board.
“If it took going to Paris in order for Cameroon to agree to cooperate with Nigeria, that’s fine,” Ms Oby Ezekwesili, who was also Nigeria’s former education minister, told reporters.
“We will work together as people facing common tragedy, common threat, to counter the kind of insurgency that does not do good for any of the countries,” she said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters the fight against Boko Haram had to go beyond the immediate campaign to find the missing girls.
“This is one sickening and terrible incident, but they continue almost every day to commit terrorist acts and atrocities,” Hague said.
“There are many borders here, and they are porous. This is very relevant to finding the schoolgirls. We want to see the countries in the region working together.” US drones and surveillance aircraft are among resources already at Nigeria’s disposal.
Military experts from Britain, France and the United States are advising Nigeria on its counter-terrorism strategy, but the Western powers have ruled out deploying combat forces to help locate the missing girls.
“When and if we know where they are, the Nigerians will have to decide how to proceed,” Sherman said. “But the president, as of now, has said he will not put boots on the ground.”