Nigeria and its neighbors 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 organization that has been blamed for 2,000 deaths this year, as well as last month’s abduction of the schoolgirls from northeastern 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 organization 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,” 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 EU and the US.
The countries also agreed to push for UN sanctions against the leaders of Boko Haram and another Nigerian Islamist group, Ansaru.
Senior US Department of State official Wendy Sherman said these could be proposed to the UN Security Council as early as this week.
Sherman hailed Saturday’s discussions as “very positive and very focused.”
“We are going to see ever improving and coordinated action,” she added.
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 US 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.
“Religious intolerance has no place in Africa,” his Benin counterpart Thomas Boni Yayi added.
Chadian President Idriss Deby said: “Terrorists have already done enough damage. Letting them continue would run the risk of allowing the whole region to fall into chaos.”
Jonathan, who has been criticized for what many see as a lackluster response to the girls’ abduction, stressed his commitment to finding them.