Lake Chad, the fourth largest body of water in Africa, has been a source of livelihood for more than 30 million people and has supported economic activities for countries across the region since time immemorial. For generations, it has been part of a major hub along the trade routes linking the continent’s Atlantic seaboard to the Red Sea.
In June 2019, UNDP commissioned award-winning photographer Malin Fezehai to create a visual presentation of the region. Malin visited a number of areas in the Lake Chad region; focusing our attention on the people who are bearing the brunt of this long and complex humanitarian and environmental crisis, yet still hopeful for a day when their livelihoods will be restored and their communities stabilized.
The experiences shared here tell the story of one of the greatest development challenges of our time. It shines a spotlight on this complex crisis by showing the toll on humanity as a result of the reduced water levels in Lake Chad and the continuing Boko Haram insurgency. Through the stories from the region, an urgent call for action is being made.
As Lake Chad water levels have fallen due to periods of unpredictable rainfall and droughts, the livelihoods of the inhabitants of this vast region, who rely on fishing, agriculture, livestock and trade have changed. The changing environment has upset previously predictable patterns of farming and fishing, decreasing informal trade in the process.
The situation has been compounded by a decrease in food availability, desertification and limited water resources. Moreover, the population has increased by 400 per cent since the 1960s in a region already struggling with high poverty levels, low access to education and health services, mounting tensions between communities and a perceived sense of government indifference.
Climate change is contributing to the changing size of the northern pool of the lake. Variability in the timing and amount of rainfall result in even more uncertainty for the millions who depend on the lake for their survival. Communities no longer know which crops to plant where, and when to switch from one means of livelihood to another.
Against this alarming backdrop, the terrorist organization, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, has attracted disenfranchised youth, recruiting them into its ranks. Over the last decade, the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced nearly 2.5 million people from their homes. It has rendered vast areas insecure, damaged billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure, and left millions without basic services in the regions of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria that border Lake Chad.
The continuous attacks in the four countries have caused waves upon waves of mass human displacement, bringing families untold levels of human suffering including abject poverty and human rights violations. In the territories under its control, fishing and farming have become too dangerous, and some harvests have been confiscated. Millions still rely on humanitarian handouts for survival.
The killing of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, by Nigerian police forces in 2009 did not lead to the group’s demise. Quite the contrary: since 2009, Boko Haram has cast an ever-wider net, using remote and volatile areas as fertile grounds for recruitment and forcing more people to join its ranks. Over 35,000 people have lost their lives since the beginning of this now decade-long insurgency.
In 2016, a portion of Boko Haram, more active in the Chadian part of the lake region, announced its affiliation with the Islamic State terrorist group and became the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).
The Governments of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria have managed to curb Boko Haram’s territorial control. This has been achieved following the adoption of various measures such as banning motorcycles (a favoured means of transportation for insurgents), restricting crops that grow above waist height to prevent their use as a hiding place, and declaring militarized areas off-limits to fishing. This crisis has affected every aspect of daily life, including travel.
Almost 11 million out of the 17.4 million inhabitants of the Lake Chad region are in need of humanitarian assistance, and five million people are food-insecure. Due to the security situation, several communities are still inaccessible to humanitarian assistance.
The crisis in the Lake Chad Basin continues to create a fertile environment for Boko Haram to recruit vulnerable and unemployed youth to join its ranks, further elevating the security threat in the region.
Since 2015, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has worked to address the underlying causes of the crisis. In 2018, it began working with the African Union and the Lake Chad Basin Commission to design the Regional Stabilization Strategy for the Lake Chad Basin. To move from paper to action, UNDP launched its Regional Stabilization Facility for Lake Chad in 2019, an ambitious multimillion-dollar initiative to scale up stabilization activities in the region. The Facility will serve as a rapid-response mechanism to help the local authorities restore and extend effective civilian security, and improve the delivery of basic services, providing livelihood opportunities to communities in a safe and secure environment.
Donor conferences on the Lake Chad Basin in Oslo (2017) and Berlin (2018) have resulted in the mobilization and expenditure of more than US $3 billion to save lives, address humanitarian needs and begin the transition to investment in development. During a July 2019 conference of the governors of the most affected regions bordering Lake Chad, international donors pledged US $60 million to support recovery and reconstruction, and to reverse development losses in the region.
The governors decided on two cross-border trade agreements to restore trade. In 2019, plans for the most affected regions to exit the crisis situation have been accelerated in Chad and Niger. A more collective, regional crisis response is underway. In order to respond to the unique and multifaceted development challenges of the Lake Chad region, it is crucial to call the world to action.
The level of violence in Cameroon is the second highest of the four countries. Before 2009, Cameroon served as a transit point for fighters returning from northeast Nigeria. Boko Haram has left its mark on the local economy of the Far North Region. Its members buy food supplies on local markets, infiltrate smuggling networks, and seize fuel and weapons from the Chadian army in the border town of Kousseri.
From March 2014 until March 2016, Boko Haram’s presence became more violent, marked by hundreds of attacks, 50 of which were suicide bombings. Boko Haram increased attacks on Cameroonian soldiers in response to increased military presence in the Far North Region. Additionally, the lack of a government presence in several communities where traditional leaders fill administrative posts created space for attacks. The International Crisis Group reports that 3,500 to 4,000 Cameroonians have joined Boko Haram.
Since the beginning of the crisis, over 360,000 Nigerians fleeing from Boko Haram took refuge in Cameroon – a large portion of whom now reside around the Far North Region. Communities for the Kotoko, Kanuri and Mousgoum ethnic groups who have lived in peace for decades are now battling for access to new resources as influx of refugees has pushed population figures too high for available natural resources in this already poor part of the country.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that more than 400,000 people currently suffer from food insecurity, which has been aggravated because farmers are afraid to work their land.
The northern part of Cameroon, which traditionally facilitated the export of cattle from Chad to Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, is no longer as important as a trade hub. Informal cross-border trade between local markets in the three countries is almost non-existent. Border communities have suffered the most, as border closings affect young tradespersons. Children have been affected by the closure of at least 90 primary schools due to security concerns in the Far North Region.
Fishing in the Chari River near Goulfey has also been restricted. The local environment of the Minawao refugee camp, 56 miles from the Nigerian border, has suffered from the influx of people fleeing the conflict. The dependence on limited natural resources like trees for use as fuelwood is putting pressure on the environment beyond its coping limits.
Borno State, Nigeria is at the epicentre of the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad Basin, where, in 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency began when its militants launched an attack on a police station. Clashes subsequently spread into neighbouring states, using suicide attacks as one of the tactics in the war against the government. Boko Haram has sought control over mainly rural areas and small villages in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States, where it reportedly collects taxes and provides a semblance of basic services.
Communities in these states have not only suffered from attacks on infrastructure and places of worship, but also from forced recruitment. The movement uses violent extremist messaging and relies on the radicalization of young men and women as well as the abduction of schoolgirls and other minors. The kidnapping of 276 female students from the town of Chibok dominated international news in 2014; five years later, 112 of these girls are still reported missing. In total, 7,000 Nigerians are reported to be associated with Boko Haram. Sporadic attacks continue in rural villages and towns.
Over 1.8 million people from northeast Nigeria have been displaced as a consequence of the crisis. Inhabitants from the shores of Lake Chad have fled violence and forced recruitment in their hometowns, where strict security measures have made daily life even more difficult.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 200,000 of Nigeria’s displaced persons are refugees in the bordering countries of the Lake Chad Basin. The Nigerian military, working closely with the Multinational Joint Task Force, has freed several towns from Boko Haram’s control. Refugees who have returned mainly from Chad and Cameroon have been resettling in northeast Nigeria.
Returnees to Ngala, a village on the border with Cameroon, understand too well the risks of going back home – Boko Haram attacks on military bases and civilian targets have forced many of them into nearby IDP camps. The presence of Boko Haram is still felt in the outskirts of Ngala.
Community members do not feel safe because former Boko Haram members are attempting to reintegrate into civilian life, a situation that is creating mounting tensions. As a result, some communities have set up their own security operations carried out by vigilante groups. Generally, restrictions of movement in Nigeria’s North-East have created further difficulties for refugees and former Boko Haram associates who are trying to restart their lives while still in displacement.
In Niger, cross-border threats to peace and security come from violent extremist groups in Mali who are poised to stage incursions from the west, and from Boko Haram, who has threatened to overtake the Diffa region from the east. The challenge stems from long, porous borders that limit opportunities to regulate traditional cross-border movements as well as a lack of state presence.
Boko Haram has recruited young men on their way to northeast Nigeria to seek religious training or business opportunities. In Niger, which ranked last in the United Nations’ 2018 Human Development Index, livelihood opportunities are limited to agriculture, cattle farming and fishing. Even though Boko Haram’s attempts to control Niger’s territory have been limited, 650 civilians have been killed, wounded or abducted since its first attack in 2015. Attacks on police stations, weapon depots, and even humanitarian organizations have increased.
In 2014, the Sayam Forage camp in the region of Diffa, Niger was created to provide refugee protection for populations that had been displaced because of Boko Haram incursions. The camp hosts around 17,000 people, and most of the refugees are from Nigeria.
In February 2015, the Government of Niger responded by declaring a state of emergency in the region, which has been regularly renewed. Government measures were carried out to prevent Boko Haram attacks from negatively affecting the country’s already weak economy.
Security services immediately arrested over 1,000 people and they introduced a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Processing of smoked fish and pepper was forcefully limited to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of this business. Rural production was subjected to high taxation. Additionally, a ban on motorcycles was introduced, and markets were closed. This has resulted in a paralysis of trade, a sharp increase, by 75 per cent, in youth unemployment, and desertion of almost all villages on the shores of Lake Chad.
The Niger Government has demonstrated a commitment to overcoming the crisis. Despite economic challenges, Niger has stood out for opening its borders to host over 110,000 refugees from other countries in the Lake Chad Region. A rehabilitation center was constructed where 250 people who defected from Boko Haram are currently voluntarily undergoing de-radicalization and being prepared for reintegration into their communities.
Refugee camps in the Diffa region are making serious efforts to restore people’s livelihoods. However, with the limited ability to do so in the desert region, people’s lives are put on hold in their hope for a return to stability. Although the government is working urgently to implement a crisis exit strategy, access to services such as education, health and drinking water, as well as local and cross-border entrepreneurship have been impacted.
Before 2009, Chad’s most pressing security challenges stemmed from internal political tensions, instability in Libya, and violent extremism in North Africa. Then in 2015, there were the first reports of violent extremism in the country, and attacks have increased since 2018. Boko Haram is currently operating in Chad under the banner ISWAP and has targeted civilians on several occasions. Direct assaults on villages and nomadic camps have been reported, as have attacks on army positions.
Between March 2018 and April 2019, 12 attacks resulted in 40 civilians dead, 30 people abducted, and over 4,000 cattle stolen. Recruitment in Chad is more out of coercion than ideology as Boko Haram takes advantage of the civil unrest stemming from very high youth unemployment in the country. The insurgency in Chad has led to a severe security crackdown as access to areas threatened by Boko Haram have been cut off. The sense of insecurity extends all the way into the capital, N’djamena, where security checkpoints and the presence of military vehicles on every street corner have become the order of the day.
Each year during Ramadan, Boko Haram seizes control over a few islands on Lake Chad. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the camps on the mainland try their best to reach family members stuck on the islands to make the most of the holy month festivities.
IDPs on the islands are unable to return to the mainland because they risk being perceived as associated with Boko Haram, or are arrested if they try to leave and thus remain isolated on the islands.
Women living in Dar es Salaam camp in Chad. Thousands of refugees from Nigeria are housed there.