Since 2015, the conflict between Chad's armed forces and Boko Haram has destabilised the Lake Chad region in the west of the country. Defeating this resilient insurgency requires the state to go beyond a purely military campaign and relaunch trade, improve public services and reintegrate demobilised militants.
Since early 2015, attacks in Chad by the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram have killed hundreds, displaced more than 100,000 and damaged the regional economy of the Lake Chad basin. Violence peaked in 2015 with suicide bombings in the capital and in the Lake region, and has since declined. Chad's military engagements and its role in the fight against terrorism - around Lake Chad and elsewhere in the region - have brought significant diplomatic gains, most recently the appointment of Foreign Minister Moussa Faki as chairperson of the African Union Commission. But the security risk hasn't disappeared.
To counter the ongoing threat while responding to the immediate and longer-term needs of the population, Chadian authorities need to build on the relatively successful regional security cooperation, but also start to move away from their highly militarised response to include a more significant civilian component, elaborate a more coherent economic development plan and deal more effectively with former Boko Haram members.
Boko Haram's presence in Chad has been most strongly felt around Lake Chad, which lies primarily within Chadian territory. The area combines rich agriculture, pastoralism and fishing and is a magnet for migrants from all over the Sahel, leading to tensions over control of resources. Boko Haram has taken advantage of the geography of the lake seeking refuge on its many islands. The cultural and religious influence of Nigeria's Borno state facilitated the penetration of the Borno-born jihadist group, which has also taken advantage of longstanding communal tensions in the area.
Initially, Boko Haram's presence on the Chadian side of the lake was limited. But violence rapidly escalated in 2015, partly in reaction to the intervention by Chadian forces in neighbouring states. Two suicide bombings in the capital N'Djamena and multiple attacks on villages and army posts followed. Attacks diminished at the start of 2016, having never reached the levels seen in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. This was accompanied by a wave of surrenders of Boko Haram members in the second half of the year, but which seemingly included few if any of the hard core. Attacks continued, however, throughout 2016, as the jihadist group showed repeated resilience and adaptability.
The violence Boko Haram unleashed has led to over 100,000 displaced and 7,000 refugees on Chadian territory by the beginning of 2017. In 2015, this heightened longstanding antagonisms between communities and made community-level conflict management more challenging. Some community chiefs have been caught in a violent crossfire. Some have been pressured by the national authorities, while others have been accused of complicity or targeted by Boko Haram and one has even been killed. Stigmatisation of some of the Buduma ethnic group, suspected of colluding with Boko Haram, was acute but has calmed down since violence decreased.
The reaction of the Chadian authorities has been primarily military, both in the Lake region and through interventions in neighbouring countries. A state of emergency was imposed in November 2015 and has been renewed several times since, and administration has been partly militarised.
Many suspected Boko Haram members captured on Chadian soil have been imprisoned for long periods without trial. Local defence militias have been created and have played a significant role against the jihadist group. But the heavy security response has come at a cost, especially in restrictions of movement imposed on a traditionally highly mobile population heavily dependent on cross-border trade.
As the first phase of a new military offensive by armies in the region has just been launched (Operation Rawan Kada), the risks of infiltration and a rise in attacks on the Chadian territory are real.
A large-scale attack could act as a trigger and, as in 2015, lead to stigmatisation, particularly of the Buduma population. Until now, national authorities have failed to articulate any longer-term plan for the area, and there is little sense of how the impact of Boko Haram is dealt with at a civilian level. A clear new development strategy is needed, which should be driven by the needs of the population in the Lake Chad area and not tied too closely to the fight against the jihadist group.
The reduction of the Boko Haram threat largely depends on actions taken in neighbouring countries, primarily Nigeria. However, measures can be taken to contain it in Chad and in particular in the lake area:
Chadian authorities are ill-prepared to deal with suspected Boko Haram members who have surrendered or been captured. A screening process must be initiated to distinguish between real members and those who were either at the periphery or even not associated to the group at all. The latter should be released and integrated in broad community development projects targeting the youth. Following the recent initiative of the Interior Ministry in neighbouring Niger, Chadian authorities should elaborate a framework document for the treatment of surrendees and communicate it to its international partners.
To encourage surrenders, counter violent radical messages, improve communication by the authorities and allow local people to express their concerns, community radios should be supported and expanded.
Most of these will necessarily operate at local level, but consideration should be given to developing community radios with a remit to cover the whole lake area, to reflect the diversity and integration of the populations. Such radios, which could be based on existing initiatives in neighbouring countries, should broadcast in a wide and balanced range of local and national languages, and should include messages of peace, calls for surrender directed at Boko Haram members and information on other issues of lakewide interest such as cattle prices.
To balance the heavily militarised response to the Boko Haram threat in the lake area and to avoid its militarisation, and to address the needs of the population suffering from violence and displacement, including through better and more sustainable development strategies:
Far more civilian capacity must be gradually brought in. This should include a stronger involvement of local authorities in strategic decision-making and a better administrative presence to rebuild social services and ensure civilian needs are taken into account. To encourage civil servants to work in the region, a system of temporary bonuses could be considered. Measures should also include support for community-level initiatives concerning social cohesion.
Chadian authorities should propose clear political options for the future of the lake. They should elaborate a medium- and longer-term plan for the development of the Lake region, together with the development donors and in consultation with the local population. It should be sensitive to the needs of a highly mobile population.
The risk of concentrating financial resources on the lake to the detriment of other regions should not be neglected. Chad is a very poor country with many areas in a precarious situation. It is therefore necessary to rebalance the portfolio of projects so as not to neglect the pressing needs of other regions.
The welcome efforts of donors to set up projects in the region must take account of risks of injecting large amounts of development funding so as not to reinforce some conflict drivers. As a first step, development agencies should finance a socio-anthropological study into the livelihoods and mobility of the population, to also consider how to involve local communities in development programs.
Chadian authorities should review their current policies, which restrict economic activities on the lake, and take measures to support, protect and relaunch the regional economy. A protected trade corridor between Chad and Nigeria would facilitate trade and improve the living conditions of the population.
Nairobi/Brussels, 8 March 2017