Lake Chad is the fourth largest lake in Africa (by area). The significant shrinking of the Lake over the past decades has precipitated conflicts and crises in the Lake Chad Basin region. In this in-depth interview, Dr Titilayo Adebola, Associate Director, Centre for Commercial Law, University of Aberdeen, discusses historical and contemporary developments in the Lake Chad Basin region with Dr Chika Charles Aniekwe, Senior Advisor and Head of the UNDP support programme to the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Dr Aniekwe leads the Secretariat for the Regional Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Lake Chad Basin affected areas. He is an international development expert with over 18 years of experience. His experience cuts across democratic governance, conflict and peacebuilding, stabilisation, recovery, and resilience programmes.
Dr Aniekwe has pioneered several initiatives in Africa, including developing a long-term observation methodology for the African Union (AU). He is also a pioneer in localising transnational governance mechanisms in Africa. He served as Senior Political Officer (Elections) with the Department of Political Affairs of the AU Commission and has worked in several regions and countries around Africa. Dr Aniekwe holds a PhD in Development Studies and a Master’s in International Development both from the University of Bradford, United Kingdom as well as a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Nigeria. He is a fellow at the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada and the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp, Belgium. Dr Aniekwe’s recent publications include“Crime and Terror Nexus: The Intersections Between Terror and Criminal Groups in the Lake Chad Basin”, “Civil-Military and Humanitarian Collaboration Dilemmas in the Lake Chad Basin – A UNDP Policy Paper” and the “African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance: Past, Present and Future.”
Titilayo Adebola (TA): The Lake Chad Basin region has experienced violent conflicts and crises over the years. Tell us about the Lake Chad Basin.
Chika Charles Aniekwe (CCA): The first point to highlight when discussing the Lake Chad Basin is its geographical scope. Often times, when discussing the Lake Chad Basin, people focus on Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Naively, people could assume that the Lake Basin region covers the entire territories of these four countries. But that is not the case. The Lake Chad Basin has specific areas (what we call territories) within these four countries. The Lake Chad Basin region transcends the four countries that are directly affected by the current conflicts. The countries that comprise the Lake Chad Basin are Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Libya is an observer in the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Within the aforementioned countries that comprise the Lake Chad Basin, there are countries that we call riparian countries. Riparian countries are countries that surround the lake. These countries, namely Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, are always very visible in the Lake Chad Basin discourse. Within these four riparian countries, there are eight specific territories that are part of the Lake Chad Basin as outlined next. Cameroon: The Far North and the Northern regions. Chad: The Lac and Hadjer-Lamis provinces. Niger: Diffa region. Nigeria: Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States.
Overall, the Lake covers around 2.3 million square kilometres. The conventional basin itself covers 967,000 square kilometres. The Lake Chad Basin is a major source of livelihood for most of the population -around 45 million people- in the region. It provides small-scale farmers with access to water for irrigation. It provides income and food for fisherfolks that depend on fishing. It provides herders with vegetation around the lake for grazing their cattle. Historically, herders from outside the riparian countries also benefitted from its rich vegetation. For example, herders from Sudan used to migrate to feed their cattle in the Basin before moving downwards towards Potiskum, present day Yobe State, Nigeria, and further down-south Nigeria with trucks of cattle where there is high consumption of cattle meat. However, over the past years, from the early 1970s, the lake started shrinking. It shrunk to around 90 per cent of its original size before it stopped and started recovering. This has affected the main source of livelihood for the majority of the population that depend on it. The shrinking of the Lake has resulted in the affected stakeholders, including the high population of youths, seeking alternative sources of income. It, in turn, provided the fertile ground for extremism, and violent conflicts, such as farmer-herder conflicts and related conflicts that have now unfolded in the Lake Chad Basin.
Before discussing these issues, it is important to emphasise that after the Lake shrank up to 90 per cent, it stopped shrinking in the early 1990s, and it is now recovering, but it has not fully recovered to its original size. (You can read more about the shrinking of the Lake in the Adelphi Lake Chad Basin project.) As such, while some actors argue that the Lake is shrinking, others maintain that it is no longer shrinking, as it shrank and has stopped shrinking. To be clear, from the Lake Chad Basin's point of view, the Lake is no longer shrinking. However, it has not returned to its original size. That is why there is an emerging project by the Lake Chad Basin Commission to improve the hydraulic capacity of the Lake.
Importantly, the Lake Chad territories are far away from major cities and country capitals. I call them the territories or communities at the fringes because they are at the borderline, and they lack social and physical infrastructure as well as effective governance. These territories are usually neglected, as the governments are often far away from them. Accordingly, when ideas around violent extremism started circulating around these territories, there was already a fertile ground to facilitate mass indoctrination. When you juxtapose this context with the bulging youth population in the territories (like in other parts of Africa), the violent extremist groups had an easy pool for recruitment. These historical, social, economic and political contexts inform the current realities in the Lake Chad Basin. The current realities did not just emerge in isolation. These realities emerged from long years of neglect, and failure to address the challenges of climate change that contribute to the shrinkage of the Lake. The governments of the territories, to a large extent, failed to address the impacts of climate change, including loss of jobs and vulnerability of the unemployed, including youths.
TA: You lead the Secretariat for the Regional Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Lake Chad Basin affected areas. Tell us about your work in the Lake Chad Basin.
CCA: If you revisit the background set out in my previous answer, it is clear that the Lake Chad Basin is a region that is struggling. It is a region in conflict. It is now a breeding ground for violent extremism and terrorism. It is a region that provides the space for crime-terror nexus (or the marriage between crime and terrorism). The crime-terror nexus started around the early 2000s in Nigeria as a country issue. Over time, it ceased to be a solely Nigerian issue. It spiralled to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger, taking regional ramifications and affecting communities and peoples in the four countries. In 2014, this led to a discussion at the level of the AU Peace and Security Council on the need to design a comprehensive approach to address the threats of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region. The 2014 discussion led to the establishment of the Multinational Joint Task Force in 2015. Prior to 2015, Nigeria had already established a Task Force when Boko Haram was a Nigerian issue. In 2015, the Multinational Joint Task Force became a regional military task force. The Multinational Joint Task Force brings together the military of the four countries (plus Benin as a contributing force) to form a collective military unit to fight Boko Haram, albeit with the countries retaining full independence of military offensive against Boko Haram in their territories.
Notably, it was clear at the onset and within the Concept of Operation (CONOPs) of the Multinational Joint Task Force that a military offensive alone is not enough to address the complex issues in the Lake Chad Basin. The CONOPsagreed that stabilisation intervention would need to be developed to provide political and developmental solutions to tackle the crises in the region. In 2017, the Lake Chad Basin Commission, with the support of the AU, began the process of developing the Regional Strategy for Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram Affected Territories of the Lake Chad Basin region (Regional Strategy). The Regional Strategy was developed with the support of the AU and UNDP to provide missing links required to proffer political and developmental solutions to the crises. The Regional Strategy has three key components: Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience. The Regional Strategy recognises that countries in conflict need to move away from humanitarian assistance to stabilisation. Stabilisation in this context is the foundation for recovery. Recovery leads to long-term development and building resilience.
The Regional Strategy has 9 pillars, 40 strategic objectives and 110 indicators, which provide the framework for our work at the Secretariat. At the Secretariat, we work with partners, agencies and entities (UN and non-UN entities) to provide immediate solutions to communities affected by Boko Haram insurgencies. We also help the government of the four countries at the sub-national (or state) level to build long-term plans for recovery and resilience. This means that we have immediate stabilisation strategies that focus on three key areas. (i) Providing immediate security for the areas that are affected by Boko Haram. (ii) Providing basic infrastructure and services, including rebuilding destroyed or damaged infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, police stations, health centres and judicial offices. (iii) Providing livelihood support. We give families and households that are affected by the crises a head start, through different programs such as cash for work to help them start new lives.
Over the past three years (since September 2019), we have achieved significant results based on our work on immediate stabilisation. On security, over 3,001 community representatives and security actors have been trained on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), human rights (HR), civilian protection and civil-military dialogue. We have increased security presence and patrol in target communities across the Lake Chad Basin. On infrastructure, we have rehabilitated 4,112 essential infrastructure and equipped health centres, market stalls, housing units, community centres, security posts, schools and draining systems. We have installed 592 Solar power equipment, as well as 39 boreholes and water points. On livelihoods, we have provided support to more than 29,870 people and provided equipment and training to over 27,844 women and men. For example, in Niger, the marketing of live cattle (including on the corridor with Nigeria) has increased from negligible figures to sales of about 105 head of cattle per week, significantly increasing family income. We have also adopted cross-border approaches to address regional issues. About 12,000 people have returned to their places of origin in Amchidé and Limani in Cameroon. We built a new road between Banki in Nigeria and Amchidé in Cameroon, which serves two functions: it opens the opportunity for cross-border trade, and it opens the opportunity for cross-border human mobility. Niger’s Difa region has accrued USD 1.9 million from the sale of bell peppers alone.
On extended stabilisation, we build strategic partnerships in different areas. One of the areas we work on is reintegrating repentant Boko Haram members. Although many people are concerned about the reintegration of repentant Boko Haram members (which is beyond the scope of this interview), we maintain that for the current conflicts to end, we have to devise ways to ensure that people that have committed crimes are prosecuted and reintegrated into their communities. We also realise that not everyone associated with (or that moves with) Boko Haram belong to the group. Some are abductees or captives. We have to ensure that those that were forcefully captured are reintegrated with their families. It is a difficult situation and there is a need for political will at national levels. This is another strand of the work we do. We build partnerships for issues such as these. While developing regional partnerships and policies, we acknowledge that the four countries have different colonial heritages and legal systems (including diverging common law and civil law approaches). Hence, we have focused on harmonisation and constructing commonalities.
We have achieved harmonisation and commonalities in key areas such as disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR), transitional justice and the management of vigilantes in the region. We also provide platforms for high-level political dialogues. For example, through the Lake Chad Basin Governors Forum, which is a platform through which we bring together the governors of the 8 territories to do three things. (i) Share experiences of what is working in different territories and how they can be replicated elsewhere. (ii) Identify core cross border interventions that could be implemented in the border areas. I use Banki in Nigeria and Amchidé in Cameroon as an example. In 2019, during the second Lake Chad Basin Governors forum in Niamey, Niger, the governor of the Far North of Cameroon and the governor of Borno State, Nigeria, agreed to build a road to connect their respective territories to facilitate transportation and movement of people, because Boko Haram had earlier closed the connecting route. While this data is undocumented, it is reported that up to 70 vehicles, including trucks and lorries, used the road on the day that it was opened. This connecting road will certainly contribute to cross border trade and human mobility. (iii) Furthermore, we heavily invest in action research targeted at providing policymakers and development partners with evidence to advance policies and programmes that address the real issues in the communities.
TA: What are some of the highlights of your work so far?
CCA: I am proud of what the Secretariat has been able to support and achieve. In the past three years, over 1 million people have benefitted from our initiatives. We can quantify these impacts in terms of numbers, but we cannot qualify the intangible impacts on human dignity. People have been able to return home and resume their daily activities. As an African and Nigerian, seeing the process that will lead to the end of the conflict is important and our work is leading us in the right direction. The non-kinetic support we provide to the Multinational Joint Task Force has allowed them to strengthen their relationship with the communities, on the one hand, and also strengthen their relationship with the humanitarian actors, on the other hand. The strengthened relationship has allowed the Multinational Joint Task Force to understand their responsibility to protect civilians.
As the Head of the Secretariat, I am also very proud that we provide unique support to the Lake Chad Basin Commission. The Lake Chad Basin Commission initially focused on issues around water management. Given its history as an institution that was created to address conflicts and to manage the water of the Lake between the four countries, for obvious reasons, the primary attention was on issues around water and environmental management. We are pleased to have been able to help the Commission build capacity, develop broader perspectives and move towards achieving their third mandate on peace and security. Crucially, this is the first time that an African strategy has formed the rallying point, overall entry point and overarching framework for both UN and non-UN entities to support a region. I take pride in leading and working with my team to build partnerships both at the vertical and lateral levels.
TA: What is the current situation in the Lake Chad Basin?
CCA: Security wise, the situation is still very volatile, but there is marked improvement. We are dealing with different factions of Boko Haram. For example, the Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) focus mostly on targeting military and government institutions. Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (Jas) kill indiscriminately. Bakuras are a blend of terrorism and criminality. Jama’atu Ansaru Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru) try to merge the entire space in the North -Northwest and North East - into one big terrorist space. However, we have made progress with the military. The increase and consistency in military operations has yielded results over the past 12 months. The last military intervention “Operation Lake Sanity”, which ended last month, was the first time combined military of the four countries followed Boko Haram into the islands. Initially, the military would pursue Boko Haram to the islands and return due to lack of amphibious capacity. This time, the military pursued Boko Haram from the islands, which led to their current spread into different locations and their indiscriminate attacks. The areas that have been recovered through stabilisation have provided opportunities for people, including internally displaced people, to return to their ancestral homes. One of our overarching objectives is to restore social contract and trust between communities and governments. See data on the case study from Borno State, Nigeria below.
Although there are improvements, especially in the areas that we focus on, there are still violent conflicts and security concerns in the region.
Moving to the situation with the Lake itself, the Lake Basin Commission just commenced a project with an overarching objective to improve the hydraulic capacity of the Lake. The project seeks to achieve twin outcomes. (i) Allow water flow into the lake. (ii) Retain water. Currently, the Lake is silted. When a lake or water body is silted, it is prone to evaporation. The Lake loses over 65 per cent of rainwater annually. It does not retain water. In addition, two tributaries contribute over 80 per cent of the water supply of the Lake: Chari and Logone. These two tributaries have invasive weeds at the point of entry from them to the Lake, which prevent water from moving in. The Lake Chad Basin Commission is trying to desilt the Lake to stop evaporation, facilitate the retention of rain water and to remove the evasive weeds so that water can move from the tributaries into the Lake. Two interrelated questions many people ask are: what is going to happen when you achieve these outcomes and when there is more water in the Lake? What will happen to the people around the Lake? Recall that at the time the Lake was shrinking, communities followed the Lake. In other words, the Lake is not in its original location. As such, opening it could trigger flooding and the wiping away of the communities. The Lake Chad Commission has committed to undertaking environmental and socio-economic impact assessments to determine the feasibility of embarking on the projects and to consider how communities could be relocated into new areas before the project. It estimated that we can recover close to 80 per cent of the original water levels of the Lake prior to its shrinking.
TA: How does the current situation in the Lake Chad Basin affect aquaculture and agriculture?
CCA: Fisherfolks and farmers that depend on the Lake for their livelihoods are the most hit. Because of the shrinking of the Lake, most young people that depend on fishing and selling of fish and no longer able to do that. What that means is that they become prey for Boko Haram recruits and violent extremism. When you dig deep into the recruitment strategy and the categories of people that are part of the broader Boko Haram sects, you find that there are three categories. First, there are people I classify as the ideologues. These are people that believe that it is an ideal cause, and that no matter what, they will live and die by their beliefs. Second, there are those I call the political Boko Haram. These are people that want just to wield power through their actions. Third, there are those I refer to as the economic Boko Haram. These are people that are paid to fight and remain with the group as long as they make money. In some instances, where it is still possible to fish, Boko Haram has taken over the tax systems in those areas. Thus, not everybody has been able to continue fishing in those areas, except those that are willing to share revenue with Boko Haram. Boko Haram deny some fisherfolks the opportunity to fish freely and at the same time, they push others into their sects.
Many small-scale farmers depended on quick local methods of irrigation initially because the Lake was so close to them. As such, the shrinking of the Lake affected their farming practices. At the same time, many farmers moved away from the Lake Chad areas because they no longer have adequate grazing areas. This has engendered the farmer-herder crises in the entire Lake Chad Basin region. Early this year (2022), there was a conflict between farming and herder communities in Cameroon because of grazing. Interestingly, the Lake Chad Basin areas used to be called the food basket of the region as a lot of food was moved from the region across the rest of Africa. In sum, the detrimental impacts of the current situation in the Lake Chad Basin include loss of biodiversity, limited access to fishing, grazing for cattle, irrigation for farming and the reduced support for people that depend on the fisherfolks/farmers for food, education, healthcare, and general welfare.
TA: What are the gendered impacts of the current situation in the Lake Chad Basin?
CCA: The Lake Chad region is still very much a conservative region. There are limitations on women’s participation in politics and economic activities. There are lots of religious and cultural expectations along with prescriptions for women that limit the extent to which women can aspire or engage in public activities. Thanks to the Lake Chad Basin Commission Strategy, there is a new level of consciousness and engagement to promote political and economic empowerment for women. Pillar 9 of the Strategy is specifically on women and youth empowerment. This is the reason we carefully highlight the number of women that have benefited from our initiatives. The Lake Chad Basin Commission Strategy has helped women economically, it has also offered women the space to actually engage in designing and implementing the Strategy. This is important because there are lots of negative impacts of Boko Haram on women. Women are kidnapped and married off, they are often targeted when communities are attacked, and they look after the children when the men are kidnapped or forced into different activities, they also bear the responsibilities of dealing with their young sons as Boko Haram members. A lot of responsibilities fall squarely on women. As women historically rarely had the space to contribute to how conflicts, extremism and related issues were resolved, the Lake Chad Basin Commission Strategy created a platform for women to contribute to policy making.
We have testimonies of women telling us about the opportunities they were given to sit face-to-face with ministers and governors and to share their thoughts without fear. Giving women the agency to contribute to policymaking is vital to us because they were marginalised and excluded in the past. We now have a network of women civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Lake Chad Basin. Women are represented in the steering and technical committees. We have provided the platform for women to brief and address the UN Peace Building Commission, UN agencies as well as high-level policymakers on the changes they want and how they want governments to engage with them. While we are not going to achieve change overnight, we are seeing a lot of openness and willingness to support women’s involvement in our work.
TA: Which partners do you work with and how do partners engage with your work in the Lake Chad Basin?
CCA: We engage with different levels of partners, stakeholders and interlocutors. At the continental level, the AU is a key strategic partner for us. The AU Peace and Security Council endorsed the Strategy as the overarching framework for Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience in the Lake Chad Basin region. The political endorsement by the AU says it all. The AU provides the political leverage and space for us to speak at the continental level. The Executive Secretary of Lake Chad Basin Commission briefs the AU Peace and Security Council a minimum of twice every year to update them on the situation on the ground and make recommendations on how the AU can support the Basin Commission on the situation. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are also strategic partners. The countries in the region belong to two sub-regional groups. Nigeria and Niger are members of ECOWAS; Chad and Cameroon are members of ECCAS. We have to engage with ECOWAS and ECCAS to ensure that there is consistency in policies that address the same issue in the region. We also do this to mobilise political support by ensuring the countries focus on and address the same issues.
At the global level, we partner with the UN. Most of the UN entities and funds are partners to the Task Force of Implementing partners. We have an Interagency Task Force on the Lake Chad Basin, which was established by the UN to focus specifically on bringing solutions and supporting the implementation of the Strategy including mobilising financial and technical support. We also engage with other partners. For example, the Peace Building Commission has a mandate to mobilise Member States and mobilise critical donors to focus their attention on issues of specific nature in any conflict setting. Since 2019, the Secretariat has worked with the Peace Building Commission Secretariat on regular briefing to the Commission by the Lake Basin Commission Executive Secretary. We have a platform called the International Support Group through which we bring donors together. The International Support Group is a platform of the donors where they come together as one unit to engage with the Lake Basin Commission, not just financially, but to provide political support and use their influence to leverage and open spaces of influence for the Lake Chad Basin Commission. The International Support Group is currently chaired by the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany, and it has around 16 members.
We have a Steering Committee for the Strategy. The Steering Committee of the Strategy is composed of Member States at the ministerial level, the AU at the commissioner level, the Lake Chad Basin Commission at the Executive Secretary level and the Force Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force. The Steering Committee is also composed of ECOWAS and ECCAS as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary General for West Africa and the Sahel, and the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Central Africa. In addition, the Steering Committee includes two representatives from the International Support Group, currently the two co-chairs (UK and Germany) as well as representatives of CSOs.
We have a Technical Committee, which serves as the support system to the Steering Committee. The Technical Committee comprises all technical partners that support the implementation of the strategy. Any partner that has a project that supports the strategy is a Technical Committee member; we bring them together under the Task Force of Implementing Partners. We currently have about 32 UN and non-UN partners. We have grouped them into three groups, “Governance Cluster”, “Development and Humanitarian Cluster” and “Security and Protection Cluster.” Any partner can belong to one or more groups depending on their mandate.
Importantly, the governors of the 8 territories are the key partners to the Strategy, because although the Strategy is regional, it is implemented by the governors at local levels. As earlier mentioned, we bring the governors together through the Governors’ Forum.
TA: What changes would you like to see in the Lake Chad Basin?
CCA: Silence the guns. We want an end to insurgency and terrorism. We do not just want an end through military interventions, where people are killed. Instead, we want people to understand why insurgency and terrorism must end. This means that there is a responsibility on the part of the governments to develop the areas that have been denied development for a long time. We want to see communities that have been abandoned have access to infrastructure and services. We want to see children go to school. We want to see youths have prospects for their futures. If we can stop recruitment, we will see an end to Boko Haram, and we will only see this when vulnerable people in the affected territories secure alternative means of living, which is the responsibility of the governments. Finally, the governments should bring back and sustain the Lake.
This interview is grounded on the University of Aberdeen’s 2040 Commitments to harnessing our research expertise to form partnerships and networks around the world to address interdisciplinary challenges of our age, including biodiversity, climate change and environmental related concerns.