Boko Haram: Breaking the conflict trap in the Lake Chad basin,By Jibrin Ibrahim


Following a Special Report General Saleh Bala and I had written for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) entitled “Civilian-led Governance and Security in the Lake Chad Basin”, we held a follow up round table meeting with the Lake Chad basin Commission led by its Executive Secretary, Ambassador Mamman Nuhu, to consider recent developments in the sub-region concerning the subject matter. The meeting was hosted by the USIP Country Director, Ambassador Abdu Zango and Dr. Chris Kwaja.

Since 2009, the devastating conflict in north-eastern Nigeria has directly resulted in the deaths of approximately 35,000 people as a direct consequence of the insurgency. However, indirect deaths, including disease and hunger resulting from the conflict’s physical and economic destruction, already far outnumber those from direct causes. A recent report released this June 2021 by the UNDP says the conflict in the north-east could lead to the loss of 1.1 million lives in Nigeria alone by 2030. The Boko Haram insurgency cuts across the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, creating a regional conflict in the Lake Chad Basin that has confounded these neighbours with the complications of collaborating across governments and other players on the continent as well as foreign powers, France and the United States who are very much on the scene. Through the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), the four countries have been working on modalities of working together in improving security and addressing competitive resource issues related to Lake Chad, which has significantly shrunk over the past three decades.

The Commission has, under its dynamic Executive Secretary developed a comprehensive study, with the support of the African Union – “Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin.” It establishes a common approach and an inclusive framework for all stakeholders to support a timely, coordinated and effective transition from stabilisation to early recovery and a resumption of the stalled development processes in the zone. The strategy was developed in anticipation of the expected success of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to quickly defeat the insurgents. The problem however is that the insurgency has endured for the past twelve years and appears in no hurry to be completely defeated.

As President Buhari has stated repeatedly, Boko Haram has been degraded and no longer holds significant territory, which means it has lost the Caliphate it thought it had established. Nonetheless, it has remained a menace and has developed new tactics based on mobile attacks on both hard and soft targets and therefore continues to be a terror threat to communities in the four countries. Over the past few years, the Boko Haram insurgency has been weakened by the emergence of two factions and infighting with the Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) factions. Over the past year however, the ISWAP faction had gained strength and there has been a dramatic turn over the past couple of months following a successful attack on the headquarters of Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram in Sambisa forest leading to his death. Since then, ISWAP has been making concerted efforts to bring in the Boko Haram leadership and fighters and consolidate their joint forces under its command, a move, if successful, would considerably strengthen the insurgency.

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This is a disturbing development. It is important to note that the ISWAP faction, unlike Shekau’s, does not attack and kill members of the community who are not with them. For some time now, they have been imposing taxes on communities they have control over and offering protection in return. Reports indicate that this “live and let live” approach is attracting farmers, herders and fisherfolk who appreciate the protection provided, which has not been coming from the authorities of the four States in the zone. This is a dangerous development for our countries because it means they may be winning hearts and minds of ordinary people.

What is even more disturbing is the franchise model that has been implemented by the Islamic State since it ran into problems in Iraq and Syria. In his article in the current edition of Newsweek, Bulama Bukarti has called the new developments “gig terrorism” characterised by franchising dissident groups in Africa – Sahel countries including Nigeria and Cameroon as well as Somalia, Mozambique, D R Congo and Somalia as long as they have similar ideologies even if their modes of operations.

It is in this context that over the past few years, the Boko Haram insurgency has been seeking contact points and collaboration with growing criminal banditry in North West Nigeria, especially in the states of Zamfara, Katsina. Kaduna and Niger. They have been working hard to develop their franchise and convert bandits to ideologically focused terrorists. This poses a major challenge of broadening the conflict and overwhelming Nigeria’s security forces. The same phenomenon is happening in the Sahel zone, around the three-frontier zone between the borders of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. If the insurgents in both the North East and North West of Nigeria link up operationally with the ones in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, we would enter the worst-case scenario, which we must do all in our powers to prevent.

It is also important to note that in April 2021, the Chadian President, Idriss Deby was killed, apparently fighting off invading rebels. The 68-year old “warrior” President had been in power since 1990 and developed the Chadian armed forces into one of the most powerful in the region. His troops, in their interventions have been an ally and a stabilizing force in the battle against terrorism in Niger, Cameroon, Mali and to some extent in Nigeria. Following his death, his 37-year old son, Mahamat Idriss Deby took over power in disobedience to the constitutional order of secession. So far, his son has assured neighbours that he will continue with his father’s legacy of combatting terrorism. The reality however is that he is himself under massive pressure from the rebels that killed his father and is likely to prioritise his own regime protection, rather than help the neighbours.

My overwhelming sense is that for too long, we have been focused on the geography of Lake Chad and the shrinking waters rather than the governance challenges that generated the crisis in the first place – deepening poverty, increasing inequality, marginalisation, social exclusion, dominant gender norms and human rights violations. These issues should therefore drive the search for policy solutions. The implication of this is that Nigeria in particular, and the other countries in the zone, must move away from their assumptions about the shrinking Lake and focus on the type of specific recommendations made in both the Commission Report as well as our own Buhari Plan about addressing conflict generating mechanisms pointing out pathways to the development of resilient livelihoods for the people so they do not become dependent on Boko Harm.

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