France will step in to help coordinate a regional taskforce against Nigeria's Islamist group Boko Haram, amid signs of mistrust among West African neighbours, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday.
Boko Haram has stepped up attacks across much of Nigeria's north ahead of presidential elections in February. Their operations have spilled over Nigeria's borders into Niger to the north and Cameroon to the east, and stirred fears that Chad could be dragged into the conflict.
The leaders of the four countries agreed in Paris in May to flesh out a plan to share intelligence, coordinate action and monitor borders. But there appears to have been little tangible cooperation between Abuja and neighboring governments since.
France has ruled out direct military intervention, saying Nigeria should take the lead. But Paris says it can play a role in easing tensions between its three former colonies and anglophone Nigeria.
"We're at a forum in Dakar talking about the need for Africans to collectively take charge of their security and yet it's not happening where there is urgency," Le Drian said.
"Everybody distrusts everybody. We have to get beyond that," he told journalists without giving details.
Boko Haram is a Sunni jihadist movement waging a five-year insurgency to establish an Islamist state in northeast Nigeria.
Regional analysts say Nigeria's neighbours suspect its army is infiltrated by Boko Haram and cannot be trusted if it crosses borders in hot pursuit of militants, which Abuja wants to do.
For its part, Nigeria has accused Chad and Cameroon of not doing enough to stop the rebels.
Paris fears Boko Haram could spread northward into the Sahel and beyond Cameroon into Central African Republic, where it had more than 5,000 French troops on peacekeeping and counter-terrorism missions.
Le Drian said Paris would provide about a dozen military advisers to join regional counterparts at a command centre in the Chadian capital N'Djamena, 60 km from the Nigerian border.
France will help regional powers to launch a joint force of 2,800 soldiers to tackle Boko Haram that was pledged in July but has yet to see the light of day, Le Drian said.
"They need organizational, structural, command and inter-operational help. France is offering to do that," he said.
Some Western officials have expressed frustration with oil-rich Nigeria over its lack of progress against Boko Haram given its military might and the urgency of the situation.