Since the beginning of 2020, of the three countries bordering Nigeria in the Lake Chad Basin, Cameroon has suffered the majority of civilian casualties caused by armed attacks by violent extremist groups (VEG), with over 50 deaths. Meanwhile, approximately 20 and 10 civilian deaths have been recorded in Niger and Chad respectively. Of these, Chad is the only country to have registered casualties amongst security and defense forces, nine so far this year. Attacks recorded during the first two months of 2020 represent continuity in trends from 2019.
As of December 2019, internally displaced persons and refugees in the Lake Chad Basin held constant at approximately 2.4 million, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While this number has largely held constant over the past 5 years, daily attacks by Boko Haram (Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad, JAS) continue to stoke insecurity and fear in border and lake settlements in the Lake Chad Basin region.
In 2015, while authorizing the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), the African Union anticipated the need for accompanying multi-sector intervention to protect and enhance the livelihoods of affected communities, while limiting incentives for joining violent extremist groups in the Lake Chad Basin. During the MNJTF’s second year of operations, coming under military pressure and amid internal dissension, Boko Haram splintered into the Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab Al-Barnawi factions, with the latter affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), known as Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). However, four years since the deployment of the MNJTF, small border and lake settlements along the Cameroon-Nigeria and Niger-Nigeria borders continue to bear the brunt of almost daily asymmetrical attacks from violent extremist groups operating in the Lake Chad Basin region. Meanwhile, accompanying development interventions have been slow to materialise amid shrinking humanitarian space, leaving already vulnerable communities reeling.
Violent Extremist Groups’ attack trends
Current attacks, observed since October 2018, point to the way VEGs exploit local realities to ensure their continued survival in the Lake Chad Basin region, in the face of growing military pressure. Border communities remain vulnerable both to attacks and to forced recruitment by violent extremist groups. Therefore, innovative shared ownership is needed in co-producing interventions that not only protect communities, but strengthen their resistance to VEGs.
Attack trends evidence a complex web of locally differentiated tactics and outcomes. Tactically, civilian targets in borderland villages and IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are systematically and increasingly attacked. In Cameroon’s far north Region, the targeted assassination and kidnapping of members of civilian vigilance committees who inform and support military operations, seek to strategically degrade human intelligence capacities upon which the national army relies.
Human resources and supply imperatives
Also evident is the continuing trend of kidnapping by VEGs in the Lake Chad Basin. Since the beginning of the year, more kidnappings have been recorded in the Diffa Region in Niger than in any of the other regions. While some kidnappings are leveraged for ransom that ensures the financing for VEGs, some women are also kidnapped to be brides or for battlefield purposes as suicide bombers (this is a tactic notoriously deployed by the JAS-faction). Kidnapping is also used to swell the ranks of these groups and provide a source of labour for activities in their encampment sites.
Most attacks documented in Cameroon and Niger are accompanied by looting and the selective burning of villages. Looting is one means by which violent extremist groups ensure their supply lines stay furnished.
These trends exacerbate fears on several levels. Individually, given the nocturnal nature of most VEG attacks, communities are often forced to leave their homes for surrounding safe havens, such as hilltops. Relationally, the targeted assassination of members of local vigilance committees breeds suspicion about the capacity of VEGs to collect and act on actionable intelligence within communities. Meanwhile, the increased presence of unexploded ordnances (UXOs), improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines across the landscape stokes fear across socioeconomic groups – farmers, herders or traders.
If the current trend evidences a consolidation of VEG’s survival strategy, it also provides an opportunity for Lake Chad Basin states and their local and international partners. By privileging sporadic incursions into neighboring countries, Boko Haram has shown its limitations in durably implanting itself outside Nigeria. Hence, neighboring states can capitalise on scare tactics by VEGs to delegitimize the groups and amplify their protection of the most vulnerable civilian communities. We have seen that simply erecting a military post convinces IDPs to return to their communities.
Adequately reinserting former Boko Haram members who voluntarily disengage from the group provides a credible and predictable exit strategy. However, this ought to be accompanied by strategies to compel attrition from middle and top leadership of the group, including through military and political options.
Since the regionalisation of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2013, there is acknowledgement of the need for the countries of the Lake Chad Basin to reconstruct state-society relations. States can leverage trust building between vigilance committees and security and defense forces to rebuild a social contract that ensures the co-production of protection and enhances the utility of the states.
Pillar Five of African Union/LCBC Lake Chad Basin Commission Regional Strategy for the stabilization, resilience and recovery of the Boko Haram-affected regions of the Lake Chad Basin is dedicated to restoring governance and the social contract. Given the cross-border nature of VEG durability, improved cross-border cooperation at local, national and regional levels will both strengthen response capacities and align with the way cross-border communities see themselves – as borderless spaces.