Countries in the Lake Chad basin have come together to fight Boko Haram through joint military operations. However, there is a growing realisation that non-military strategies are needed to make sure these areas do not remain at the mercy of violent extremism. The Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), with the support of the African Union (AU), is in the process of developing such a regional stabilisation strategy. Its success depends on closer cooperation between affected member states and their willingness to bring government services to peripheral communities.
The strong military alliance among the Lake Chad Basin countries – Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, with the support of Benin – has resulted in some important victories over Boko Haram. However, the persistence of the group shows that violent extremism cannot be eradicated by sheer military might alone.
Research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has shown that communities in the area share many similar problems. Poverty and marginalisation are some of the main issues. To deal with the root causes of violent extremism, countries should work out joint initiatives and policies on key issues such as demobilisation and reintegration, economic development in the Lake Chad region and humanitarian aid. Working to de-radicalise those fighters who have left Boko Haram and to rebuild education systems in areas that have been affected by years of insecurity should also be part of such a strategy.
Limited state presence
Boko Haram is most prominent in peripheral regions, including north-east Nigeria, the Diffa region of Niger, the Far North province of Cameroon and the Lac region of Chad, where state presence has been minimal.
During ISS field research in marginal communities in the Lake Chad area, locals said they were unaware of any administrative authorities. In camps for those who fled Boko Haram in Chad, for instance, displaced people from Buduma community did not know their national flag, which they only saw for the first time in internally displace person (IDP) camps.
Locals in peripheral communities in Cameroon and Niger also said that they used the Nigerian naira for trade rather than their national currencies.
Clearly, state absence has enabled criminal networks to operate freely in the border regions even before the emergence of Boko Haram.
For years, armed groups have taken advantage of this – and of the porous borders in the region – to establish safe havens. And, because responses to the challenges in these areas have mainly been military in nature, communities often see the state as an oppressor. This view is exacerbated by allegations of bribery, brutality and general unprofessional conduct by soldiers when they come into contact with local communities.
Speaking to ISS researchers, locals said Boko Haram’s factions, particularly the Islamic State–West Africa (ISIS-WA), do get help from the civilian population – material support and through recruitment of fighters. Often, local communities have no other option but to help the militant groups.
Unemployment and environmental pressures
The Lake Chad basin is home to some of the continent’s poorest communities. Boko Haram’s influence in Lake Chad has grown thanks to its ability to exploit the underdevelopment and unemployment in the region.
The Far North Province of Cameroon where Boko Haram operates, for example, is not only the most populated province but also the poorest, with 74.3% of the population living below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 37.5%.
Youth are often recruited through the promise of material rewards. The young recruits see it as an opportunity to make enough money to support their families and to achieve their material aspirations.
Added to this, the Lake Chad region also faces enormous environmental pressures, since 90% of the lake’s water surface area has dried up. Some communities bordering Lake Chad have moved closer to it for fishing, farming and grazing, thereby fostering cross-border movements and mixed ethnic relations. Competition for scarce natural resources and significant population growth have also exposed communities to resource conflicts between pastoralists, farmers and fishermen.
The insecurity caused by Boko Haram attacks worsens the vicious cycle of violence, poverty and underdevelopment in the region.
Given this situation of marginalisation and poverty, the various governments have pledged to help rebuild those communities affected by Boko Haram. Yet locals who spoke to ISS researchers said they had not seen much evidence of this on the ground.
The Nigerian government’s reconstruction initiative in Bama, for instance, has been highlighted as a good example of how reconstruction should be done in affected communities. However, local respondents from Bama dismissed this. They say that in towns that had been burned down, only the outside walls of buildings close to the major roads were painted over, while the interiors of buildings and remote houses were left untouched.
A regional strategy, agreed upon by all the role players and that has the buy-in of locals, could go a long way in improving these reconstruction efforts.
Common strategy for amnesty and de-radicalisation
The countries in the Lake Chad region have also cooperated in expatriating Boko Haram suspects, but there is still no common approach in how these suspects are prosecuted. Countries also do not have common strategies to encourage defections and to try to de-radicalise those who have left the group.
In Nigeria, the government established an amnesty and rehabilitation programme for Boko Haram defectors through Operation Safe Corridor. This involves a 16-week rehabilitation and vocational programme prior to reintegration into communities. While the process on the Nigerian side has been slow and locals have questioned its impact, de-radicalisation efforts differ across the region, since Boko Haram members operate across borders.
In Cameroon, for instance, those who surrender to security forces are rehabilitated through traditional ceremonies where former members swear on a copy of the Quran. They are made to confess and renounce all links with Boko Haram.
While this provides a traditional and context-specific approach to de-radicalisation, communities are divided over the impact of such ceremonies. Many locals feel a sense of bitterness and want to take justice into their own hands. In communities such as Maroua, some youth mobilised with slogans such as ‘If the soldiers won’t kill them, then we will!’
In Niger the details of the amnesty programme are unclear, although the government has provided de-radicalisation sessions to defectors in a camp in Goudoumaria in the Diffa region.
These divergent amnesty and rehabilitation programmes thus fail to recognise common challenges and fluid citizenship among border communities.
Need for a regional strategy
Thus far, the LCBC has convened a number of meetings to assess and validate suggestions by experts commissioned to develop a regional stabilisation strategy to deal with Boko Haram. There is, however, a need for more communication and information sharing with affected communities to get their inputs and ensure buy-in to the strategy.
International financial support for the strategy – which has thus far been limited – would also help this region recover from years.