Issue 70 - Article 1

The Lake Chad crisis: drivers, responses and ways forward

October 24, 2017
Toby Lanzer
Amina Aboukar, a Nigerian refugee from Damassak in Niger.

Over the course of the past year, the international aid community has become more aware of the crisis in north-eastern Nigeria and across the Lake Chad Basin as a whole. While this has led to some improvements in the short-term lot of people in the region, much remains to be done. The situation is complex, and considerable engagement in many lines of work is required if the people around the lake are to survive, live in peace and enjoy a safe and stable future. This article looks at three issues: first, the key factors that drove people’s lives towards crisis; second, why the crisis took so long to gain international recognition and engagement; and third, what is required to ensure a better tomorrow for the region’s people. The article is coloured by my own biases (for example being a senior official in the United Nations and having worked on this topic for two years), but in writing six months after leaving the region and addressing the issue from afar I hope that, in my personal capacity, my thoughts are less partial, more balanced and useful to the reader.

Drivers of the crisis

Over the past 60 years, a series of factors have driven things in the wrong direction across the Lake Chad Basin. The first was political and economic marginalisation. In all cases except Chad, capitals are far distant from the lake and its people. Niamey, the capital of Niger, is at best a three-day drive from Diffa, the Nigerien region straddling the lake. Northern Cameroon is not only a long distance from the country’s capital, Yaoundé, but the north and the capital have been at odds politically for decades.

The second factor was poor governance. Since independence all four countries have struggled in terms of socio-economic progress, inequality and rule of law and corruption. A third factor, and one sometimes overlooked by development practitioners, was the overall political and security context. In all four countries, leaders’ overriding concern was with power politics and security; given regular power struggles in Chad, for example, it should be no surprise that the political elite in N’Djamena was overwhelmingly focused on staying in power, which often led them to cater to the security services at great cost for (an economically poor) nation. These three factors – marginalisation, governance and insecurity – have combined with deepening poverty, environmental degradation and a population explosion that eclipses almost anywhere else on earth. The 7 million people living across the region in the early 1970s had grown to some 30 million just 40 years later.

As this century began, villagers across the region were more numerous than the previous generation, poorer and finding the environment in which they lived even more unforgiving. Yet they were safe. But that was about to change. Around 2008, villagers across the Lake Chad region have told me that, at first, a man or small groups of men would arrive in their village encouraging them to follow a certain brand of Islam or to worship in a certain way. Over time, these men became ever-more insistent that people needed to adapt their worship and lives to a more ‘conservative and rigorous’ style. This manifested itself in a positive way at first: adopting their brand of Islam was rewarded. By 2010, however, rewards had turned to threats: follow us or we will kill you. As Boko Haram gained in confidence, and eventually started to occupy territory, farmers struggled to access their land and herders found it harder and harder to tend to their livestock; fishermen’s access to the lake was progressively curtailed until, by 2015, it had virtually disappeared.

Why did international recognition take so long?

I have spent some time thinking about why it took so long for us (aid officials, international organisations, donors) to notice what was going on, and even longer to engage. In my own case, which I suspect was the case for many, we were busy with the crises of the day, particularly the crisis in Darfur, and events in Afghanistan, Iraq and eventually Syria. As far as Africa was concerned, concerted and serious attention to human suffering or humanitarian response focused on South Sudan (and to some extent Somalia) from 2011 onwards. Meanwhile, the Lake Chad Basin, and the horrors unfolding at the hands of Boko Haram, went largely unnoticed. Most of the aid workers who might have sounded an alarm or nudged a UN official or donor embassy to speak to the government (or even get a request for international assistance) were probably in Darfur, South Sudan or elsewhere further afield.

The plight of distant and increasingly impoverished communities on Lake Chad was also not an immediate concern in Abuja, Niamey, Yaoundé, or even next door in N’Djamena. President Idriss Déby of Chad was in a tussle with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir. Abuja and Yaoundé were riding high on the oil boom, and in any case, as officials sometimes acknowledged to me, ‘Lake Chad is very far away’. As the violence worsened from 2013, the authorities in Abuja began to realise that they had a major security problem, not only in north-east Nigeria but also in the capital itself. The bombing of the UN’s office in Abuja on 26 August 2011, in which 23 staff were killed, should have been a wake-up call to all of us that more attention had to be paid to what was going on. By early 2014, more and more people were fleeing into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The following November, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council activated the Multi-National Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram.

For the region’s people, suffering did not have a label or a definition. Seeing one’s loved ones executed, livestock slaughtered and schools and homes torched did not need labels. If there was one, it would have to be an all-encompassing ‘security crisis’. It is the luxury of aid agencies to debate over the label to apply to a crisis, and perhaps we spend too much time on such issues. We focus on ‘humanitarian’ crisis and sometimes make this more granular and speak of ‘a protection crisis’ or a ‘nutrition crisis’. Such definitions are understandable. If I am a nutritionist and I see malnutrition rates exceed the emergency threshold then there is a crisis, and describing it as a ‘nutrition crisis’ is comfortable (and might even help me raise money to address malnutrition). Yet nobody I ever met in the region ascribed a label to the suffering. People wanted the shelling, murder and abductions to end; they wanted to be safe. Mothers and fathers wanted to farm and fish; they wanted to eat and gain back the esteem associated with fending for their family. Giving people in such circumstances a voice, listening to that voice and acting in accordance with it is the most important thing we in the aid community can do. For various reasons, we were too slow to heed these calls.

My engagement in the Lake Chad Basin began in July 2015, just after the then UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, asked me to ‘do some advocacy for the Sahel’. I flew to Abuja and drove from there to the north-east’s main town, Maiduguri, and stood aghast at what I saw: massive need (as great as I had ever witnessed) and a desperately insufficient response. I travelled to all four affected countries and donor capitals, repeatedly. But with South Sudan, Syria and increasingly Yemen consuming the minds of policy-makers and aid managers, gaining attention for another crisis was an uphill battle. Nigeria, I was often told, was a rich country, capable of handling its own problems. No one seemed to notice that Nigeria’s revenue depends largely on oil, and that those revenues had plummeted by 70%. In the third quarter of 2015 the acting humanitarian coordinator in Abuja put together an appeal asking for a very modest $250m. When I met donors in Abuja in February 2016 they asked why the UN had asked for so little yet, ironically, only about 10% of this very modest target had been pledged. By the end of the year, 11 million people were in need of life-saving assistance and protection, 7 million were severely insecure and 2.5 million had fled from their homes.

A combination of a large number of crises elsewhere and the (mistaken) view that Nigeria was rich meant that donors could shy away from people’s needs in the region. My job was to counter this, and to make sure that these needs were not ignored. Via events such as the UN General Assembly and the World Humanitarian Summit, as well as help from friends and colleagues in Brussels and Washington, I was able to attract more interest, and by mid-2016 financial support started to reach aid agencies for humanitarian response, in particular to protect people and provide them with some basic assistance. Funds also arrived for shelter and emergency medical care as well as, thankfully, for logistics. Much of the area around Lake Chad was inaccessible at the time: Boko Haram still controlled large swathes of territory and key access roads, and moving by plane or helicopter was essential, albeit expensive.

Our work to help put on people’s radar screen the crisis in Nigeria’s north-east and across the Lake Chad Basin culminated with the first international conference on the topic, hosted by Norway with support from Germany, Nigeria and the UN, held in Oslo on 24 February 2017. Our aim was to draw attention to the crisis and the necessary solutions, namely increased political attention and statements of political support; better awareness of the complexity of the crisis and the need for humanitarian aid and development solutions; and financial contributions. Money had begun to flow but in insufficient quantities, while the ongoing crises in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen drew not only resources but much of the attention of aid agencies’ management and staff. One cannot look at a crisis in isolation: the international community’s ability to engage and respond will be dictated by a range of issues, right down to the availability of seasoned aid workers who can make a difference in highly complex settings.

Ways forward

Humanitarian aid is of course never enough. It can be an important short-term response to crises, but can never resolve them. There was strong recognition of this amongst NGOs and UN actors on the ground in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and together we began to lobby – to use ‘humanitarian advocacy’, if you will – to attract attention to the plight of communities in the Lake Chad Basin. We also lobbied for the authorities in the four countries to tackle the root cause of the crisis, including the deeper development challenges and the sense of marginalisation and, eventually, to reach out to Boko Haram. Humanitarian advocacy along these lines involves gaining the understanding of policy-makers and funders around the need to find a path to peace; to pay for security; to engage in development programmes during times of crisis; and to call on governments to invest in their own people. We were fortunate in the regions straddling the lake to find government interlocutors who were aware of the different dimensions to the crisis, and welcoming of international support. However, solutions to deep-rooted problems require sustained engagement. That means years of development cooperation, including on the very sensitive matter of population growth, better governance and, as Nigeria’s national security advisor put it to me once, ‘A social contract between the government and the different communities living on Lake Chad to ensure peace, security and development, equitably, for all’.

Toby Lanzer is Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Previously he was Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel.


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