Members of the Lassa vigilante group, in Borno state. Members of the Lassa vigilante group, in Borno state. Photo credit: Center on Conflict and Development
The evolution and impact of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin
by Virginia Comolli October 2017

The Lake Chad Basin region, comprising Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, is the setting of a violent campaign by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati w’al Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), commonly known as Boko Haram. The violence perpetrated both by Boko Haram and by the counter-insurgency campaign against it resulted in the deaths of nearly 30,000 people between 2009 and 2016, extensive physical destruction, the displacement of some 2.4 million people and a severe food crisis affecting 6.6 million more.+OCHA, Lake Chad Basin: Crisis Overview (as of 4 May 2017), http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Lake%20Chad%20Snapshot_04%20May%202017.pdf. Economic activity has effectively ground to a halt.

The evolution of the insurgency

Boko Haram began as an isolated sect in Yobe state, northeastern Nigeria, in 2002 under the leadership of Salafist preacher Mohamed Yusuf. At the outset, like earlier Islamist ‘reform’ groups in the region, the sect leadership’s discourse of religious revival and a return to what they believed to be the true tenets of Islam were portrayed as the antidote to the corruption, bad governance, poverty and other (mainly Western-imported) societal ills all too familiar to northern Nigerians. Following Yusuf’s extrajudicial killing by the government in 2009, the scale and brutality of Boko Haram violence escalated under the leadership of his deputy, Abubakar Shekau. The sect began targeting those they considered complicit in Yusuf’s killing, including the Nigerian military and police, as well as others they associated with the Nigerian state. The UN became a target in 2011 due to its development support to the government.

Reports of the sect’s widespread use of female and child suicide bombers and mass abductions – notably the kidnapping of the so-called Chibok girls from a school in Borno state – began to receive international media attention in 2014. In November 2014, the bombing of the Central Mosque in Kano again focused international attention and concern on the scale of the sect’s reach outside its base in the Sambisa forest in Borno state.+International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency’, Africa Report 216, 3 April 2014, http://www.refworld.org/docid/533e596c4.html. Boko Haram’s campaign to capture and control territory in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states escalated further in 2015, alongside attacks in Cameroon, including repeated abductions and the mass kidnapping of children. The following month, the border town of Bosso in Niger and Ngouboua village in Chad came under attack, signalling the spread of violence beyond Nigeria’s borders, and making it clear that Niger, Chad and Cameroon had become part of Boko Haram’s fighting ground. A long-time Al-Qaeda sympathiser, in spring 2015 Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to Islamic State and changed its name to Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).

Boko Haram’s regional footprint

From the outset, nationals from Niger, Chad and Cameron travelled to northern Nigeria attracted by Yusuf’s charismatic sermons and by the small loans offered to his followers. This provided the foundation for a multinational sect, dominated by the Kanuri ethnic group, stretching across the Lake Chad sub-region. While many members came from, and still belong to, the rural and poorer sections of north-eastern Nigerian society, in its early days Boko Haram also included children of the Nigerian elite, and could count on prominent sponsors among northern politicians and businessmen.+Virginia Comolli, Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency (London: Hurst, 2015), pp. 86–92  Exploiting the cultural, ethnic and religious ties that Chad, Niger and Cameroon share with northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has conducted extensive cross-border smuggling of weapons and supplies, as well as the recruitment of fighters.+Following the 2009 Boko Haram uprising in Nigeria, many members of the sect found refuge in the south-eastern Diffa region of Niger. ICG, ‘Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-Insurgency’, Africa Report 245, 27 February 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/niger/245-niger-andboko-haram-beyond-counter-insurgency. For the most part, these borderlands were used as safe havens and were spared from attack, possibly to avoid reprisals by local authorities. It became clear in 2013, however, that the sect was willing to risk the attention of local authorities in its need to bring in new sources of funding to support its growing regional operations. In February 2013, Boko Haram abducted a French family near Waza national park in Cameroon. The group reportedly received $3m in ransom and the exchange of Boko Haram detainees for the hostages.+BBC, ‘Nigeria’s Boko Haram “Got $3m Ransom” to Free Hostages’, BBC News, 27 April 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-22320077.

A multinational response to a growing problem

Given Boko Haram’s pre-2014 focus on north-east Nigeria, neighbouring governments initially responded to the threat largely by keeping the sect under surveillance, and in some cases reportedly agreeing non-aggression pacts.+ICG, ‘Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-Insurgency’. Governments were reluctant to launch a major crackdown in border regions, possibly for fear of retaliation and, more concretely, owing to their limited capabilities. As Boko Haram’s territorial control expanded across north-east Nigeria and the threat the group posed spread across the borders of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, regional concerns increased, pushing governments towards military cooperation.

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – created by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in 1998 to address cross-border security issues in the Lake Chad region – was reactivated by the LCBC in 2012 with an expanded mandate to encompass counter-terrorism operations. It was given a clearer strategy against Boko Haram at the Extraordinary Summit of LCBC member states and Benin in October 2014. Unlike its previous iteration, the task force included Cameroon among its troop-contributing countries, and was provided with pledges of financial support from international actors including the African Union (AU), the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union (EU) and France. International partners also offered military advisors, intelligence and surveillance capabilities and training. Its mandate included conducting military operations to prevent the expansion of Boko Haram activities; conducting patrols; preventing transfers of weapons or logistics to the group; actively searching for and freeing abductees, including the girls kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014; and carrying out psychological operations to encourage defections within Boko Haram ranks.+AU, Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the implementation of communiqué PSC/AHG/COMM.2 (CDLXXXIV) on the Boko Haram terrorist group and on other related international efforts, 3 March 2015. Each country agreed to deploy a battalion of up to 700 troops within its own national boundaries, in addition to the deployment of troops to the MNJTF headquarters.

The MNJTF was hampered by many of the problems that had undermined the force in the late 1990s. Start-up was delayed until 2015, deadlines for the deployment of the various contingents were missed and little headway was made in addressing the political, financial and logistical issues involved in establishing a multinational apparatus. In addition to operational challenges, the Nigerian government’s attitude towards regional cooperation limited progress at the political level between October 2014 and May 2015.+Institute for Security Studies (ISS), ‘West Africa Report: Assessing the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram’, September 2016, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/war19.pdf.

On his inauguration in May 2015, incoming President Muhammadu Buhari immediately began strengthening cooperation with neighbouring governments and took on the leadership of the force for the entire duration of its mission (previously leadership had rotated among the members of the MNJTF). Counter-insurgency operations by the Nigerian military and the MNJTF increased in scale and power throughout 2015 and 2016. With the exception of its stronghold in the Sambisa forest and Gwoza Hills in north-eastern Borno state, Boko Haram became largely confined to Abadam, Mobbar, Guzamala, Kukawa, Gubio and Nganzai local government areas (LGAs) by late 2016, although continued insecurity prevented the reestablishment of civilian administration in areas ‘liberated’ by the Nigerian military. In adjacent border regions, Boko Haram was pushed further into the Far North region of Cameroon, the Lac region in Chad, and the south-eastern Diffa region in Niger. Many militants were killed or apprehended, forcing Boko Haram to increasingly resort to coerced recruitment in these areas.

Despite these gains, violence, and child suicide attacks in particular, has continued while Boko Haram’s geographic reach has contracted. Concerns also persist about the absence of the Nigerian army in towns retaken from Boko Haram, and Nigerian forces have found it difficult to consolidate gains made against the group by the MNJTF. External partners have also raised concerns about the conduct of MNJTF forces, particularly in respect to the treatment of civilians in areas under the influence of Boko Haram.+Human Rights Watch (HRW), ‘West Africa: Regional Boko Haram Offensive’, 11 February 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/11/west-africaregional-boko-haram-offensive.

The next chapter

Alongside pressure from the Nigerian military and regional security forces, further violence stemmed from infighting between factions within Boko Haram during 2016, as Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s former deputy, and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, his surviving son, contended for the favour of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi ultimately designated al-Barnawi the leader of ISWAP in August 2016. Subsequently, al-Barnawi agreed to IS directives to stop the use of child suicide bombers and halt attacks against Muslim communities. The split between ISWAP and the more ‘traditional’ and indiscriminate Boko Haram under Shekau has continued to generate tensions, though there were reports of a truce and reunion of the two factions during August 2017.

While some may interpret Boko Haram/ISWAP’s expansion beyond Nigeria’s borders as a clear sign of a regionalisation attempt, it may equally be understood as a response to the Nigerian military’s attempt to push the insurgents out of towns that it had controlled, many of which are in border areas. It is also the case that national boundaries have little importance in the eyes of the militants, especially given the close ties of kinship, ethnicity and family across communities in the Lake Chad Basin. This approach also appears consistent with Boko Haram’s Islamic revivalist drive, specifically the intent to recreate the ancient Kanuri-led Kanem-Borno Empire (700–1900), which spanned what are now the national borders of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Most members, including Boko Haram’s leadership, are Kanuri, and the sect appears to remain motivated by a domestic and localised agenda, rather than being part of a global jihadi movement or harbouring regional or pan-African ambitions.

Implications for humanitarian operations

Boko Haram, and a counter-insurgency campaign marked by human rights violations, have disrupted the entire spectrum of humanitarian activities in affected areas in the Lake Chad Basin.+OCHA, Lake Chad Basin: Crisis Overview (as of 04 May 2017). Pre-existing fragility combined with ongoing conflict have left civilians in a dire situation, where the threat of violence, malnutrition and starvation, lack of basic services and constant fear – in addition to trauma resulting from a seven-year conflict – have become constant features of life. Parts of Chad and Niger in particular suffer from chronic crises that predate Boko Haram. The arrival of people fleeing the conflict, most of whom live in local communities rather than camps, has put additional strain on limited food, shelter, land and health and sanitation services.

Cameroon is also struggling. The Boko Haram crisis caused a 25% decrease in cereal production in the north in 2016 compared to the previous year. In Adamaoua, food insecurity increased from 19% in early 2016 to 39% a year later.+OCHA, Cameroon: Food Security and Malnutrition (as of 01 March 2017), http://reliefweb.int/report/cameroon/cameroon-food-security-andmalnutrition-01-march-201 Some 65,000 Cameroonian children under the age of five are thought to be suffering from severe malnutrition.+Ibid. In Nigeria, the number of people exposed to food insecurity has doubled since March 2016.+OCHA, Lake Chad Basin Emergency, Humanitarian Needs and Requirement Overview, p. 17. Displaced people, many of whom have been in displacement for two or three years, are easy targets for further violence and extortion.

Local governments, international organisations and foreign partners produced a regional Humanitarian Response Plan for 2017 for the four Lake Chad Basin countries in September 2016. The ambitious plan requires $1.5 billion in funding which, at the time of writing, remains largely unmet +OCHA, Lake Chad Basin: Crisis Overview (as of 04 May 2017). At the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region in February 2017, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and foreign donors pledged $458m for relief in 2017, and an additional $214m for 2018.+OCHA, ‘Oslo Humanitarian Conference for Nigeria and the Lake Chad
Region Raises $672 Million to Help People in Need’, 24 February 2017’ http://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/oslo-humanitarian-conference-nigeria-andlake-chad-region-raises-672-million-help.
At the same time, humanitarian agencies agreed to step up their operations, especially to help those suffering the most from food scarcity. Yet at current funding levels, and in light of the practical constraints in reaching civilians owing to ongoing violence, this is too little too late. The humanitarian situation in this fragile region is only likely to worsen.

Virginia Comolli is Senior Fellow for Security and Development at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. She is the author of Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency (London: Hurst, 2015).

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