Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures
People from the Nigerian town of Malam Fatori and its area, close to the borders with Niger and Chad, pass by a car with Chadian Gendarmes (in uniform) as they flee Islamist Boko Haram attacks to take shelter in the Niger's town of Bosso secure by Niger a
People from the Nigerian town of Malam Fatori and its area pass by a car with Chadian Gendarmes (in uniform) as they flee Islamist Boko Haram attacks to take shelter in the Niger's town of Bosso secure by Niger and Chad armies, on May 25, 2015. AFP/Issouf
Report 246

Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures

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.

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Executive Summary

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, 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 the 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 lessened 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 radio stations should be supported and expanded. Most of these will necessarily operate at local level, but consideration should be given to developing community radio stations with a remit to cover the whole lake area, to reflect the diversity and integration of the populations. Such radio stations, 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 to avoid reinforcing some conflict drivers. As a first step, development agencies should finance a socio-anthropological study into the livelihoods and mobility of the population, and 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

I. Introduction

In the aftermath of the April 2016 presidential election, which saw Idriss Déby win a fifth term, Chad became central to the struggle against terrorism in Africa. With the election on 31 January 2017 of the country’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki, as head of the African Union Commission, the Chadian regime is reaping the benefits of an active military diplomacy which has seen it intervene in many foreign countries and notably, since early 2015, against the jihadist group Boko Haram.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Even so, it still faces massive challenges: a major economic and financial crisis resulting from both the slump in oil prices and the disruption of trade with Nigeria and Cameroon; the absence of any change in power and the risk of a future succession crisis; and resurgent security threats beyond Chad’s borders – the prevailing anarchy in southern Libya recently led the Chadian authorities to close their northern frontier, while conditions are worsening in the Central African Republic (CAR) and problems persist in Darfur.[fn]“Le Tchad annonce la fermeture de sa frontière avec la Libye”, Radio France internationale (RFI), 6 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, following the interventions of its army against Boko Haram in neighbouring countries, Chad has found itself exposed to attacks by the jihadist group on its own soil, causing many civilian deaths both in N’Djamena and on the islands and shore of Lake Chad, as well as large-scale displacements. Although the number of attacks in Chad dropped sharply in 2016, the threat posed by Boko Haram is continually evolving and will most probably persist over the long term. The growth of the terrorist group drew on deep structural problems in Nigeria. To solve them will take time, and regions that neighbour Borno state will long remain vulnerable.

This Crisis Group report makes no attempt to analyse Boko Haram’s structure, leadership or resources. Instead, it seeks to understand the factors that facilitated the extension of the jihadist group’s activities into Chad – particularly through an analysis of the historical, cultural and economic features of the Lake Chad area – and how the group’s activity and the state’s response to it have affected the communities living there.[fn]For more information about Boko Haram, see “Comprendre Boko Haram”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2015/3); Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, “A Sectarian Jihad in Nigeria: The Case of Boko Haram”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 5 (2016), pp. 878-895; Andrew Walker, “Eat the Heart of the Infidel”: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram (London, 2016); and Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and N°168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010.Hide Footnote  Finally, it makes recommendations to replace a predominantly military response with a stabilisation strategy. Based on research carried out during visits to the Lake Chad region and N’Djamena in 2015 and 2016, this report is one of a series of Crisis Group publications on the jihadist threat in the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016; and Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 241, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, 16 November 2016; N°s 242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016; N°s 244, Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram, 23 February 2017; and N°s 245, Le Niger face à Boko Haram: au-delà de la contre-insurrection, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote

II. Lake Chad: Fertile Ground for Boko Haram

Except for two spectacular bombings in N’Djamena in 2015, Boko Haram’s attacks and recruitment in Chad have mainly targeted the Lake region. The jihadist group has exploited the history, the physical and human geography and the economic dynamism of this distinctive lake environment, finding – like others before – both a refuge from the pressure exerted by the region’s national armies and a financial windfall. Boko Haram has also been able to draw on support, albeit often sporadic, among local communities that are sometimes competing with each other and have a history of resisting external attempts to impose a political authority.[fn]Christian Seignobos, “Boko Haram et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2015/3).Hide Footnote The geographical, linguistic, religious and cultural proximity of Nigeria’s Borno state – which each year attracts large numbers of Chadian immigrants – has facilitated its recruitment and the extension of the conflict to the Chadian shores of the lake. However, subsequent chapters will show how the military response by states in the region and, above all, the absence of a broad-based social constituency for Boko Haram in Chad, limited this expansion.

A. A Complex History of Human Settlement

Lake Chad, whose shrinking, allegedly caused by global warning, is already under scrutiny, now faces a new threat, having become the arena for a conflict between the bordering states and Boko Haram – with the local population caught in the middle. The history of human settlement in this area helps to explain how the jihadist group established itself.[fn]On 28 January 2017, Ségolène Royal, French environment minister, signed an agreement on the rehabilitation and restoration of the Lake Chad ecosystems and announced €1 million in aid for the reforestation of the surrounding areas. “Tchad : une convention pour la sauvegarde du lac Tchad”, RFI, 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote Once subjected to military conquests, the Lake region has found itself accommodating economic and environmental migrants, and armed insurrections have sometimes developed there.

Historically, the Lake Chad basin, in its broad multi-country sense, has endured numerous invasions, motivated by a mix of religious ambitions, desire to impose political authority and to forcibly take control of the local economy. In this situation, the islands in the lake were places to both live and take refuge for populations insubordinate to political authorities, such as the Kouri and the Buduma (also known as Yédina), who account for the majority of island residents.[fn]Géraud Magrin, Jacques Lemoalle, Roland Pourtier, “Atlas du lac Tchad”, Passages, no. 183, 2015; and Christian Bouquet, Insulaires et riverains du lac Tchad, PhD thesis, vol. 1 & 2 (Paris, 1991).Hide Footnote Although they were willing to accept the arrival of new population groups, they persistently resisted the external influence of the Kanem, Kanem-Bornou and Baguirmi pre-colonial empires. During the colonial era, these populations often refused to merge their villages to facilitate tax collection.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Buduma parliamentarian, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Even today, this desire for autonomy persists. Islanders fall under the authority of neither the “Alifa” of Mao – whose purview ends at the shores of the lake – nor the emir of Maiduguri, capital of the Nigerian federal state of Borno; their sense of belonging to a nation state is weak.[fn]The Alifa is the sultan of Mao, the capital of the Kanem region, which is adjacent to the Lake region; nearby is Njimi, formerly the capital of the Kanem kingdom. Crisis Group interviews, Buduma and Kouri inhabitants, Baga Sola and Bol, April 2016.Hide Footnote Having long resisted forcible conversion, the Buduma only adopted Islam at the beginning of the twentieth century, eight centuries after the Kanem Empire had built its own political project around this religion. They are regarded by neighbouring communities as having an inauthentic practice of Islam, but sometimes accused of complicity with Boko Haram and stigmatised for that reason.

The lake’s recent history is characterised by population mixing. In the twentieth century, its resources attracted new settlers – which fuelled economic growth but also sparked competition for control of the islands and the areas subject to seasonal flooding, a tendency that has been exacerbated by the current conflict. From Hausa migration to the Nigerian shores of the lake in the early twentieth century to the arrival of fishermen from southern Chad or West Africa some decades later, many communities were drawn to the lake, transforming it into an ethnic and cultural mosaic.

Starting with the great drought of the 1970s and the process of contraction into the “small lake”, the region found itself hosting new economic refugees. These included farmers and Chadian, Arab, Fulani and Kreda and even Nigerien Toubous livestock herders, who altered their transhumance routes in search of grazing.[fn]The “big lake” became the “medium-sized lake” in the 1950s and eventually, in 1973, the “small lake”, made up of several expanses of water separated by shallows, including the Grande Barrière (“Big Divider”) between the two geographical basins. “Boko Haram et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation ?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote With the water level sinking, new islands have appeared and seasonal fishing camps have become villages, inhabited by local people but also government officials and soldiers.[fn]This factor played a role in the 1980s frontier disputes between Cameroon and Nigeria over the island of Darak, and between Nigeria and Chad near Baga Kawa. Abdouraman Halirou, “Le conflit frontalier Cameroun-Nigeria dans le lac Tchad: les enjeux de l’île de Darak, disputée et partagée”, Cultures & Conflits, no. 72 (2008). In 2000, Chadian soldiers also temporarily occupied Cameroonian islands north of Darak.Hide Footnote Over the past 40 years, due to this “race to the lake”, the net migration rate has been strongly positive in the region. The small lake, which had 700,000 inhabitants in 1976, is today home to about 2.2 million – 13 million with the surrounding countryside – set to reach three million in 2025.[fn]“Atlas du lac Tchad”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Successive armed opposition groups have chosen to base themselves in Chad’s Lake region, even though the area is barely politicised and has little history of dissent. In 1978, the “third army” (or “Forces armées occidentales”) – a strand of the National Liberation Front of Chad (Front de libération nationale du Tchad, FROLINAT) – and later the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Chad (Mouvement populaire pour la libération du Tchad, MPLT) established itself in the area, supported by rear bases on the Nigerian shore.[fn]Marielle Debos, Le métier des armes au Tchad. Le gouvernement de l’entre-guerres (Paris, 2013).Hide Footnote Some of their senior figures, native to the area, recruited numerous fighters from lakeside communities and from the Kanem region. After Déby took power in 1990, supporters of the former president, Hissène Habré, grouped in the Movement for the Defence of Democracy (Mouvement pour la défense de la démocratie, MDD), also tried to establish a foothold in the marshy areas of the lake, beyond the Grande Barrière.[fn]Anne-Charlotte Goupil, “Etude sur le contexte social, économique, historique de la région du Lac au Tchad”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February 2016. Crisis Group interview, former senior figure in a rebellion in the lake area, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Finally defeated by the Chadian army in the mid-1990s, some of its fighters were absorbed into the Chadian army, while others fled to Nigeria. Today the leaders of the successive rebellions that developed around the lake are no longer a threat to the regime.[fn]Some figures, such as the leader of the MDD, Moussa Medela, obtained positions of responsability. Crisis Group interview, former senior figure in a rebellion in the lake area, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Trafficking and Violent Raiding

In part basing itself on the smuggling networks that operate across the lake, Boko Haram has repeatedly raided local communities and traders. This is just the latest episode in the region’s long history of such attacks – which have not only made their perpetrators rich but also boosted their social status.[fn]In past times, praise-songs in the Kanem-Bornou Empire glorified looters, who were regarded as heroic figures. Le métier des armes au Tchad, op. cit., p. 50-51.Hide Footnote And even today, such kudos, which earns its holders the chance to choose a wife, is certainly one of the factors that encourage people to join Boko Haram or ally themselves with it.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, op. cit.Hide Footnote A number of sources report that, during their rest breaks, fighters often talk about marriage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and a former hostage held by Boko Haram, Minawao and Yaoundé (Cameroon), March, April 2016. Crisis Group Briefing, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Until the end of the nineteenth century, some local communities took refuge on the lake’s islands to escape raiding by sultanates and empires in the region, particularly those seeking to capture slaves. Arms traders also led military expeditions into the area, sometimes combined with religious proselytisation.[fn]This is exemplified by Arab businessmen such as the Awlad Suleyman, who moved from Libya to the northern shore of the lake, seeking to get control of the local economy. Le métier des armes au Tchad, op. cit.Hide Footnote The last few decades have seen smaller scale attacks staged by islanders, concealed in the reedbeds, mainly seeking to steal livestock or fishing boats. Such activities have been facilitated by the way some island communities have organised themselves around local warlords, called kella, who are able to agree on a carve-up of areas to target in raids.[fn]“Boko Haram et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

At the end of the colonial era, the dynamism of the economy and the limited local presence of the state, encouraged trafficking in fuel, medicines, drugs, weapons, identity documents and people. Customs officials were sometimes complicit, thus fostering the emergence of alternative illicit sources of authority.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The lake’s topography, its distinctive vegetation and the difficulty of navigating its labyrinth of islands also helped smuggling to flourish.

Moreover, the past 30 years have seen a intense growth in the activity of highway robbers (zarginas) – a reflection of the fact that pastoralists have become poorer, due to the drought, while successive Chadian civil wars have flooded the region with weapons. Many former Chadian rebels or soldiers – sometimes both simultaneously – became highway bandits before making their skills available to Boko Haram. Among them is Mustapha Chad, presumed to be a former Chadian soldier, whom some sources believe led the Boko Haram attack on Gwoza in Borno state in August 2014.[fn]“A Sectarian Jihad in Nigeria”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Some Chadian prisoners suspected of being members of the sect say that they had also served in the Chad National Army (ANT).[fn]Crisis Group interview, prison staff, Maroua (Cameroon), March 2016.Hide Footnote Boko Haram has managed to associate with or even incorporate some trafficking or bandit groups in order to get supplies or sell off what it seizes.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. Economic Attractiveness but Political Neglect

Boko Haram’s success in establishing itself on the lake and its recruitment of youths with few prospects despite the area’s economic dynamism cast a harsh light on the shortcomings of the region’s states in dealing with their peripheral areas. The economic attractiveness of the lake and its resources have created a trading hub, contrasting with the inadequacy and unreliability of the lakeshore national governments’ public policies.

In Nigeria, the development policies of the 1970s and 1980s, such as major irrigation schemes like the old Baga Polder Project, created many jobs, particularly for Chadian migrants, yet had only limited success.[fn]Insulaires et riverains du lac Tchad, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Niger, and even more in Cameroon, the lake was regarded as a remote border area until the 1990s. In Niger, despite the construction of a road linking Diffa and N’Guigmi in 1975, it was not until the end of the 1990s that the state reestablished a serious presence in the Komadougou area – a result both of its proximity to Agadem oil fields and the accession to power of Mamadou Tandja, Niger’s president from 1999 to 2010, who has a stronghold near Diffa.[fn]Jacques Lemoalle, Géraud Magrin (eds.), Le développement du lac Tchad : situation actuelle et futurs possibles (Marseille, 2014).Hide Footnote Today, although Diffa is much better equipped and richer than many other towns in Niger, the Nigerien villages near the lake remain marginalised. In Cameroon, the Far North region became a focus of attention only recently, particularly because of the growth in highway banditry.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The Lake Chad area is not, in geographical terms, a remote border area for N’Djamena, as is the case in neighbouring countries – and more than half of the lake’s surface area lies within Chad’s territorial frontiers.[fn]N’Djamena is about 100km away from the lake and less than 350km away from Bol, the regional capital.Hide Footnote Often known as “N’Djamena’s garden”, the lake and its polders (agricultural fringes) supply the city with fish and agricultural products. The headquarters of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), which has official responsibility for managing the lake’s resources, are in N’Djamena. And yet, the lake has some characteristics of a peripheral area, far from the centres of power. It was not until October 2015, after the attacks on Baga Sola, on the lakeshore, that Chad’s president visited the lake for the first time in his life.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Having not been greatly affected by the civil wars, being little politicised and having produced few members of the Chadian elites, Lake Chad has largely stayed off the radar of successive regimes. While the Rally for Democracy and Progress (Rassemblement pour la démocratie et le progrès, RDP) of former President Lol Mahamat Choua still wins the votes of many Kanembu in Mao and on the shores of the lake, it is not regarded as a political threat by the central government and it allied itself with President Déby’s party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (Mouvement patriotique du Salut, MPS), in the last presidential election. Moreover, two of the six members of the National Assembly from the Lake region are affiliated to the RDP and the other four to the MPS. Local elites from the lake area do not have much representation in N’Djamena.[fn]The fisheries minister, the representative in Chad of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (Cemac) and the Action for the Republic, Democracy and Development (Action pour la République, la démocratie et le développement, ARD) party’s leader and former presidential candidate all come from the region but have little influence over regime decision-making. Bol district’s leader has held a number of ministerial and ambassador posts, but his relations with the administration have not always been smooth and he has reportedly been removed from his post. Crisis Group interviews, Buduma member of the National Assembly, N’Djamena, September 2016; traditional authorities in the lake area and Chadian military intelligence official, April 2016.Hide Footnote

The extent to which the Chadian state has shown interest in the lake has fluctuated considerably. In the 1960s, it made a serious commitment, creating the Lake Chad Development Company (Société de développement du lac Tchad, Sodelac) and building polders.[fn]The Sodelac is a state enterprise which since 1967 has been involved in the development of farmland and irrigation projects in the Lake region.Hide Footnote But the 1970s civil wars, combined with the impact of structural adjustment programs, substantially reduced available project funding and just a few donors continued to fund the Sodelac, notably its work on irrigation.[fn]Christian Bouquet, “Le lac Tchad, un indicateur plus complexe qu’il n’y paraît”, The Conversation, 11 December 2015.Hide Footnote In the 1980s, with the help of the UN, Hissène Habré launched an integrated project to develop road infrastructure and a seed farm, but these initiatives once again came to nothing due to security problems.

The growth in oil revenues from 2007 onwards brought about change. While the state poured resources into infrastructure development in N’Djamena, Abéché and other major cities, some places around the lake also benefitted, albeit to a modest degree. Thus, to accompany an unfulfilled devolution scheme, infrastructure projects (such as a secondary school and a hospital) were launched in Ngouri, which had been made the centre of local administration, Bol and Guitté.[fn]Le développement du lac Tchad : situation actuelle et futurs possibles, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Despite the area’s economic dynamism, access to public services is poor, and far below the national average. The gross school enrolment rate in the Chadian lake area is below 30 per cent and “community teachers” – in other words, the parents of pupils – generally have to stand in, in place of trained teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, development officer, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote There is only one doctor for every 140,000 inhabitants, which is only a quarter of the national average.[fn]This is much less than in Cameroon’s Far North region (1/52,000) or Niger’s Diffa region (1/24,500), both close to the lake. Le développement du lac Tchad : situation actuelle et futurs possibles, op. cit.Hide Footnote As a border area politically divided between four distinct states, the lake has not become an integrated whole for the purpose of providing the inhabitants with services – and this partly explains why local people pay little heed to their national capitals.

Island populations’ distant, even mistrustful, relationship to the states, and very low rates of literacy, have certainly helped Boko Haram to recruit and indoctrinate in the lake area. In these regions deprived of public services, the group has managed to appear attractive. According to a recent study carried out in Nigeria, many young people, including women, felt that the group offers “unique opportunities” in providing access to Islamic education and a degree of social power.[fn]“Motivations and empty promises. Voices of former Boko Haram combatants and Nigerian youth”, Mercy Corps, April 2016. Crisis Group Report, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, op. cit.Hide Footnote

D. The Lake in the Orbit of Nigeria’s Borno State: Emigration, Trade and Influence

The porous nature of borders in a region that has long been in Nigeria’s orbit facilitated the extension of the Boko Haram threat to the Chadian shores of the lake.[fn]“All the countries of French influence in central Africa will inevitably find themselves dragged into the orbit of Bornu and Benue, a true commercial pathway that imports will inevitably take”. D’Huart, “Le Tchad et ses habitants. Notes de géographie physique et humaine,” La Géographie, vol. 9, 15 March 1904, pp. 161-176.Hide Footnote In cultural terms, the lake forms part of what used to be the Kanem-Bornou Empire and the political organisation, language and customs of the Kanembu in Chad are very similar to those of the Nigerian Kanuri.[fn]“Boko Haram et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The Chadian lakeshores and islands’ economy is heavily oriented toward Maiduguri – the epicentre of Boko Haram in Nigeria; the city serves as both a commercial hub and a religious and cultural centre for many Chadian migrants.

A. Economic emigration and trade relations

For many years, inhabitants on the Chadian shore of the lake have looked more to Maiduguri than to N’Djamena. Islanders use the Naira, Nigeria’s currency. Many Buduma, Kouri and Kanembu have a limited sense of national identity – and only express it on rare occasions.[fn]An exception was in 1983, when the island populations did express a sense of national identity during clashes between Chadian and Nigerian soldiers on the lake.Hide Footnote They are used to moving across the border freely, in response to climate hazards or economic opportunities and they often possess identity documents from several lakeshore states. For many young Chadians in the region, the journey to Nigeria is crucial to build up savings and a marriage dowry. Numerous Chadian Buduma have worked as cattle herders on the Nigerian side of the lake, earning money to buy their own animals before returning home to get married.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, inhabitants of Lake Chad, Baga Sola, Bol, September 2015, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Climatic and economic migration reached peak levels during the great droughts of the 1970s. In search of grazing land, many Chadian pastoralists crossed the lake’s northern basin to reach the Nigeria-Niger borderlands. In this same period, some Buduma fishermen settled for several months of the year in Baga Kawa on the Nigerian shore to fish and sell their catches, adapting to fluctuations in water levels. And many Kanembu from the Chadian shore sought work in the ports or landing points – baga in Kanembu or Kanuri – in Nigeria: Baga Kawa, Malam-Fatori and Woulgo.[fn]Between 1973 and 1975, many young men from Bol arrived in Baga Kawa seeking jobs. Information about this phenomenon was collected at the time by “fatoma” – hoteliers of Chadian origin who accommodate fishermen. Insulaires et riverains du lac Tchad, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The clashes between Boko Haram and the region’s armies have caused serious damage to these ports, which were revenue collection points for the jihadist group and demonstrations of its territorial control.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military expert, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote In January 2015, its attack on Baga Kawa – one of the main Borno lakeside markets that it had previously controlled – left 2,000 dead and forced many Chadians and Nigerians to flee across the lake.[fn]“Nigéria : un raid de Boko Haram fait plus de 2000 morts”, La Dépêche (, 10 January 2015.Hide Footnote More generally, the Islamist group’s attacks on the Nigerian shore, and the sometimes violent counter-insurgency strikes by the region’s armies, have led to massive population displacement, thus helping the conflict spread across the lake and on to the Chadian shore.

B. Borno state, a “boarding school” for many Chadians

Religious education has also been a factor behind the migration of many young Chadians to Borno state. For many years, Chadian children and young men have gone to study in Maiduguri, the cultural and religious centre of the region. This trend has been particularly marked among the communities that live on the shores or islands of Lake Chad.

From the 1960s onwards, Quran schools attracted more pupils – even for classes in the open air, sometimes sitting on the ground – than public schools, which were few in number and tended to be headed by Christians from the country’s south. Young Kanembu learnt the Quran from a mallum – a teacher or spiritual guide – in the island towns of Nguéléa, near Baga Sola, Liwa in the north east of the lake, in many small villages or even further afield, in Mao.[fn]Insulaires et riverains du lac Tchad, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Many of these youths subsequently set off for Maiduguri or Monguno – also in Borno – to continue the next stage of their studies in changaï, higher Quran schools.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote They thus spent several years in Nigeria on a journey that often resembled a rite of passage: “You have to study far from home and then come back later”, said a Baga Sola resident.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Chadian who had gone to study in Maiduguri, Baga Sola, April 2016.Hide Footnote These paths often combined religious learning with survival economics, particularly begging. In Baga Sola and Bol, recollections of childhood departure to Quran schools in Borno are legion: “When I was younger, a Chadian religious teacher collected us; we were 40 Chadian children, and we went to spend three years studying in Maiduguri. We had to beg people for money and food. Then my teacher wanted to come home so we came back”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The population explosion that got underway in the 1970s in the Lake region and the absence of government policies to deal with the impact of this demographic growth fuelled the pace of departures to Nigeria. While the vast majority of children who left to study in Borno returned to Chad without incident, some were exposed to the preaching of ulema close to Boko Haram, either within or outside Quran schools. Others had to flee or were repatriated when the Nigerian army intervened. In 2009 and 2012, hundreds of Chadian children fled to Ngouboua in Chad, having been expelled from Quran schools in Borno state, or because their villages had been “burnt down by Nigerian soldiers”.[fn]“Des centaines de migrants tchadiens fuient le Nigéria”, RFI, 29 February 2012.Hide Footnote

III. Evolution of the Boko Haram Threat in Chad

For many years, Boko Haram’s activity was mainly concentrated in Nigeria’s Borno state, its historic stronghold. But since early 2014, the threat has become regional, and attacks on civilians and military positions have multiplied in northern Cameroon since March 2014 and in southern Niger and western Chad since early 2015.

The arrival of Boko Haram in Chad is often dated back to 12 February 2015, the day of the terrorist group’s first attack on Ngouboua, on the shore of Lake Chad. But this statement should be nuanced. Chad had not been specifically targeted until the country decided to join the war in January 2015, in alliance with its neighbours (see the following chapter). This casus belli brought an end to the tacit non-aggression pact between Boko Haram and Chad and was very quickly followed by Shekau’s declarations of war: “Kings of Africa, I challenge you to attack me now; I am ready”.[fn]“Boko Haram : Shekau menace Déby, Biya et Issoufou”, Jeune Afrique, 21 January 2015.Hide Footnote However, Boko Haram’s strategy of establishing itself on Lake Chad was not new. Since 2013, its fighters had been moving around the lake using Baga Kawa as a support base, helped by outboard motorboat operators familiar with the lake waters.

A. Early Signs of Boko Haram’s Presence in Chad

Before 2010, the growth of Boko Haram in Maiduguri did not affect N’Dja­me­na or the other big cities in northern and eastern Chad, characterised by very different cultures and the predominant use of Arabic. Thus, right up to today, neither the “classic” Chadian armed opposition nor the fundamentalist or purist Islamic associations – whose relations with the state are far from easy – have sought to politicise the phenomenon or take advantage of it.[fn]Furthermore, reputedly Wahhabi associations like Ansar al Suna Muhamadiya – which still has a presence on the Chadian shore of the lake, despite being suspended by the authorities – have taken clear positions against Boko Haram, an attitude that echoes the wider condemnatory stance of other Chadian fundamentalist groups. Crisis Group Report, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Yet, from the early 2000’s onwards, Kanuri and Bornouan living in N’Djamena were listening to the sermons of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohamed Yusuf, on audio cassettes. Some even posted stickers of his image on their cars. And his Chadian disciples regularly preached in the capital.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, religious leaders, university academics, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote Yusuf was violently critical of the Nigerian state, sometimes even calling for armed struggle.[fn]Elodie Apard, “Les mots de Boko Haram. Décryptages de discours de Mohammed Yusuf et d’Abubakar Shekau”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2015).Hide Footnote But in N’Djamena, his listeners were also seeking a linguistic echo: “It did us good to hear the word of God in our own language”, said a Kanuri religious leader.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kanuri religious leader, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote Religion has communal and linguistic hooks that help get a hearing in wider society.

Boko Haram’s change of course, embarking on armed struggle – which helped to bring about Yusuf’s death in 2009 and continued afterwards – had a fundamental impact on the attitude of its followers in Chad. Many Bornouans in N’Djamena threw away their cassettes, fearing arrest. “When you mention Yusuf’s name today people are afraid”, a Kanuri academic recently admitted, adding: “And as for Shekau [who became the leader of Boko Haram] no one has ever listened to him; he’s a bloodthirsty brute”. [fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote After Boko Haram’s attacks on N’Djamena in June and July 2015, there was a surge in the searches and arrests targeting Kanuri, Hausa and Bornouans, which created a deep sense of exclusion. Some individuals are still in jail, while others have been released only recently.[fn]Although the atmosphere of suspicion has since dissipated, youths feel frustrated and complain that people are jumping to conclusions: “What happens in Nigeria is nothing to do with us”, said one. In 2015, religious leaders launched awareness campaigns to defuse these tensions. Crisis Group interviews, Kanuri youths, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Witness accounts, sometimes second hand, mention religious proselytising, telephone ringtones that quote radical sermons and the sale of videos on Chadian island markets even before 2014-2015.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian actors and lake residents, Baga Sola, Bol, April 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, Boko Haram has long had Chadian members. For several years, some Chadians have been monitored by neighbouring countries’ intelligence services and, since 2011, some have been jailed, particularly in Maroua prison.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, op. cit.Hide Footnote More recently, in June 2016, many Chadian fighters reportedly took part in the offensive against Bosso in Niger.

B. From an Active Conflict in Chad to a more Diffuse Threat

Accustomed to rebellions fuelled by ethno-regional factors, Chad has had to confront a new kind of security threat since 2015. The first jihadist attacks on its soil took place just days after the Chadian army launched its intervention against Boko Haram in neighbouring countries (see the following Section). Throughout 2015, the group staged repeated raids on lakeshore villages; it carried out suicide attacks in N’Djamena in June and July 2015 and in Baga Sola in October 2015, killing several hundred civilians over the course of that year. Many islanders were abducted, as in Litri and Kaoudjiram in September 2015. Around 100 soldiers were killed in ambushes and in fighting against Boko Haram in the Lake region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security experts, N’Djamena, April 2016.Hide Footnote

But 2016 saw a major improvement in the security situation on the Chadian shore of the lake. The country suffered less than its neighbours from Boko Haram’s activities, which is explained both by the military’s strategy of containment and by the relatively recent and weaker nature of the jihadist group’s influence on local society in Chad. It has never controlled any territory in the country, nor established a real social base, and it has not carried out any spectacular attacks there since those in Guitté and Mittériné in early 2016.[fn]“Des attentats-suicides meurtriers attribués à Boko Haram ont frappé le Tchad et le Nigéria”, France 24, 1 February 2016.Hide Footnote The deployment of both substantial military assets from the Chadian contingent of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) near the frontiers in the lake area, and the Chadian National Army (ANT) on the lakeshore significantly curbed the expansion of the conflict. However, the closure of the border, combined with the implementation of the state of emergency, has restricted trade – and this has had a major impact on the population (see Section V.A., below). Moreover, the group frequently infiltrates Chad and local people continue to pay the price.

Despite recent improvements, the threat posed by Boko Haram is not fully under control. While attacks in Chad mainly affected the southern basin of the lake in 2015 and early 2016, since mid-2016 they have been concentrated in an area encompassing Kaiga Kindjiria, Bohoma and Tchoukoutalia in the northern basin, targeting both civilians and the military.[fn]The last armed incursions were carried out in January 2017 in Todoubia and Djinjalla, not far from Bohoma and Tchoukoutalia, causing several deaths. Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian actor, September 2016.
Hide Footnote
From July until September 2016, they even increased slightly, mainly as a result of the MNJTF Operation Gama Aiki. Feeling the heat of the offensives mounted by the region’s armies in Nigeria and Niger, groups of individuals fled to Chad. Suspected members of Boko Haram arrested in the town of Liwa in September 2016 said they had fled from Nigerian army bombardments on the other side of the frontier.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Operation Rawan Kada (dance of the crocodile) has just been launched as a follow up to Operation Gama Aiki, so one can expect more Boko Haram fighters infiltrating into Chad and therefore an upsurge in incidents in the coming weeks.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, February 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2016, there was also a sharp increase in livestock thefts around the lakeshore, particularly between Liwa and Daboua. Several thousand heads of cattle were stolen in the past six months, some of which may have been sold off on markets in Nigeria and Niger, where prices are higher.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote This represents considerable economic capital. To combat this trafficking, the authorities in Daboua have reportedly asked Chadian traders to monitor and control the arrival of herds from Chad on Niger’s border markets.[fn]A similar initiative was launched by the government, this time in the Cameroonian border markets neighbouring CAR, where many Chadian cattle stolen by the Anti-Balaka militia were being sold.Hide Footnote Although Boko Haram was soon blamed for these thefts, some are probably the result of normal criminality or activities that blend the two.

The possibility of head-on conventional clashes between the Chadian army and Boko Haram – like those experienced by Niger and Nigeria – is limited at present. Even so, the risk of suicide attacks on the lake and even in N’Djamena is still taken seriously by the authorities. Rumours of planned attacks during national day festivities and the swearing in of President Déby, on 8 August 2016, caused widespread fear and security arrangements were strengthened. While a number of Boko Haram sleeper cells in the capital have been dismantled, it remains possible that members of the sect, or sympathisers, have “gone underground”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military expert, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Boko Haram still has the ability to sustain a guerrilla campaign and carry out one-off attacks.

In the aftermath of the major offensive carried out by Nigerian forces in late 2016 in the Sambisa forest – one of Boko Haram’s traditional bastions –[fn]Nigéria : Boko Haram délogé de Sambisa”, BBC Afrique, 24 December 2016.Hide Footnote and with the governments of the region launching a new joint military operation around Lake Chad, the jihadist group is in retreat. Yet it has hitherto demonstrated an ability to adjust to the changing nature of state response, alternating asymmetric combat, suicide attacks and larger scale assaults – like the June 2016 offensive against Bosso, in Niger. The much greater coherence of the response by governments in the region has certainly taken its toll on Boko Haram, but experience shows that the group – like other jihadist movements – is highly adaptable. With a network that extends across a vast area, it would not be destroyed by an ultimate military battle. At the very least, Boko Haram still has the ability to sustain a guerrilla campaign and carry out one-off attacks.

But the reverses the movement suffered in 2015 and 2016 have thrown light on latent internal divisions. Two main factions have developed, one led by Abubakar Shekau and the other backing Mohamed Yusuf’s own son, Abu Musab al-Barnawi – who seems to enjoy a privileged relationship with the Islamic State (ISIS). These two factions are tussling for the allegiance and control of the key hubs in the jihadist network, a rivalry that can turn violent. Al-Barnawi appears to have imposed his influence in the area of the lake where the three frontiers converge as well as on the Chadian shore, even though some groups continue to operate autonomously there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military expert, N’Djamena, September 2016; and Crisis Group Africa Report, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, op. cit.Hide Footnote He has allegedly received some resources from ISIS and he is trying to overhaul the way Boko Haram functions. For the past few months, he has been toning down and curbing the use of violence against civilians; recently, he has concentrated his attacks – which are on a smaller scale than in the past – on military targets, attacking security force convoys in an attempt to capture equipment and weapons.[fn]Some groups close to al-Barnawi are reported to have recently switched their focus to the Alagarno forest in Borno state and the surroundings of the Komadougou river. Security document consulted by Crisis Group, February 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Surrender and Return to the Chadian Shore

Since 2016, the states of the Lake Chad region have reconquered some areas that Boko Haram had had a hold on and the number of its members who surrender has increased. In Chad, some elements of the group had already given themselves up to the authorities between January and March 2016, but since the end of July 2016, this trend has gathered pace, with the surrender of more than 1,000 people, of whom a majority are women and children.

At present, around 300 men are still thought to be in the internment camps near Baga Sola, while the women and children, who formed the majority of the inmates, have been sent back to their home communities without incident and under the supervision of district administrators. To facilitate their social reintegration, the governor of the Lake region has called on all communities to welcome these women – several of whom have said their husbands are still on the front line.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote The people concerned are mainly Chadians who crossed the borders from Niger and Nigeria to turn themselves in at the advance command posts of the Chadian MNJTF force on the lake, including Kaiga Ngouboua and Kaiga Kindjiria, and at Madai in Nigeria; the majority is thought to have returned to Bol district. “What matters here is to recuperate the broad mass of people who periodically give a hand to Boko Haram or who have been sucked into the vortex in spite of their better instincts”, said a military expert.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Several sources believe the explanation for these movements of people lies in the success of the region’s armies in “retaking control of some islands” – which sparked a retreat by Boko Haram and enabled these populations to take flight and hand themselves in. Others suggest that this military pressure affected the flow of supplies to the group and pushed it to release civilians and helpers who had become too much of a burden.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, researchers, security expert, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Whatever the real reason, one should remain extremely cautious about these explanations and the reasons why people have returned and surrendered. Unicef, the Lake Region Office for Social Programs (Délégation régionale de l’action sociale au lac) and NGOs have registered some of those who have arrived, carried out awareness campaigns and transferred some children to a centre for transit and guidance in Bol.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian actor, February 2017.Hide Footnote However, the next Section shows that so far, Chadian authorities have struggled to develop a real strategy to deal with these new arrivals, and particularly the men.

IV. The Government’s Response across the Lake

The presence of armed Islamist groups like Boko Haram is relatively new to Chad, although for a time the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, GSPC) had its eye on the north of the country.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the report Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, Crisis Group described both the state response to this unprecedented threat – reinforced security measures, updated intelligence techniques, new legal arsenal and tighter controls over religious activity – and the risks associated with this counter-terrorism policy. In this Section, Crisis Group seeks to analyse Chad’s rather tardy military engagement in the struggle against Boko Haram and its limits, as well as the use of community security techniques to deal with this new type of threat.

A. An Initial Neutral Stance

In 2010, Chad expressed concern about the expansion of Boko Haram activities on its territory.[fn]“Nigeria exports many members of the Boko Haram sect to Chad, fleeing army repression”. Crisis Group telephone interview, officer of the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (Direction de surveillance du territoire, the security service), January 2011. In the early 2000s, Islamist preachers from Borno, accompanied by an Italian imam, had already aroused Chadian authorities’ mistrust; eventually they were arrested in Chad and extradited. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, N’Dja­me­na, September 2016.Hide Footnote However, until early 2015, the country held back in military terms; it was more worried about other threats and the consequences of the chaos in Libya.[fn]Idriss Déby’s first acts after his investiture for a fifth term in August 2016 – a visit to the Tibesti region adjacent to the Libyan border, receiving a visit from the Libyan General Haftar and the expulsion of Libyan embassy staff – show that the Libya issue remains high on his list of priorities. For more information about General Haftar, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°170, The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Although they formed part of the LCBC regional force in 2012 as the conflict developed in Nigeria, Chadian troops, few in number on the lake, were not actually involved.[fn]In Yaoundé in April 2014, the region’s defence ministers and military chiefs of staff decided to establish a multinational joint task force in the lake area.Hide Footnote Absent from the military arena, Déby was asked by Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan to make use of his good offices to organise a meeting between senior Nigerian officials and representatives of Boko Haram in N’Djamena, in October 2014.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Everyone expected that it would lead to the release of the Chibok girls – the Nigerian authorities even announced it prematurely.[fn]“Accord entre Boko Haram et le Nigéria”, BBC, 17 October 2014.Hide Footnote In the end, Chinese hostages were released in northern Cameroon, but it is not clear whether this was as a result of the Chadian mediation. The talks were made public by the media, causing the de facto breakdown of this channel of communication. Shekau declared that those who had negotiated in Boko Haram’s name were not its legitimate representatives. Déby felt bitter about this and subsequently told the press: “I had advised President Goodluck against opening negotiations with a terrorist group”.[fn]“Tchad – Idriss Déby : ‘Il faut mettre en place la force multinationale’”, Le Point, 26 March 2015. Yet researchers say that a year later, Déby presented Mahamat Daoud – then regarded as the leader of a Boko Haram faction, a rival to Shekau and someone ready to negotiate – to Nigeria’s new President Buhari. But his name does not appear in Boko Haram’s “Shura” (executive council). “A Sectarian Jihad in Nigeria”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The failure of the negotiations and Chad’s initial wait-and-see stance toward Boko Haram engendered mistrust among senior Nigerian officers and politicians, with some accusing the country of indulgence. The construction, in central N’Djamena, of the house of the former governor of Borno state, Ali Modu Sheriff, and his relationships with the former Chadian transport minister and various dignitaries, which were not well regarded by neighbouring countries, fuelled this mistrust. Sheriff became an embarrassment for the government and was finally expelled from Chad in 2015.[fn]For more information on Sheriff and his relations with Boko Haram, see Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, former adviser at the Chadian presidency, September 2016.Hide Footnote

B. A Gradual Involvement as Neighbours Ask for the Support of the Chadian Military Machine

In January 2015, a week after Cameroon’s President Paul Biya appealed for “international solidarity”, a large number of Chadian troops entered Cameroon, while others went to Niger, signalling a major shift in Chad’s stance toward Boko Haram. These interventions, which heavily altered the balance of military strength in neighbouring countries, probably dispelled Nigerian doubts.

Several factors lay behind this change in Chadian attitudes. On the security front, Boko Haram’s October 2014 seizure of Baga Kawa, a Nigerian border settlement, served as an electric shock, warning that danger was near. But above all, the group’s activities were seriously disrupting economic relations with Nigeria and Cameroon, and fuelling Chad’s underlying fear that its routes to the sea could be cut, hurting its ability to export and, above all, to import food and manufactures.[fn]Saïbou Issa, Ethnicité, frontières et stabilité aux confins du Cameroun, du Nigéria et du Tchad (Paris, 2012).Hide Footnote Its intervention against Boko Haram also helped N’Djamena consolidate alliances with Western powers and secure additional international funding. In a situation of serious economic crisis, Chad once again played the military diplomacy card.[fn]Chad reached the completion point of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) in 2015, after a decision by the Bretton Woods institutions that was a lot more political than economic. The country also benefitted from debt cancellation and budget aid accorded by its main multilateral donors and, recently, France. Moreover, Saudi Arabia provided substantial financial support after Chad joined the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, N’Djamena, May 2016.Hide Footnote

In late January 2015, Chadian soldiers based in Fotokol, Maltam and Mora in Cameroon’s Far North staged a first offensive on Nigerian territory, in Gambaru. While neighbouring states were doing no more than hold Boko Haram at bay at their borders, Chad was the only one to have a right of hot pursuit into Nigeria. A few days later, other Chadian troops set off for Bosso, in Niger, where they confronted Boko Haram before moving into Nigerian territory, this time alongside the Nigerien forces, for a “clean-up operation” in the north of Borno state.

The Nigerian army’s inability to control the “liberated” areas, particularly the towns of Damasak and Malam Fatori, and the lack of joint military operations and intelligence cooperation frustrated Chadian authorities, who were highly critical of their neighbour and of President Goodluck Jonathan. The May 2015 election of Muhammadu Buhari as president of Nigeria changed the political context and, by extension, the degree of military cooperation between the two countries. According to Chadian diplomats, the two presidents get on much better and it has become much easier to share intelligence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chadian diplomat, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Since pulling out of Niger and Cameroon in November 2015, Chadians have offered their services to neighbouring countries on several occasions. After Boko Haram’s attack on Bosso on 3 June 2016, the Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou, asked for Chad’s help. Déby agreed to send soldiers to Niger and Operation Gama Aiki was launched in mid-June. Just as they had done a year earlier, the first Chadian troops arrived in Bosso and together with Nigerien forces, mounted joint offensives along the banks of the River Komadougou.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military expert, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Although they have sometimes been criticised by local people, some military personnel and parliamentarians in neighbouring countries, Chad’s interventions against Boko Haram have reinforced its standing as the region’s gendarme. In 2015, the MNJTF headquarters was transferred to N’Djamena, which is also the command centre for France’s Operation Barkhane, thus reinforcing the role of Chad as a strategic military hub.[fn]Launched on 1 August 2014, to take over from the Operation Serval intervention against armed terrorist groups in Mali, the French Barkhane military force aims to sustain this campaign on a regional basis right across the breadth of the Sahel-Saharan area – and to encourage the countries of the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) to take responsibility for it.Hide Footnote The common threat and the share of resources has facilitated a diplomatic rapprochement with the governments of neighbouring countries. While Niamey was already regarded as an ally, Biya had been dismayed by Chad’s dabbling in the CAR and relations between Goodluck Jonathan and Déby had been notoriously difficult. The reaction to Boko Haram has changed the mood and improved regional perceptions of Chad and its president.

More broadly, Chad’s military interventionism was paralleled by important diplomatic advances. The late January 2017 election of Moussa Faki as head of the African Union Commission is only the most recent illustration of a steady progress toward regional domination which has seen Chad obtain strategic posts in numerous regional and international structures over the past few years.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. New Threat, Old Strategy: Community Security Arrangements

For many years, Idriss Déby has relied on traditional authorities to guard against unrest in areas where military presence is weak. As it happens, the armed forces have had a strong presence in the Lake region since 2015, but the lake environment and the nature of the terrorist threat – hitherto unknown in Chad – undermine the deployment’s effectiveness. Aware of these realities, the government, and the president have called on traditional chiefs and local people to take steps to strengthen security. N’Djamena has pursued a twin track approach toward the traditional authorities in the lake area, combining pressure and incentives, and calling for “vigilance” and cooperation with the state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Lake region inhabitants, Lake Chad, April 2016; Chadian politician, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote During the president’s visit to Baga Sola in October 2015, national and local authorities pressed for the establishment of a vigilante group in each village. This strategy has made it possible to collect intelligence and avoid attacks, but it does present some risks.

A. Traditional chiefs caught between a rock and a hard place

In 2015, traditional authorities were sandwiched between repeated threats from the Boko Haram leadership and pressure from the Chadian government administration and security forces; these pressures have since markedly eased off. In February 2015, for instance, the chief of Ngouboua district was targeted and killed when Boko Haram attacked the town.[fn]Boko Haram reportedly searched for the chief of Ngouboua district in the gendarmerie and finally killed him. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Others, such as the chief of Bol district, have received a number of telephone death threats from callers accusing them of “collaboration with the authorities”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lake area local authorities, Lake Chad, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Relationships between lake-area traditional authorities and N’Djamena have often been tinged with mutual suspicion.[fn]As early as 1991, several traditional chiefs in Kanem and the lake area were accused of paying taxes to the MDD and arrested. These arrests and the fear of a ferocious crackdown pushed community leaders in the region, led by the Sultan of Kanem, to declare their allegiance to the government.Hide Footnote After the attacks of early 2015, the former were accused of incompetence or complicity in failing to control their communities. Military authorities and the former governor of the Lake region put pressure on the chief of Bol district, who had reportedly housed a pregnant young woman suspected of having belonged to Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local notables, Lake Chad, April and October 2016.Hide Footnote Recently, he was even removed from his post, only to be reintegrated into society shortly afterwards.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Chadian researcher, February 2017.Hide Footnote

To avoid being viewed by the army as suspects, some lake area traditional chiefs and religious leaders told the local government administration they were ready to swear on the Quran that they had no links with Boko Haram.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Finally, in some places in a region that has become highly militarised, traditional chiefs who have customary responsibility for oversight of the fishing activity and land rights surrendered this role to the military. The latter adopt a distinctly parsimonious approach to the allocation of useful economic rights on the lake. The appointment of colonels from the president’s ethnic group, the Zaghawa, as sub-prefects for Ngouboua and Tchoukoutalia could further complicate the cohabitation with traditional authorities.[fn]Many members of the Zaghawa ethnic group, sometimes even from Déby’s bideyat sub-group, the Bilia, hold senior posts in the military hierarchy. Le métier des armes au Tchad, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In 2016, relations between traditional chiefs and the state administration noticeably improved. In November 2015, at the president’s behest, a forum was organised, bringing together traditional community leaders, political and religious authorities, with the aim of clarifying the role that each should play. Traditional chiefs have become de facto state informers – a role that is often far from comfortable but which they say they are willing to take on.[fn]Crisis Group interview, traditional authority, Lake Chad region, October 2016.Hide Footnote At the same time, the arrival at the end of 2015 of a new governor (Liwa), a native of the region who does not belong to the military, has reestablished a degree of confidence. Subsequently, district chiefs have even been closely involved in the process of bringing women and children who have surrendered back to their communities.

B. The creation of vigilante groups

The authorities have also encouraged the establishment of vigilante groups. In many villages in the area, these groups carry out searches at the entrance to markets, mosques and points of aid distribution, and inform the authorities about the presence of suspect individuals. Women carry out searches of other women.[fn]Crisis Group observations, markets in the villages of Andja and Lia 1 and 2, April 2016.Hide Footnote These volunteers, often armed only with whips, machetes and knives, have on several occasions managed to identify suspected members of Boko Haram planning attacks, like in January 2016 in Koulkilmé or late 2016 in Kaiga Kindjiria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of vigilante groups, Lake Chad, April 2016; humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote They also allegedly arrested and disarmed suspected members of the group in the villages of Tchoukoudoum and Koroum in December 2015.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

In contrast to their Nigerian counterparts, they do not carry out joint patrols with the security forces or receive vehicles; they are not paid much and they play little role in collective discussions and decision-making at community level. But the members of these groups gain social capital, through ceremonies when suspects are arrested and in reports by the Chadian media. The levels of remuneration they receive – which vary from place to place – are funded through collections from local residents and traders on market days and by the local authorities. Awareness of the role they play in the piecing together of intelligence has led to demands for better treatment; some have thus gone “on strike”, as in Bol in 2016, to secure more pay.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

This community-based approach to security and vigilance is very widely accepted by the population of the lake Chad area, but it does present long-term risks – notably that inter-communal tensions could fuel the emergence of local militias, as happened in the past in Nigeria and Niger, or the development of criminal activity, as in the Far North of Cameroon on several occasions. On the Chadian shore of the lake, the military authorities have reported a few instances in 2015 where members of the committees accused some people falsely, to settle personal scores.[fn]In Niger, these ethnically homogenous groups sometimes sit alongside or even overlap with tribal militias. In Cameroon, some set up barriers at the entrance to villages to impose levies and are sometimes suspected of facilitating the theft of stolen cattle. Crisis Group Reports, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, op. cit.; N°244, Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote

D. The Strategic Weaknesses of the Chadian Intervention

The smaller number of victims on the Chadian side of the lake could suggest that the strategy of containment is working. However, these operations also led to numerous abuses and evident weaknesses – which in 2015 caused substantial army losses and, against the context of serious economic problems, represent a considerable financial cost. Recently, the failure to pay bonuses to soldiers posted to the area reportedly led a few to defect.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote And although counter-insurgency campaigns by the region’s national armies – including Chadian operations in neighbouring countries – have weakened Boko Haram, they have sometimes been marred by extra-judicial killings and collateral damage. That has certainly pushed some civilians into joining the group to seek revenge or to protect themselves.[fn]“A Sectarian Jihad in Nigeria”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the initial strategy – emptying the lake islands in order to track the fighters – has gone as far as it can, because it not only affects the economy but also undermines the structure of local societies by threatening their livelihood, which is based on activities related to the lake. Similar “clear-out” operations have also been carried out in the other countries fringing the lake, such as near the Komadougou river in Niger. And this brings risks:[fn]“Le Niger et ses alliés face à Boko Haram”, Le Monde Afrique (, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote in 2015 and 2016, confusion was caused by the numerous arrests of fishermen and livestock herders moving around in areas that had been declared off-limits in Chad.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote As aerial surveillance has shown, many civilians continue to visit the islands regularly to look after their livestock and crops.[fn]Crisis Group interview, soldier, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote A new operation has just been launched and it needs to be drawn up in a way that avoids leaving civilian victims.

The other strategic flaw is that Chad has difficulty in combining military and civil approaches and putting in place a civil administration. In the Lake region, the allocation of tasks has proved awkward: while several thousand troops are deployed there, the involvement of the civil authorities remains limited. The army’s reluctance to reveal its movements and its assessment of the real threats posed by Boko Haram obstructs humanitarian action. For as long as the lake remains a militarised zone and the restrictions of the state of emergency – not formally extended but de facto still in force – continue to affect the movements of local inhabitants and their production economy, it will remain difficult for the state to really gain their confidence. Yet, it is only by gaining their trust that the threat posed by Boko Haram can be completely eliminated over the long term.

The Chadian authorities find themselves unprepared for the aforementioned wave of surrenders and people returning home; they struggle to determine the status of men who have been detained, whether Boko Haram fighters, helpers, prisoners or civilians. This hinders their ability to make appropriate provision for them or to define meaningful programs of reintegration. On 17 February 2017, Chad’s minister of public security and immigration, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, met the peace and security commissioner of the African Union to draw up a strategy for managing these returns home.[fn]“Communiqué conjoint du Ministre de la Sécurité Publique et de l’Immigration du Tchad et du Commissaire à la Paix et à la Sécurité de L’Union Africaine sur la gestion des repentis de Boko Haram”, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote Yet, so far the authorities are struggling to cope. The absence of a clear policy on the conditions for rehabilitation, reintegration or trial of Boko Haram’s former members or helpers is probably hindering the scope for a further acceleration in the pace of surrenders.[fn]Some local notables question the Chadian military’s ability to deal with these problems: “Our military forces know how to fight, but they don’t know how to do that”. Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Lake Chad, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Finally, in a broader perspective, the greatest threat to the stability of Chad over the long term is not Boko Haram – although it is necessary to fight this group with determination – but a national political crisis that would create fertile conditions for the emergence of all kinds of violent actors, particularly in the regions where the state is almost absent. For now, the populations of the Lake region suffer the most from the impact of Boko Haram.

V. The Impact of the Crisis on the Populations

The extension of the Boko Haram phenomenon across the lake and the Chadian shore still carries security risks and could potentially destabilise this cosmopolitan region where cohabitation remains fragile. Besides the seasonal movements of people, the successive influxes of displaced civilians, refugees or repatriated people to the shores of the lake since January 2015 have sometimes affected social cohesion. In January 2017, humanitarian agencies reported that there were 100,765 registered displaced people in the region, together with almost 21,000 who had been displaced but were not yet registered and close to 7,000 mainly Nigerian refugees.[fn]“Bulletin Humanitarian Tchad N°01”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), January 2017 and “Chad: Situation in the Lac region and Impact of the Nigerian Crisis”, Situation Report no. 18, OCHA, 10 October 2016. Some displaced people from the lake are believed to have left the region and made their way to Foyo, in Kanem.Hide Footnote For the most part, these populations had fled to escape Boko Haram abuses or come under pressure from national armies to leave the islands.

While networks of support within communities – or between them – softened the impact of these shocks, these stabilisers are fragile; host communities have only a limited capacity to absorb arrivals. The majority of displaced people, particularly the Buduma, have been accommodated on sites that sprang up unplanned, with only a minority finding refuge in declared “host villages”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote Against a background of economic difficulties, and with the region becoming militarised, the population’s resilience has been put under huge strain.

A. The Impact on the Lake’s Economy

As in Niger, where restrictions and bans have been even more draconian, trade on the Chadian islands and shore of the lake has been severely affected by Boko Haram’s activity, while the state of emergency, renewed on several occasions, remains unofficially in effect, even though it has not been formally prolonged since October 2016.[fn]The Lake authorities called on members of the national assembly to prolong the state of emergency. Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian actor in Chad, February 2017. See Crisis Group Report N°245, Le Niger face à Boko Haram : au-delà de la contre-insurrection, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote Although the rules governing motorbike travel and even fishing have recently been relaxed, there are still circulation constraints, curfews remain in place and economic activity is sluggish.

The border with Nigeria, the main outlet for trade, remains officially closed, even though some activity, particularly livestock movements, seems to have resumed informally.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, humanitarian actor in Chad, November 2016.Hide Footnote In this context, occasional large concentrations of livestock cause local epidemics of disease and consequent heavy losses for herders. Some, therefore, take their herds via alternative routes through Niger to sell them in Nigerien border markets where prices are higher. Agriculture and fishing have also been affected, although the last farming season was much better than 2015, slightly improving food security indicators in Chad, particularly in the lake area.[fn]Furthermore, the Nigerian currency has been in free fall since the beginning of the crisis.Hide Footnote

Increased economic fragility certainly affects Boko Haram finances, but it also leaves the populations of the islands, the lakeshores and the wider Lake Chad basin in a more vulnerable position. Many displaced people are now dependent on food aid and want to resume their normal activities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced people, Lake Chad, April 2016.Hide Footnote New demographic pressures and economic insecurity combine with old rivalries and demands over indigenous community rights.[fn]“Etude sur le contexte social, économique, historique de la région du Lac au Tchad”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The latter pose no problem for the most part; they relate to the Buduma and Kouri, who establish their camps in the northern basin, sometimes far from villages or public services, insisting that: “our ancestors and our parents used to live here”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote But in more populated areas, the management of land rights is more complicated and, in the wake of Boko Haram attacks, there have been some cases of confrontation between communities, particularly over access to resources.

An example is the December 2015 attack on Koulfoua that left many victims, and was the result of tensions between Kanembu and Buduma over access to a source of water supply. And there have been many reports of lakeshore villagers attacking displaced Buduma women looking for firewood on the edge of Baga Sola.[fn]“Etude sur le contexte social, économique, historique de la région du Lac au Tchad”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, lake local authorities, Lake region, October 2016.Hide Footnote There have been no direct clashes over access to polders, but the issue has stirred frustration among some communities who feel excluded from using those lands.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sodelac official, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote And finally, conflicts between traditional chiefs have sparked the break-up of some camps for displaced people.[fn]“Bulletin humanitaire Tchad N°01”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since early 2016, with the number of Boko Haram attacks in Chad much reduced, there has been a sharp decline in inter-communal tensions, although many remain.

B. The Risk of Community Tensions and Stigmatisation

Boko Haram has certainly tried to exploit tensions over inter-communal or identity issues, in a bid to attract support. Such strains are not new in this area and they have various causes. They are above all the consequence of competition over the resources of a lake that has become very attractive in economic terms. Constant variations in the levels of wet season flooding have produced significant population movements – and disputes between interest groups and communities for control of the constantly shifting fringe development areas. Before the crisis, there were tensions both within and between ethnic groups. For instance, the different Buduma clans – the Guriya in Bol, the May Bulwa around Kriska, the Majigojiya or the Bujiya in Niger – engaged in internecine struggles.[fn]“Boko Haram et le lac Tchad. Extension ou sanctuarisation?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The presence of Boko Haram has certainly contributed to the increasingly ethnicised nature of these tensions and the emergence of new ethnic stigmatisation.


The presence of Boko Haram has certainly contributed to the increasingly ethnicised nature of these [community] tensions and the emergence of new ethnic stigmatisation.

There is also intense rivalry over the control of commercial activities. To the west of the lake, Arabs and Hausa have long tussled over the livestock trade. On the lake itself, fishing areas and the market for transport in canoes and outboard-powered boats have often been the subject of tension, as has the ownership of dry farmland.[fn]An individual known as Abdel Aziz reportedly tried to manipulate the tensions between Buduma and Hausa, to attract Buduma recruits from the lake area in 2014-2015. “A Sectarian Jihad in Nigeria”, op. cit.Hide Footnote On the Chadian shore, mid-twentieth century rivalries between the Kanembu and the Buduma, notably over the status of Bol, remain in the collective memory. Over time, social domination has emerged, with the Kanembu taking over some of the towns of the southern basin of the lake, securing control of property and trade and establishing a near-monopoly on the sale of specific products in local markets: young goats, rush mats, bundles of firewood, etc.

More recently, the various Buduma clans – which, with the Kouri, claim the ownership of many islands and impose levies on other fishermen and herders – have expressed concerns that their control of the islands could be challenged, particularly by Fulani and Arab pastoralists from both Niger and Chad. They have reportedly organised themselves to resist or contain movements by the main migratory pastoralist groups across the lake: “They blocked the Arabs’ path, so that they did not come,” said a researcher.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Paris, July 2016.Hide Footnote This competition over land is certainly connected to the repeated confrontations between pastoralist communities in Niger, particularly in the tri-border area, over the past six months. This complex local reality has sometimes been characterised in simplistic terms: “The Buduma have reportedly allied with Boko Haram in order to keep control of the lake”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Lake residents, Lake Chad, May 2016.Hide Footnote

As so often in the context of terrorism, the finger of guilt is pointed at a particular community – with the scapegoating of the Kanuri in Nigeria and Cameroon and at one point, the Buduma in Chad and Niger. “They are the Boko Haram guys,” a refugee said of them in 2015 in the Baga Sola camp.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, Baga Sola, September 2015.Hide Footnote In the wake of the attack on Baga Sola market in October 2015 – in which one of the suicide bombers was the daughter of a well-known local notable – some Buduma women were beaten up and, in some cases, excluded from the market; others were allegedly refused access to health centres. Collective perceptions and prejudices that had developed over time fuelled these deep inter-communal mistrusts. Talk of the Buduma as “naïve and ready to embrace any cause out of opportunism” is widespread among lakeshore communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Bol and Baga Sola, September 2015.Hide Footnote

The authorities certainly played a role in this stigmatisation in 2015, before taking steps to correct course. The replacement of the former governor by Adoum Forteye, a native of the region, helped the administration to reconnect with local people. Other sensible moves have been efforts to integrate Buduma into the army – which led to a call for applications in July 2016 – and Déby’s request for the preparation of a program to recruit young people from the region into the public service, which has yet to be implemented.[fn]Several sources report that 300 individuals from the lake area were recruited and trained in Moussoro. Crisis Group interviews, researcher, parliamentarian, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote By early 2017, tensions seem to have eased, probably because of the improvement in security conditions on the Chadian shore of the lake. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between the number of attacks carried out by Boko Haram and the stigmatising of particular communities. Any new attack, whether in N’Djamena or on the lakeshore, could generate further cycles of inter-communal reprisals, thus triggering or accelerating the emergence of a crisis.

VI. Preparing for Stabilisation and Relaunching Development

A. From Emergency to Development: Local Conditions Informing Appropriate Policies

Nigeria’s north east is the scene of a humanitarian disaster almost unprecedented in the region, becoming one of the main emergencies for the UN.[fn]Boko Haram blamed in looming humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s northeast”, CNN, 26 July 2016.Hide Footnote The situation is different on the Chadian side of the lake, where the impact of Boko Haram has been less severe than in neighbouring countries. After a very troubled initial response in 2015, humanitarian provision is much better today, albeit still insufficient. Levels of vulnerability among the host populations and displaced people remain significant and the security risks hinder access for NGOs to areas such as Tchoukoutalia and Kaiga Kindjiria.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote At times, humanitarian aid has even been delivered by government services.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Chad is currently considering how to coordinate the emergency response with development projects around the lake, to strengthen the long-term resilience of local communities. Numerous donors such as the World Bank, the European Union – through its Trust Fund, its stability instrument and the European Commission service for humanitarian aid (ECHO) – and both the French Development Agency and the African Development Bank, have already confirmed or signalled their intention to invest in such projects. But their timetables differ and the projects that will mobilise the greatest funding volumes are set to begin in 2018 or 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, development actors, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

The allocation of large sums to the lake’s development, although necessary, is not without risk.  In line with the Do No Harm policy, a prior evaluation of the impact of each dollar spent is required to avoid inadvertently reinforcing any of the factors that fuel the crisis. In this highly distinctive region, characterised by high population growth and constant fluctuations in the water level of the lake, mobility has been key to maintaining a balance between the communities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, development actor, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet today, the large military deployment and the presence of Boko Haram compromise mobility and disrupt traditional means of settling conflicts, land management, fishing campaigns and livestock transhumance. Development actors should finance a socio-anthropological study to get an understanding of the factors that shape the structure of households, lead people to move and activity to become increasingly concentrated, and, above all, to identify priorities together with local people so that they can take ownership of this agenda.

The question of project scale should also be addressed. For example, some researchers press the case for prioritising numerous small developments to avoid reviving fierce competition between communities.[fn]“Etude sur le contexte social, économique, historique de la région du Lac au Tchad”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Moreover, while these projects may be essential, the relation between underdevelopment and radicalisation is not always obvious. Development projects need to have much broader objectives than “deradicalisation” or “the prevention of extremist violence” to avoid the risk of local people regarding development activity and security measures as inextricably linked.[fn]See Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,14 March 2016; and Crisis Group Briefing, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To make a success of the transition from emergency support to development, it is essential that the government gives more attention to the question of Lake Chad’s future. The FCFA3 billion in public investment for the area promised by President Déby in early 2016 is an unrealistic figure and, so far, the lake issue has served as a tool for attracting international aid. N’Djamena gives few details about its “plan for the lake”. Will it remain a militarised area? Does the government recommend to return displaced populations to the islands or, alternatively, settling them on the lakeshore? National authorities should put forward clear options for the future evolution of the lake area and multiply the number of field visits. Finally, in partnership with the donors and in consultation with local communities and their representatives, it should put forward a plan outlining these scenarios over a period of time – for example, one year and five years.

Finally, the risk that financial resources will be concentrated on the lake, to the detriment of other regions, should not be dismissed. Chad is a very poor country with many communities in a precarious situation. It is also – at least until 2015 – the country with the seventh highest refugee population in the world.[fn]Aid community must scale up support to troubled Lake Chad region, urges senior UN official”, UN News Centre, 27 August 2015.Hide Footnote The refugees who arrived from Darfur between 2003 and 2005 are still living in camps along the Sudanese border, while large numbers of Central Africans are gathered in the south. In both cases, the prospects for returning are limited, yet humanitarian assistance has fallen sharply. Levels of malnutrition remain very high right across the Sahelian belt, while in the north of the country public services are almost inexistent. It would make sense to rebalance the project agenda of the government and Chad’s main partners to avoid neglecting other disregarded regions – which could also become fertile ground for various violent groups.

B. Rebuilding a Positive Relationship with the State

While the response to Boko Haram will necessarily include development actions, the relaunch of the local production economy and trade with neighbouring countries, it should also encompass the consolidation of links between the Chadian state and a region that has long been in the orbit of Borno state, in Nigeria. A purely military approach cannot reestablish confidence between N’Djamena and this outlying area. Although the current governor does exercise considerable control over his administration, the military operation against Boko Haram carries the risk of creating a permanent state of crisis around the lake, subjecting the region to de facto military rule over the long term.

Boko Haram constitutes a long-term threat, but it is necessary to move on from the purely military stage into a phase of political stabilisation. Devolution currently underway and the redrawing of administrative boundaries have not bolstered public service provision. The first response, therefore, must be the development of better administrative coverage which, besides creating new sub-prefectures, would envisage the deployment of public servants to revive social services. Under such a scheme, temporary bonuses could be paid to officials who agree to be posted to this area.

The presence of Zaghawa colonels among the new sub-prefects and the arrests of livestock herders and fishermen do not help to reestablish confidence. Furthermore, under the state of emergency, the military only permit access to farmland where they consider that security is adequate. A new approach is needed, which would see military sub-prefects quickly replaced by civilians and a relaxation of the state of emergency rules to encourage mobility and the resumption of economic activity. In the same vein, while trade, particularly the movement of livestock between Chad and Nigeria, appears to be slowly resuming, the reopening of a protected channel could encourage trade between the two shores of the lake and thus improve living conditions for local people.

Furthermore, to avoid the long-term militarisation of the region, it is necessary to build a genuine civilian component into the operation now underway. The state should facilitate the recruitment of local civilians and establish strict disciplinary procedures for dealing with soldiers who commit abuses against the civilian population. And finally, as the countries of the region have just launched a new major operation, it is essential to reduce the human cost of military manoeuvres by drawing the sharpest possible distinction between insurgents and local inhabitants who have returned to the islands to cultivate their fields, go fishing or graze their animals.

C. Dealing with Prisoners and Deserters

With more and more surrenders, arrangements should be put in place to look after prisoners and deserters, in the hope that this will encourage further desertions.

At present, the deeply flawed Chadian judicial system fails to deal with the Boko Haram issue: since the start of the conflict only one – much criticised – trial has been organised, resulting in the imposition of death sentences on ten suspected members of the group.[fn]Le Tchad exécute dix membres présumés de Boko Haram”, RFI, 29 août 2015.Hide Footnote Today, between 500 and 1,000 suspected Boko Haram members are reportedly detained at Koro Toro, a prison located in the desert, near Faya Largeau, and dubbed the “Chadian Guantanamo”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prison staff, N’Djamena, September 2016.Hide Footnote The prisoners, drawn from various ethnic groups (Kanuri, Hausa, Buduma) and nationalities (including Sudanese and Nigerians), have one thing in common: they have all been locked up without prior judgement and for indefinite periods. Some might be active members of Boko Haram but others are business people, including some SIM card vendors.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote This situation carries risks. In Nigeria, the lack of transparency about judicial procedures has created resentment among affected families and thus become a driver for Boko Haram recruitment.

While the prospect of organising fair trials still appears remote, it is crucial that the authorities develop the capacity to distinguish between the most hardline elements of Boko Haram and those who give it occasional help. Appropriate arrangements for each category would represent a first step toward preventing new recruitments. It is therefore essential to define a clear policy on the conditions attached to rehabilitating former Boko Haram members or putting them on trial – and the outline of a serious program of rehabilitation for deserters, as part of wider programs of support for community recovery, targeted at youth in particular. Chadian authorities should draw up a document setting out the framework for dealing with the surrender of Boko Haram members – like the one recently produced by Niger’s interior ministry – and communicate it to their international partners.

And finally, besides awareness campaigns already underway, a major focus on communications is needed to improve the relationship between the government and the population, and to persuade undecided members of Boko Haram to turn themselves in and provide reassurance about the fate that awaits them if they do so. This could take the form of a mass text message campaign setting out the conditions for surrender. Another tool could be support for community radio stations, or the creation of such stations, to broadcast awareness messages about conflict prevention in local languages. Talk shows, vox pop reporting and interviews could help local people express their views. Such efforts need to be carried out both at the very local level, with appropriate and sustainable tools, and at the regional level, given the degree of integration and mobility among the lake populations. The Chadian side of the lake is particularly short of community radio provision.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, NGO representative working in the local radio sector, December 2016.Hide Footnote But a number of projects, particularly those being developed in Nigeria, could be extended to cover the linguistic diversity of the region.

VII. Conclusion

Boko Haram has lost ground and the security situation today is much better than in 2015 on the Chadian islands and lakeshore. But the jihadist insurgency’s resilience is well proven. The threat that it poses to local people will not diminish until the structural problems in Nigeria’s Borno state are tackled. In light of this reality, a strategic change is required. The military interventions by countries in the Lake region – certainly necessary to curb Boko Haram’s progression – and the restrictions imposed on mobility and trade have an obvious impact on the everyday life of local people.

This situation is not sustainable over the long term. The Chadian state, like its neighbours, now needs to replace its purely military management of the crisis with the indispen­sable relaunch of trade and production activity and set out clear programs for the reinsertion into society of former Boko Haram fighters. It also needs to fight against all the ways in which particular communities are stigmatised; and a strong political effort is required to rebuild a relationship between N’Djamena and outlying areas.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 March 2017

Appendix A: Map of Chad

Map of Chad

Appendix B: Map of the Lake Chad Basin

Map of the Lake Chad Basin

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Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility

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Local hunters known as Vigilantes armed with locally made guns are seen on a pick up truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria before they move to border region between Nigeria and Cameroon to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram militants ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP
Report 244 / Africa

Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram

Regional armies in the Lake Chad basin deploy vigilantes to sharpen campaigns against Boko Haram insurgents. But using these militias creates risks as combatants turn to communal violence and organised crime. Over the long term they must be disbanded or regulated.

Executive Summary

Vigilante groups in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad play a major role in the fight against Boko Haram, but their presence raises concerns. They make military operations less blunt and more effective and have reconnected these states somewhat with many of their local communities, but they have also committed abuses and become involved in the war economy. In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will vigilantes. They are enmeshed with high politics, especially in Nigeria, and in local intercommunal relations, business operations and chiefdoms. Their belief that they should be rewarded will need to be addressed, and it is also important for the Lake Chad basin states to address the common gap in community policing, particularly in rural areas. To ensure vigilantes are not a future source of insecurity, these states will each need to devise their own mix of slowly disbanding and formalising and regulating them.

Vigilantism, the recourse to non-state actors to enforce law and order (of a sort), has a history in the Lake Chad region. Colonial powers there relied, to a substantial degree, on local traditional chiefs and their retinues. The multi-faceted crisis in governance and decline in services among the Lake Chad states since the 1980s gave rise to new vigilante groups. The law and order challenges vigilantes tried to address were a factor in the formation and growth of Boko Haram, itself an attempt to provide regulation and guidance.

The vigilante fight against Boko Haram started in 2013, in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and the insurgency’s epicentre, under the twin pressure of mounting jihadist violence and security force retaliation. The Joint Task Force (JTF), led by the Nigerian army, quickly realised the vigilantes’ potential as a source of local knowledge, intelligence and manpower and set out to help organise it, with the assistance of local and traditional authorities. Operating under the unofficial but revealing name of Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), vigilantes were essential in flushing Boko Haram out of the city, then began replicating throughout the state. The official use of vigilantes to fight the movement spread further in Nigeria, then to Cameroon in 2014 and Chad in 2015, where the groups are known as comités de vigilance. Niger has been more cautious, partly because of past struggles with armed groups and because it has not needed them as much.

Vigilantes have played many roles, from mostly discrete surveillance networks in Niger to military combat auxiliaries or semi-autonomous fighting forces in Nigeria. For the region’s overstretched and under pressure militaries, they have somewhat filled the security gap and provided local knowledge. They have made the military response more targeted and more efficient, but their mobilisation also provoked retribution by Boko Haram against their communities and contributed to the massive levels of civilian casualties in 2014 and 2015. Paradoxically, this, too, has favoured regional governments’ strategy of pushing civilians away from the jihadists.

… the time has come to measure the risks posed by such a massive mobilisation of vigilantes …

As the insurgency splinters and falls back on more discrete guerrilla operations and terror attacks, however, the time has come to measure the risks posed by such a massive mobilisation of vigilantes (they claim to be about 26,000 in Borno state alone). Their compensation demands will have to be addressed, especially if authorities consider offering deals to Boko Haram militants to lay down their weapons. In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organised crime or feed communal violence. Vigilantism can be a powerful counter-insurgency tool, but there is a compelling need to confront the immediate concerns it raises, notably in terms of impunity, and to begin planning for its long-term post-conflict transformation.


To protect civilians, limit risks to vigilantes and improve accountability

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1.  Abstain, as much as possible, from creating additional standing vigilante units and focus instead on building intelligence and communication networks through which civilians can obtain state protection when needed.
  2.  Ensure that as many civilians as possible have access to functional communication networks and can call on regular security forces, especially where risks remain high.
  3. Encourage, when necessary to maintain vigilante forces, their formalisation, including registration, and systems for internal oversight and external accountability, and include community oversight in accountability mechanisms.
  4. Supply assault rifles only to select groups of better-trained CJTF and for mission-specific purposes, such as when they serve as auxiliaries, while ensuring that those weapons are registered and remain security-service property.
  5. Synchronise CJTF accountability mechanisms with those of the federal Nigeria Police Force.
  6. Hold to account those vigilantes suspected of abuses, notably for sexual and gender-based violence, and ensure transparent and fair investigation of all suspects in accordance with domestic and international law, while publicising any judicial decisions.
  7. Provide vigilantes training programs that mix practical skills (eg, intelligence, first aid, handling of landmines and improvised explosive devices) and instruction in applicable national and international laws, while involving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and relevant human rights groups (eg, in Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission) in the latter.

To donors:

  1. Adjust legal guidelines to permit assistance in building justice and accountability mechanisms.

To acknowledge the contribution of the vigilantes and manage expectations

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1. Combat stereotyping that certain entire ethnic communities, notably the Kanuri, support Boko Haram by highlighting vigilante efforts from those groups.
  2. Respect vigilantes publicly and give sufficient and standardised assistance packages to those wounded or killed in the line of duty and their families.
  3. Set expectations for compensation transparently through public announcements on what is being offered and to whom, who is not eligible and when it will end, so as not to motivate more vigilantism.

To prepare for a transformation of the vigilantes and prevent the emergence of mafias and ethnic militias

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1. Plan to transform vigilante units when the situation stabilises further, with each country following its own pace according to its security situation and according to the extent and role of vigilantism, notably by:
    1. planning demobilisation processes for the majority of vigilantes that include small grants to help them go back to their former occupations, complete their education or develop businesses;
    2. creating, given the likely continuation of some form of lower-level jihadist activity and rural unrest, particularly in Borno and Adamawa states, a temporary auxiliary body under the army or Police Mobile Force, drawing on the vigilantes who have received weapons training and served directly with security forces; and providing for their potential integration into the security forces if they meet the educational and other requirements and undergo retraining;
    3. combatting police and vigilante corruption vigorously, so it does not undermine professionalism, and improving ties with local communities; and
    4. selecting, vetting, retraining and equipping a number of vigilantes with the help of local civil society organisations, so that they feed reports and early warning into both police and civil society networks.
  2. Prepare a disarmament plan that focuses exclusively on taking functional automatic weapons out of circulation.

To donors:

  1. Support programs for vigilante demobilisation and to professionalise the police and their capacity to monitor and regulate temporary auxiliary forces.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 February 2017


I. Introduction

The insurgency launched in 2009 by Boko Haram, a radical revivalist Islamist movement established earlier in Borno state, in Nigeria’s north east and adjacent to Lake Chad, is now regional, affecting the border areas of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. In 2014-2015, it gained control of large swaths of territory in north-east Nigeria. Since 2015, Nigeria and its neighbours have progressively developed a stronger military response. Boko Haram has mostly been forced into enclaves on Lake Chad, the hills along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and forested areas of Borno state. It has reverted to suicide attacks and guerrilla war. Military pressure, importantly aided by vigilantes, has aggravated its internal divisions.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 213, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and 168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; on recent counter-insurgency progress and its limits, see Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016. The organisation has two rival factions, Abubakar Shekau’s Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, JAS) and Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah (Islamic State in West Africa Province, ISWAP), affiliated to the Islamic State (IS). This report uses the term “Boko Haram” (“Western education is forbidden”, in Hausa) for clarity and given its wide recognition, though supporters reject it as derogatory.Hide Footnote

This report describes how the vigilante groups were born, their connection with state agencies and institutions, how they function and their role in the conflict’s evolution. While special attention is paid to Borno, one of Nigeria’s 36 federated states and the heartland of the insurgency, it also analyses vigilantes’ operations elsewhere in the north east of the country and in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It assesses vigilantism’s long-term impact and risks. As Boko Haram splinters and morphs into more discrete guerrilla forces, with renewed emphasis on terrorist attacks, it is timely to rethink the role of vigilantes and their governance and prepare for their transformation.

Analysts working on all four affected countries were involved in preparation of the report, which feeds into Crisis Group’s larger research on curbing violent religious radicalism.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote Desk research was followed by interviews in the region’s capitals with state and military officials, intelligence officers, international military advisers and senior politicians. Research was also done in Maiduguri and Yola, the capitals of Nigerian Borno and Adamawa states, in Maroua, Mokolo, Makari and other localities of Cameroon’s Far North and in Niger’s Diffa region and Chad’s cities of Bol and Baga Sola, on Lake Chad. Researchers interviewed vigilantes, local state and security and non-governmental organisation officials, human rights activists, journalists, academics and citizens to investigate their understandings of the situation and their perceptions of peace, law and order.

II. From Vigilantism to the CJTF

A. State and Vigilantism: A Tale of Four Countries

Law and order in the Lake Chad basin bears the imprint of pre-colonial and colonial times, when massive disruption occurred as states formed and disappeared due to a fast-changing regional economy increasingly shaped by global connections.[fn]Bawuro Barkindo, “The early states of the Central Sudan: Kanem, Borno and some of their neighbours to c. 1500 AD”, in J. Ajayi and M. Crowder (eds.), History of West Africa (Harlow, 1985), pp. 225-254.Hide Footnote Slave-raiding, banditry and cattle rustling fed local forms of self-defence. After often violent conquest, and frequently in alliance with local warlords, colonial states maintained relative peace, but particularly in rural areas they habitually relied on decentralised forces, the retinues of chiefs.

Much has been made of the differences between colonial administrations, France’s Jacobin “direct rule” and the British tradition of “indirect rule” and reliance on pre-existing aristocracies.[fn]Nigeria was a British colony; Chad, Niger and Cameroon were part of the French empire.
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They should not be overstated: the colonial state relied everywhere on a strata of chiefs and their followers to levy taxes, mobilise labour and suppress dissent. The presence of local forces that are not part of the police or the army but are involved in providing law and order thus has a history in the region.

This tradition became increasingly important as insecurity increased around Lake Chad from the 1980s, due to many factors, including population growth, the states’ budgetary problems, the resulting “structural adjustments”, urbanisation, the crisis in pastoralist societies (notably the Fulani) and the influx of automatic weapons and battle-hardened men from vanquished armies in Niger’s and Chad’s wars. Insecurity ranged from banditry (the kwanta kwanta in Nigeria and zargina in Cameroon) to all-out armed rebellion (most recently the Chad civil war, 2005-2010, and the Tuareg insurgencies in Niger in the 1990s and 2007).[fn]See notably Issa Saibou, Les coupeurs de route: Histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad (Paris, 2010); Christian Seignobos, “Le phénomène zargina dans le nord du Cameroun. Coupeurs de route et prises d’otages, la crise des sociétés pastorales mbororo”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 239 (2011), pp. 35-59; Mirco Göpfert, “Security in Niamey: an anthropological perspective on policing and an act of terrorism in Niger”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 50, no. 1 (2012), pp. 53-74; Mohammed J. Kuna and Jibrin Ibrahim (eds.), Rural banditry and conflicts in northern Nigeria (Abuja, 2016).Hide Footnote The situation was made worse by deterioration in the security forces.[fn]Drops in budgets, an unreformed authoritarian mindset from colonial times, growing weaknesses in training and command, their instrumentalisation in internal politics, their factionalism and clientelistic turn combined to demoralise and sap the professionalism of the various corps supposed to maintain law and order. See for instance, Samuel Decalo, “Modalities of civil-military stability in Africa”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 27, no. 4 (1989); Eboe Hutchful and Abdoulaye Bathily (eds.), The military and militarism in Africa (Dakar, 1998); Herbert M. Howe, Ambiguous Order: Military Forces in African States (London, 2001). For Niger, see Kimba Idrissa (ed.), Armée et politique au Niger (Paris, 2008); for Nigeria, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Alternative local security structures were reactivated or created. In the Lake Chad basin, they have often drawn on brotherhoods of hunters (yan baka, in Hausa, the region’s lingua franca) typical of West Africa or on the traditional chiefs’ palace guards (dogari, in Hausa).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adamawa state hunters’ association official, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote Some scholars argue that contemporary vigilantism has also been influenced by U.S. and European promotion of community policing.[fn]David Pratten, “The politics of protection: perspectives on vigilantism in Nigeria”, Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 78, no. 1 (2008), pp. 1-15.Hide Footnote In many cities, night watches appeared, paid for by traders’ consortiums or the town councils.

Each country’s history of war and rebellion has marked its response to Boko Haram.

Each country’s history of war and rebellion has marked its response to Boko Haram. Chad and Niger view vigilantes with peculiar concern because of their recent revolts.[fn] Nonetheless, Chadian authorities occasionally encouraged vigilantes to fight against bandits in the past.[fn]In south-west Chad in 2007, for instance, the interior minister explicitly called on villagers to form comités d’auto-défense to combat a kidnapping epidemic. “Délégation gouvernementale à Pala en mars 2007”, on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote For Niger, neighbouring Mali, where the army has long abandoned its pretence of a monopoly in use of force and communal militias have gained influence, is a powerful counter-model. Nevertheless, Nigerien vigilantes, such as the dan banga, were recently patrolling the market areas in the cities of Diffa and Mainé Soroa, and the governor of Niamey tried to mobilise similar groups a few years back.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state officials, Niamey, May 2016; NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; Göpfert, “Security in Niamey”, op. cit. In Diffa, the dan banga disappeared after a European Union (EU)-funded program created local police in 2015. Dan banga is Hausa pidgin for “vanguard”, initially used to designate Nigerian political parties’ youth wings. This suggests a Nigerian model spreading to Niger.Hide Footnote

Cameroon has long relied on vigilantes. Groups controlled by chiefs played a strong part in the fight against the left-wing Union des Populations du Cameroun from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the state cooperated with comités de vigilance against bandits in northern regions. However, in 2001 it created a well-armed elite force, the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), now at the forefront of the fight against Boko Haram. But vigilantes have always been part of the picture, for instance to combat cotton smugglers.[fn]Cameroon cotton farmers were required to sell crops to the state firm, SODECOTON, often well below Nigerian prices, leading to big illegal exports. Crisis Group interview, Cameroon academic, Paris, 29 March 2016. On vigilantes fighting bandits, see Saibou, Les coupeurs de route, op. cit. In 2009, a Catholic official called for vigilantes to fight human trafficking. “Catholic church fights tip in Cameroon’s North West”, U.S. embassy Yaounde cable, 23 April 2009, made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote  The state is confident enough to mobilise the comités de vigilance on a large scale and feels it can control them through its territorial administration and local chiefs.[fn]The Cameroon authorities insist the comités are about “vigilance” not self-defence, thus affirming the state did not default on its obligations to defend its citizens. Crisis Group interviews, Far North, October 2016.Hide Footnote

In Nigeria, history provided both precedents and cautions. As elsewhere, vigilantes have long been involved in fighting bandits, usually without state coordination or official support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF and civilians, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote  However, they have a record of getting out of hand.[fn]See, for instance, Kate Meagher, “Hijacking Civil Society: The Inside Story of the Bakassi Boys Vigilante Group of South-Eastern Nigeria”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 45, no. 1 (2007), pp. 89-115; Yvan Guichaoua, “Les mutations d’une milice ethnique sous le régime civil d’Olusegun Obasanjo. Le cas de l’Oodua People’s Congress”, Politique africaine, no. 106 (2007), pp. 92-109; Johannes Harnischfeger, “Ethnicity, Religion and the Failure of Common Law in Nigeria”, in Kirsch, T.G. and Grätz, T. (eds.), Domesticating Vigilantism in Africa (Woodbridge, 2010), pp. 51-78.
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 Some have become involved in violent local politics or have run protection rackets.[fn]Crisis Group Report, N°113, Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty, 19 July 2006, pp. 27-28; Briefing N°79, Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?, 24 February 2011, pp. 5-6; Daniel Jordan Smith, “The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, Violence, and Political Imagination in Nigeria”, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 19, no. 3 (2004), pp. 429-455; David Pratten, “The Politics of Protection”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The massive communal violence in central Nigeria has also fed authorities’ suspicions of irregular local forces. And while the 1999 constitution makes policing a federal prerogative, many states have been forming quasi-police forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society police reform expert, Abuja, 17 January 2017. Section 214 (1) of the constitution provides that: “There shall be a police force for Nigeria, which shall be known as the Nigeria Police Force, and subject to the provisions of this section no other police force shall be established for the Federation or any part thereof”. Local police were disbanded after the 1966 military coup. On one such quasi-police force in Kano state, see Fatima L. Adamu, “Gender, Hisba and the Enforcement of Morality in Northern Nigeria”, Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 78, no. 1 (2008), pp. 136-152.Hide Footnote

B. CJTF’s Birth: The Battle for Maiduguri

The quasi-official narrative on anti-Boko Haram vigilantism is that in early 2013 Baba Jafar Lawan, a trader from Hausari, a borough of Maiduguri, went after a Boko Haram militant with a stick, capturing and delivering him to the authorities.[fn]See, for instance, “Nigeria: Civilian JTF – Unsung Heroes of the Boko Haram War”, This Day, 4 October 2015. Variants to the story say it was another man, by the name of Modu Milo, who did the capture, and Baba Lawan, with prior ties to the security forces, possibly as an informant, put Milo in touch with them. An international NGO official suggested Lawan was the victim of a racket by Boko Haram supporters and mobilised youths to fight back, a version CJTF leaders rejected. Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, January 2017; Crisis Group email, human rights worker, 8 April 2016.Hide Footnote Others, the story goes, started patrolling Hausari with him. Little by little, offshoots sprung up throughout the city. Several suspected Boko Haram members were handed over to the authorities; others were brutally killed by crowds. By June 2013, some 500 vigilantes were manning city checkpoints, armed with sticks and cutlasses.[fn]“Nigeria deploys vigilantes against Boko Haram”, Deutsche Welle, 9 July 2013.Hide Footnote They became known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), indicating they operated as a counterpart to the Joint Task Force (JTF) that coordinated the police, army and other security units fighting Boko Haram in Borno state.

There was more to this than a spontaneous, popular resistance to a bloody and fanatic jihadist insurgency. Boko Haram’s violence was certainly hard on people in Maiduguri. Security officers, Islamic clerics critical of Boko Haram and civilians otherwise associated with the Borno state or the federal government were threatened and assassinated, and the wealthier members of the communities were extorted by the jihadists. But the security forces, too, were brutal, as they implemented collective punishment strategies, especially when soldiers and police were killed, including the burning of homes and mass arrests of male youths.[fn]“Spiralling Violence. Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, 11 October 2012.Hide Footnote Commanders’ unwillingness to curb these abuses provoked mounting tensions in Maiduguri. In addition, a state of emergency, from May to December 2013, that included a shutdown of phone services, fuelled economic problems for city traders.

Many Maiduguri inhabitants felt their community had to fight Boko Haram so as to deflect security forces’ suspicion and retaliation.

Many Maiduguri inhabitants felt their community had to fight Boko Haram so as to deflect security forces’ suspicion and retaliation. CJTF leaders confirm that many people joined because they feared both the jihadists and that if they did not isolate Boko Haram members, “they would be killed [by] soldiers who could not distinguish them from other youth and were killing indiscriminately”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF members and leaders and civilians, Maiduguri, October 2016, January 2017. See also “Youth vigilantes set another suspected Boko Haram sect member ablaze in Maiduguri”, Information Nigeria, 27 July 2013.Hide Footnote

Professor Mohamed Kyari, a noted analyst of the insurgency, has argued that the army’s retaliations were part of “a strategy aimed at compelling residents to cooperate with troops in exposing Boko Haram insurgents”, and that the CJTF included “repentant members of Boko Haram who were recruited by the military”, a textbook counter-insurgency move. Whatever the truth, CJTF members acknowledge that the security forces, and particularly the army, which had the JTF lead, were quick to appreciate the potential of a vigilante response in Maiduguri. The JTF organised the groups along its own lines of command, with Maiduguri divided into ten sectors. JTF officers were also involved in the selection of CJTF leaders, a chairman and a secretary for each sector, with whom they worked closely. A number of JTF checkpoints were handed over to the CJTF.[fn]“Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, January 2017. The JTF command (and its successor, the 7th Division), based in Maiduguri, seems to have been in charge. A committee was formed in September 2014 around the Abuja-based chief of defence staff to supervise the CJTF, but it seems to have never really functioned.
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Soon after, the CJTF formed links to the state’s major leaders, the Shehu of Borno, Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi, and Governor Kashim Shettima.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, January 2017. The Shehu is the traditional ruler of the Borno Emirate, which was defeated in 1893 and subsequently integrated into the British colony of Nigeria. He is the ceremonial head of the Kanuri people and retains influence over much of Borno through a network of chiefs.Hide Footnote The army and Borno state government cooperated in structuring the CJTF further. A number of mid-ranking state officials took key CJTF positions. As early as September 2013, an “orientation program”, the Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme (BOYES), selected and screened young men, who then received some military training from the army. State authorities gave them uniforms, patrol cars and identification documents (IDs), as well as a stipend. It was eventually announced that BOYES would train up to 6,000, but it stopped at around 1,850, apparently due to the army’s uncertainty about training so many potentially unreliable persons. Some recruits, suspected of association with Boko Haram and of trying to get training or intelligence, were arrested.[fn]“War against Boko: Borno holds orientation for 800 ‘BOYES’ Civilian JTF”, NewsRescue, 28 September 2013. All who demonstrated unexplained prior mastery of automatic weapons during training were arrested. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders and BOYES members, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, January 2017.Hide Footnote

CJTF-military cooperation has remained very close. The army later provided standard military training to about 200 members to create a “CJTF Special Force”, with greater weapon skills and operational capability, that could be used in front-line operations. By late 2013, Maiduguri was largely purged of Boko Haram cells, and there have been few subsequent attacks in the city, other than suicide operations, often against refugee camps on its periphery. Most intra-city checkpoints have disappeared.[fn]Crisis group interview, member of CJTF special force, Maiduguri, 15 January 2017; observations, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Spreading the CJTF Model

Nigerian security services and Borno state authorities cooperated to spread the CJTF model. First, Maiduguri CJTF elements began accompanying the army outside the city. In July 2013, they were involved in operations in neighbouring Jere Local Government Area (LGA), as well as in more distant localities like Dikwa and Dawashi. As the army defended or took back LGAs throughout Borno state, it encouraged the formation of CJTF units, and Baba Jafar Lawan toured the state to raise them. Where there was scepticism, military officers visited communities to insist this was the government’s wish.[fn]“Boko Haram hunters burn suspect alive in Maiduguri”, Daily Trust, 25 July 2013. Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote The deputy governor publicly pressed the emir of Biu, a city in southern Borno where CJTF were not well received, to “encourage youth in his domain to form [a] vigilante group”.[fn]“Deputy governor urges Biu Emirate to form CJTF”, Daily Post, 5 July 2013.Hide Footnote Much like in Maiduguri, communities knew refusing would be suspicious.

The security services were closely involved in identifying local CJTF leaders. In a large northern Borno town, the CJTF chairman was a paid State Security Service (SSS) informant; in a small town close to Maiduguri, the appointee was a trader close to the authorities and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diffa region, Niger, May 2016; Maiduguri, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote CJTF leaders claimed to have recruited up to 45,000 members in Borno state, though the current leadership now speaks only of about 26,000, covering 22 of the state’s 27 LGAs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016; “Nigeria- La communauté se retourne contre Boko Haram”, IRIN, 11 August 2014.Hide Footnote

Vigilante forces have also emerged in the other north-eastern Nigerian states, at a pace and intensity largely dependent on the Boko Haram threat, but always in close connection to the security services and state authorities. Boko Haram’s threat in late 2014 to march on Yola, the capital of Adamawa state south of Borno, was met with a mobilisation of hunter brotherhoods.[fn]Multi-ethnic hunter brotherhoods, found in many West African areas, are particularly strong in Adamawa, a forested region with much game. There are hunters in Borno state, and some became vigilantes, but the CJTF did not follow the brotherhoods’ organisation. This may be because the Borno state CJTF initially mobilised urban youth.Hide Footnote  In addition to state authorities, several leading local political figures were essential in that, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (under President Olusegun Obasanjo), who has vast local investments; the then Senate Committee on Defence Chairman Jibrilla Bindow; Adamawa State House Representative Emmanuel Tsandu; and Federal House Representative Adamu Kamale.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adamawa, October 2016.
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The local hunters played a major part in blocking Boko Haram and helped the army take back the cities of Gombi and Mubi in northern Adamawa.

Adamawa’s Kanuri minority formed its own 300-men CJTF in March 2013, in close collaboration with security forces, to help screen internally displaces persons (IDPs) fleeing Borno state. Many Boko Haram leaders and members are Kanuri, and this sought to show “both the public and security agencies … that not all Kanuri in Yola were Boko Haram” and to preserve trader livelihoods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leader, Yola, 31 October 2016.Hide Footnote Civilian and security officials push less for organised vigilantes in Yobe and Gombe states, which were not so affected by the insurgency and where the security forces never seemed overwhelmed.[fn]Mobs reportedly lynched some Boko Haram suspects in these states. “Jungle justice meted out to man plotting to bomb bus station in Gombe”, Sahara Reporters, 18 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Community leaders from the north east based in other regions have extended the monitoring of suspected Boko Haram activities, notably in Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s political and economic capitals respectively. They have been reporting to security services and occasionally conducting citizen arrests, sometimes with the support of CJTF who would come from Borno state and take the prisoners to Maiduguri.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF officials, members, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, 12 January 2017; “Wanted Boko Haram chieftain, five others arrested in Lagos”, The Guardian (Lagos), 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote

As Boko Haram stepped up activities in Cameroon and Chad, and the state and army realised their limitations, communities were called on to form self-defence groups.

The CJTF model has spread to Nigeria’s Lake Chad neighbours. As Boko Haram stepped up activities in Cameroon and Chad, and the state and army realised their limitations, communities were called on to form self-defence groups. In Cameroon, the Far North region governor, Augustine Awa Fonka, issued an arrêté regional (regional decree) creating the comités locaux de vigilance in June 2014. After suicide bombings in Maroua, the region’s capital, in July 2015, the authorities pushed even harder. All villages in the Far North now reportedly have comités; according to one source, 16,000 vigilantes are on duty.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior gendarmerie officer, sous-préfets, Far North, October 2016; journalist, December 2016. “Arrêté régional n° 19 portant création des comités locaux de vigilance dans la région de l’Extrême-Nord”, June 2014. “Tchad: vigilance accrue contre Boko Haram”, Xinhua, 21 February 2015.Hide Footnote Similarly, after Boko Haram’s first terror attacks in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, in February 2015 the territorial administration minister called on local chiefs to “increase their vigilance”. During Chadian President Idriss Déby’s visit to Baga Sola in October 2015, authorities urged villages around the lake to create their own comités de vigilance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civilians and vigilantes, Lake Chad region, April 2016; politician from the Lake Chad region, N’Djamena, September 2016; “Tchad: vigilance accrue contre Boko Haram”, Xinhua, 21 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Niger’s case is somewhat unique. Though the mobilisation of armed civilians, based notably on the example of Algeria’s war on islamists in the 1990s, was discussed in Niamey policy circles, fears of ethnic militias, concerns about the cost of their demobilisation and their potential for political instrumentalisation and the country’s fragility led President Mahamadou Issoufou to decide otherwise. The Nigerien defeat in Bosso in June 2016 revived the debate, but the idea was rejected again. When militias were formed in 2016 among the Peul and Mohamid Arabs, deemed loyal to the state (or, more precisely, hostile to other communities, such as the Buduma, suspected of supporting Boko Haram), the authorities gave them free rein only briefly and quickly tried to resolve ethnic tensions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien officials, Buduma and Peul community leaders, Niamey, Diffa region, May 2016.Hide Footnote

The cautious approach may also be due to early problems with Nigerian refugees, CJTF members among them, who organised self-defence groups in fear pursuit from Boko Haram. Locals in Yébi and Bosso accused Nigerian vigilantes of abuses and disrupting profitable cross-border trade. Some were detained and sent back with the help of Nigerian authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; CJTF member, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote Instead of mobilising vigilantes, Niger has been using informant networks, though vigilante groups eventually formed in some of the more insecure areas, such as Bagara and Toumour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local official from Toumour, Niamey, 11 October 2016; vigilante official, Bagara, 14 October 2016. See also “Au Niger, Baouchi Dao veut vaincre Boko Haram avec ses flèches”, Voice of America (VOA) Afrique, 21 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Officials in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon recognise the vigilantes’ services. Senior officials have met with their leaders and handed out medals and prizes. Chad’s President Idriss Déby has visited vigilantes in the field (notably in Ngouboua on 4 June 2016), and then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan once hailed them as “new national heroes” in July 2013.[fn]“North-east youths hunt insurgents”, Vanguard, 17 June 2013.Hide Footnote

III. Vigilantism, an Effective Counter-insurgency Tool?

A. Variations in Profiles and Structures

Depending on the country, vigilantes have been involved in a variety of missions. Nigeria has made the most intensive use of them, particularly in Borno state, where CJTFs have been carrying out intelligence, surveillance and protection missions in their communities, notably operating checkpoints and patrolling to check on newcomers in public spaces (mosques, markets and the entrances of villages and towns). As some communities were displaced, CJTF have followed, often continuing surveillance in their IDP camps or host communities. They perform arrests and deliver suspects to the security forces, and some have been closely involved as auxiliaries to those forces. They have also screened and interrogated suspects in detention centres. The army has asked them to join in long-distance operations, usually mixing CJTF familiar with the targeted terrain with groups from other areas. They have also been deployed away from their communities, to control newly captured towns or support local CJTF. In several instances, they have launched autonomous armed operations.[fn]Borno state Governor Shettima, for instance, “ordered mobilization of some 500 Civilian Joint Task Force elements to beef up security in areas Boko Haram had used as corridors to attack villages in Chibok”. “Boko Haram weakening, despite suicide bombings – Shettima”, Daily Trust, 30 November 2016. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Niger is at the other end of the spectrum, having made the most cautious use of vigilantes. After incidents with Nigerian vigilantes who had taken refuge in Niger, it banned civilians from manning roadblocks and bearing weapons, demanding that vigilantes work as an informant network with the army’s civil-military cooperation teams. Civilians, sometimes bearing crude weapons, have guided security patrols. As the conflict hit Niger harder, some front-line communities, such as Toumour and Bagara, eventually set up or remobilised classic vigilante groups for protection, often mixing local youth and IDPs. They man roadblocks and checkpoints, patrol and perform arrests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local official from Toumour, Niamey, 11 October 2016; NGO protection officer, Diffa region, 14 October 2016; vigilante official, Bagara, 14 october 2016.Hide Footnote

Chad and Cameroon are between these two extremes. Chad, which has been less exposed to jihadist attacks, is closer to the Nigerien case. Cameroon, attacked early and intensely, is closer to the Nigerian response. For instance, its vigilante units have launched their own small-scale assaults against Boko Haram bands, sometimes pursuing them across the Nigerian border.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, vigilante leaders of Limani, Kerawa, Mora and Kolofata, Mora, October 2016; “Limani: 70 membres des comités de vigilance attaquent Boko Haram au Nigéria”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 3 May 2016.

Because the states pushed for formation of vigilantes, they have exerted a degree of oversight, each in conformity with its habits and capacities. In Borno state, the few CJTF selected for BOYES training went through a vetting process, with the support of state authorities and security forces, including background checks and medical screening. The CJTF, though in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, issued IDs and compiled membership lists that were made available to the authorities. All BOYES trainees and some other CJTF received uniforms. Cameroon also tried to register vigilantes, as it had done in previous instances.[fn]Crisis Group email, human rights worker who visited the CJTF vetting and registration centre in 2013, 8 April 2016. Seignobos, “Le phénomène zargina”, op. cit. Chad, with a weaker bureaucratic tradition, has relied much more on the chiefs, delegating selection, identification and control to them. In Niger, existing vigilante groups have registered their own members and given lists to the civilian and security officials.[fn]No ID cards seem to have been distributed. Crisis Group observations, Diffa region, October 2016.Hide Footnote

In all cases, oversight falls somewhere between local military commanders, the territorial administration (elected governors in Nigeria, the sous-préfets, préfets and governors appointed by the territorial administration or interior minister in Cameroon, Chad and Niger) and the local chiefs who answer to the local governments. In all four countries, vigilante leaders reported having the phone numbers of relevant military and civilian officials, and newly arrived officials quickly link up with them. In Cameroon and Chad, chiefs have played a major role in recruitment. In Cameroon, they sign IDs along with the sous-préfets and forward membership lists to the administration and security forces.

In Borno state, both governor and army seem directly involved, to the point where they appear to give orders to CJTF.[fn]“Boko Haram weakening, despite suicide bombings – Shettima”, op. cit.Hide Footnote CJTF leaders, however, now insist they are independent. Symbolically, they have removed reference on their most recent IDs to the 7th Army Division and floated new unit names, probably to avoid too explicit links to the security services and Borno state. Significantly, the designation Borno State Youth Vanguard (BSYV) has now been replaced by Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice (BYAPJ). But “CJTF” has captured the imagination and often remains on their IDs along with the new acronym.[fn]Committees to supervise the CJTF were created by the chief of defence staff in 2014 and the Borno state governor in 2015 but do not seem to have been operational. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, January 2017. For a sample of a CJTF ID, see “#FallenHero: Mustapha was the 03 Sector Chairman of CJTF in Borno RIJF”,, 14 December 2016. CJTF has become so popular that other groups not fighting Boko Haram, for instance in Kaduna, have picked up the name.Hide Footnote

Attempts have been made to increase control over vigilantes, leading to some professionalisation.

In Borno state in particular, attempts have been made to increase control over vigilantes, leading to some professionalisation. The initial groups included many underaged youths, but CJTFs are less numerous, and leaders insist they mobilise only adults. This seems largely true, though children still act as informers or are part of crowds that occasionally rally behind vigilantes for arrests. There is also increasing use of women, who are better able to check and search women without creating too much tension in a context where women are playing a greater role in the insurgency. Women are also occasionally involved in patrol and combat roles in vigilante units.[fn]On the female part in the insurgency and female vigilantes, see Crisis Group Africa Report N° 242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016; also “Meet Aisha, a former antelope hunter who now tracks Boko Haram”, The Guardian, 8 February 2017. In a paradoxical confirmation of the patriarchal nature of societies in the Lake Chad basin, the female vigilante discussed in that piece derived her combat skills from her grandfather. In 2015, CJTF leaders reportedly admitted that children made up “nearly a quarter of the more than 10,000-strong” movement. Quoted in “The child soldiers fighting Boko Haram”, The Daily Beast, 3 July 2015.Hide Footnote

States have been cautious about weapons, equipment and training. Rather haphazardly, the civilian and military authorities, as well as non-state backers, have provided some non-lethal equipment, such as metal detectors, phones, radios and torchlights, as well as transportation ranging from four-wheel drive vehicles to bicycles. All have been wary of arming and training most vigilantes, in order to limit weapon proliferation in general and avoid creating what a Cameroonian officer called “uncontrollable militia”. That the Boko Haram-affected areas in all four countries are those with ethnic Kanuri concentrations has made the four cautious about arming that community.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria authorities, September 2016-January 2017. On the states’ reluctance to arm vigilantes (and the vigilantes’ frustration), see, for instance, Ngala Killian Chimtom, “Cameroon: volunteer vigilance committees call for more help in combatting Boko Haram”, African Arguments, 23 December 2015. There is little doubt that Boko Haram has roots among the Kanuri, but it is not an exclusively Kanuri rebellion, and the movement has never claimed to fight for that community in particular, despite the assertions of some commentators. See, for example, “Fulani, Kanuri behind Boko Haram, Archbishop says in Jonathan’s presence”, Premium Times, 12 January 2015.
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In Maiduguri, the vigilantes initially used mostly sticks and cutlasses. As the CJTF expanded into rural areas, they carried traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and “Dane guns” (locally manufactured rifles) or shotguns. In Borno state, only the sector commanders were permitted to own a modern weapon, though the army lent assault rifles to the CJTF for specific operations.[fn]Similarly, only the head of the Adamawa CJTF unit received a licence to buy a gun for self-defence. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leader, Adamawa, 31 October 2016; CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote Cameroon does not officially allow vigilantes automatic weapons, though a few former soldiers who have joined the comités have kept their modern arms. In Niger, the few Peul and Arab vigilante groups reportedly have some automatic weapons, which many nomads obtain to protect their herds. The Adamawa hunters, who had their own weapons, were given ammunition and additional guns by state officials and local patrons.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official of Adamawa state hunters’ association, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote Chad, more willing to rely on and trust traditional leaders, gave automatic weapons to chiefs and a dozen or so of their guards (the goumiers) in some threatened areas.

This reticence to provide weapons is resented. A CJTF leader, an ex-member of earlier, anti-banditry militias, complained they were only Yan Gora (people with sticks, in Hausa), a phrase Boko Haram used to mock them. A Cameroon vigilante leader similarly deplored that it would be difficult to “keep terrorists at bay” with their “rudimentary weapons”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diffa region, Niger, May 2016. Chimtom, “Cameroon: volunteer vigilance committees call for more help”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Throughout the region, there are indications that some vigilantes are buying weapons, taking them from defeated Boko Haram fighters and getting them from sympathisers in the security services.[fn]“Nigerian violence spawns homemade responses”, The Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2014; Crisis Group interview, official of hunters’ association, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Resourcing for Vigilantes

The Lake Chad states struggle with a dilemma: formalising the vigilantes would enable greater oversight but also cost, money that could be applied to other pressing needs, not least the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by the insurgency. It might also raise expectations and feed a sense of entitlement that could prove unsustainable, as well as create incentives that encourage the formation of more groups. Indeed, some vigilantes have been calling for “a permanent mechanism to help [them] provide the basics for [their families]”.[fn]Cameroon vigilante leader quoted in Chimtom, “Cameroon”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Vigilantes, especially when they are high up in the hierarchy, often insist they are not paid for their service and have to spend their own money on duty.

A variety of support systems provision and compensate vigilantes. The 1,850 Nigerian CJTF members formally recruited in the BOYES program are an exception, as they receive 15,000 naira (about $50) monthly, plus some health coverage. In Adamawa, hunters received a small state salary only during the tense moments when they were most needed. Otherwise, vigilantes have received haphazard financial support, gifts in cash or kind from state officials, local authorities, politicians, businessmen and military commanders. In Borno state, CJTF members participating in intelligence meetings or going with the army on operations may get per diem or a share of spoils captured from Boko Haram suspects and camps. In IDP camps, they often get a special share of the incoming aid.

Communities used to provide for pre-Boko Haram vigilantes, sometimes raising money to pay small salaries or providing necessities in kind. This still happens, but there are reports that some vigilantes “beg” at checkpoints, where the voluntary nature of “donations” is open to debate. There also are reports of ad hoc, uneven assistance being given to the families of vigilantes killed in action. Communities have sometimes been left to fend for their own casualties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

The same is true in the other three countries: vigilantes have been receiving some equipment and gifts of money and food from the presidency and military, as well as gifts in cash and kind from local notables and communities. Some form of “taxation” of communities has likewise been documented. In Cameroon, there have been several reports of Boko Haram’s loot being appropriated by the vigilantes, sometimes in association with the security forces.[fn]“Scandale autour du bétail saisi à Boko Haram”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 21 November 2016.Hide Footnote

C. The Vigilante Effect(s)

Assessing the vigilantes’ impact seems at first rather easy. In operational terms, there is little doubt they have been useful. Most soldiers, recruited from throughout their respective countries, often have little understanding of the local terrain (social or physical). Vigilantes have a better “sense of the normal and the abnormal” locally, which makes them apt to detect threats.[fn]Crisis Group, security expert, Maiduguri, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote Many people insist that the military’s lack of local language skills is a big problem that has resulted in unnecessary casualties. In the Lake Chad basin’s varied geography, from the marshes of Lake Chad to the hills and caves in Gwoza and the Mandara regions, soldiers can have a hard time without local guidance. Local knowledge explains the contribution of the lightly armed hunters of Adamawa, when they faced a Boko Haram force comprised of many city dwellers.

Having witnessed the growth of Boko Haram groups in their communities, vigilantes often know some of the militants and their business partners, as well as who from their immediate environment is unexplainably absent. On many occasions, they have prevented suicide attacks or limited their impact by detecting suspicious characters early.[fn]In Cameroon, some vigilante units have a member endowed with charms and mystical preparation and tasked to run at and grab suicide bombers that have not been shot down. Crisis Group interviews, vigilante members, soldiers, local authorities, Mokolo, Tourou, Mora, Yaoundé, October 2016.Hide Footnote Overall, vigilantes have helped make the military response more likely to hit proper rather than collective targets. For all this, they have paid a price. The recent official toll for the Borno state CJTF alone was 600 dead.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF officials, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Examining the broader impact brings more nuanced results. First, the decision by states to mobilise vigilantes has exposed them and their communities to Boko Haram retribution. As early as June 2013, a Boko Haram audio clip declared “an all-out war” on the youth of Maiduguri and Damaturu, “because [they] have formed an alliance with the Nigerian military and police to fight our brethren”.[fn]Audio clip, 18 June 2013, from Boko Haram spokesman Abu Zinnira quoted in “Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013. At one point, Boko Haram executed at roadblocks any male traveller from Maiduguri, to punish the city. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote Boko Haram has launched many attacks on vigilantes, the traditional chiefs associated with them and their communities. It frequently used suicide attacks against CJTF groups and their markets, mosques and transport terminals. Much of the 2014-2015 peak in casualties was due to such retribution.[fn]See, for instance, “Boko Haram weekend killing spree leaves at least 40 dead in Borno villages”, Information Nigeria, 29 July 2013; and “Au Nigeria, ‘Boko Haram élimine des villages entiers suspectés d’avoir collaboré avec le pouvoir’”, Le Monde, 18 March 2014. On a recent attack on the home of the CJTF chairman in Kaleri, Mafa LGA, see “Boko Haram suicide bomber attack home of Civilian JTF commander”, Sahara Reporters, 25 January 2017. On the body count of Boko Haram victims in Nigeria, see Appendix C below.Hide Footnote There is evidence of extreme Boko Haram violence in response to vigilantism in the other three countries. In Niger for instance, the communities of Lamana and Ngoumao, among the few to have set up armed units, were brutally attacked in June 2015, and 38 villagers were killed.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDPs from Lamana and Ngoumao, Ngaroua IDP camp, October 2016; “Niger: attaques meurtrières de Boko Haram dans des villages isolés”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 19 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Promotion of vigilantism was a principal driver that turned the conflict from an anti-state insurgency into a messy civil war.

Promotion of vigilantism was a principal driver that turned the conflict from an anti-state insurgency into a messy civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities. Early on, a CJTF leader in Maiduguri noted: “We have crossed the Rubicon, and there is no going back. Boko Haram have declared war on us and even if we stop hunting them down, they will still come after us, so we have to fight to the finish”.[fn]“Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013.Hide Footnote This forced ever more people to pick a side, when many would have preferred not to get involved. In at least one case in a small Borno town, the local traditional leader opposed forming a vigilante unit, lest it lead to retribution. When some Boko Haram members came to threaten the community, he mockingly referred the population to the vigilantes, who could only flee and hide when the jihadists returned in force to kill suspected opponents and loot.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leader, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Forcing communities to pick a side may well have benefitted the states, as most seem to have favoured their governments. Vigilante mobilisation and Boko Haram reprisals have helped recreate a link between the security services and substantial portions of the population, particularly in Borno state. An observer noted that Cameroon troops no longer detain those who volunteer information, assuming a Boko Haram connection, a habit that would scare off potential informers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NGO worker, Yaoundé, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Vigilantism has been a way for some civilians to regain a form of control in a situation of extreme uncertainty and powerlessness. The material benefits have mattered, but perhaps even more important than these occasional profits has been the relative protection from security-service suspicions that vigilante membership affords. Indeed, the groups grew when it became clear they had official support. In the uncertainty created by blunt, abusive counter-insurgency operations, an official ID or being on a list of approved members can mean appreciable protection, a modicum of security that vigilantes can hope to extend to their kith and kin. Affiliation with a vigilante unit can also importantly make travel through government-controlled areas safer.

Vigilantism, however, is not without problems. Cooperation with security forces is not easy: there is considerable mutual suspicion and accusations, particularly in Cameroon and Nigeria. Security sources say that some vigilantes double as Boko Haram agents or resell goods stolen by the jihadists. Several Cameroonian chiefs and comités de vigilance members, as well as the CJTF chairman of one of Maiduguri’s ten sectors (along with some military personnel), have been accused and arrested.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, security forces and vigilante members of Amchidé, Kerawa, Limani, Fotokol, Far North, October 2016, January 2017; CJTF and civil society activists, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Cameroun: des membres de comités de vigilance complices de Boko Haram”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 7 December 2015.Hide Footnote Vigilantes also have occasionally accused the security services of double-dealing – selling weapons to Boko Haram, or being too lenient with suspects they handed over, sometimes releasing them within hours. In March 2014, CJTF captured five armed men in Maiduguri, whom the army later claimed were soldiers in civilian garb. This led to a clash, with angry youths chanting that “soldiers are the real Boko Haram; soldiers are masters of Boko Haram”.[fn]“Two killed, others injured in Civilian-JTF revolt against soldiers in Maiduguri”, Information Nigeria, 4 March 2014.Hide Footnote Two vigilantes were killed. At the least, this episode attests to a degree of mistrust between the army and some vigilantes.

The justice issue is particularly sensitive. Vigilantism, because it emerges from the weak state’s inability to maintain law and order and is frequently fed by a desire for revenge for personal losses, has a built-in bias for rough justice. There have been ample reports of abuses. In the CJTF’s early Maiduguri days, June-July 2013, several Boko Haram suspects were burned alive. The International Federation for Human Rights says “hundreds of summary executions” took place then. Subsequently, CJTF were reportedly involved, with the army, in rounding up and killing 600 prisoners who had escaped from the main military detention centre in Maiduguri, Giwa Barracks, in March 2014. According to one account, vigilantes paraded in the town of Biu in southern Borno in November 2014 with the heads of some 40 alleged Boko Haram militants on pikes. In June 2015, Amnesty International reported that Nigerian vigilantes and the army committed severe human rights violations, including torture and execution of Boko Haram suspects. CJTF officials admit to “tough measures” during interrogations.[fn]“Boko Haram hunters burn suspect alive in Maiduguri”, Daily Trust, 25 July 2013; “Nigeria. Les crimes de masse de Boko Haram”, International Federation for Human Rights, 10 February 2015, p. 9; “41 Boko Haram members beheaded in Biu after failed attack”, Daily Post, 31 October 2014; “Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, Amnesty International, June 2015. For another case, “How I escaped death in Maiduguri – Ex-Borno commissioner”, Vanguard, 25 March 2014. For a video account, see “Nigeria’s Hidden War: Channel 4 Dispatches”, Channel 4, 18 August 2014. CJTF officials denied their members were involved. Crisis Group interviews, January 2017; Maiduguri, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Some observers suggest that the security services, particularly in Nigeria, have delegated suspect interrogation to vigilantes because of language skills and to keep as clean a human rights record as possible. CJTF says otherwise and seems to defer to the military on summary executions. In 2014, a CJTF reportedly knew it could not “render justice themselves”, so took suspects to the barracks, “where soldiers kill[ed] them”. A CJTF leader mentioned in an interview that he had handed over to the army his own nephew, who he knew was a jihadist militant, and that it had (rightly) executed him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts, Abuja, January 2017; CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Nigeria – La communauté se retourne contre Boko Haram”, IRIN, 11 August 2014; “Inside the vigilante fight against Boko Haram”, The New York Times, 5 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Several interviewees mentioned that some CJTF members were “pompous”, hinting that they derived an undue sense of self-importance and impunity from their power. Vigilantes also have engaged in other abuses, including sexual violence and extortion. Herdsmen in particular, as they circulate in the bush with valued cattle, have been targets. There are reported cases of vigilantes levelling false accusations against persons with whom they have personal feuds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; civilians, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Boko Haram: faut-il renoncer aux groupes d’autodéfense?”, Journal du Cameroun, 5 August 2016.Hide Footnote Human rights organisations have noted how those with a bit of power in IDP camps demand sexual services or money in exchange for favours, including the right to leave the camps or build a house there.[fn]Nigeria: Officials Abusing Displaced Women, Girls. Displaced by Boko Haram and Victims Twice Over”, Human Rights Watch, October 2016.Hide Footnote These include the CJTF, though a human rights specialist said that because vigilantes are usually from the IDP communities, they are somewhat less prone to commit abuses. In one instance at least, IDPs in a camp fought abusive vigilantes.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 13 January 2017. “Boko Haram still controls Abadam, Mobbar in Borno –IDPs”, Daily Post, 22 January 2016.Hide Footnote

CJTF leaders assert that an organisation was needed precisely to curb abuses and insist they put in place a structure to monitor behaviour, with provosts and a disciplinary committee chaired by a member who is a lawyer. Sources verified that they suspended or dismissed several members and referred others to the police. The leaders also say civilians have filed abuse charges against a dozen members, though Crisis Group was unable to confirm this. Some CJTF leaders have received instruction in international humanitarian law. There is some understanding among the vigilantes and their state and army partners that abuses can reduce the efficiency of a mobilisation. The replacement of rough justice mobs by partly-professionalised vigilantes and recruitment of female vigilantes are attempts to address these concerns. It seems that community pressure is an important form of control, which is why in Maiduguri (after initial abuses) it was quickly decided that vigilantes would operate close to their neighbourhoods, where they would know and be known by people.

There is evidence the human rights situation has improved somewhat under President Buhari, for a variety of reasons.[fn]eyond Buhari’s attitude, other factors include military commanders’ realisation they are under international scrutiny for possible war crimes, better organisation and oversight of the CJTF and decline in Boko Haram threats and violence as it was driven farther from Maiduguri.Hide Footnote International human rights organisations and civil society activists report changes in Maiduguri, including in the main military detention centre, Giwa Barracks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts and civil society activists, Maiduguri and Abuja, January 2017.Hide Footnote International focus on sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps led to several arrests in December 2016 in Maiduguri, including of two CJTF members. But there is not much solid evidence to suggest vigilantes are often held accountable for human rights violations. Little is known about what goes on during operations in remote territory or the impact of any abuses on local communities and vigilante relations with Boko Haram or the state. Nevertheless, the bottom line for many civilians seems to be that vigilantes have done more good than harm.[fn]“Ten suspects arrested in connection with IDP sexual abuse scandal”, Sahara Reporters, 6 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, civil society officials, traders, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. The Possible Risks Ahead

Vigilantism is a symptom of the weaknesses of the Lake Chad states, especially their disappointing delivery of security and law and order. Almost as soon as vigilante groups formed, especially in Nigeria, a debate began on the risks they could pose for the future.[fn]See, for instance, “Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013.Hide Footnote State and security services understand some of these, as exemplified by caution over providing weapons, attempts at screening and the strong Nigerian army oversight of the CJTF. But the Lake Chad states have often struggled to control the risks resulting from reliance on vigilantes to fight Boko Haram. All these risks are more acute in Nigeria, where the conflict has been most intense, vigilantes are more numerous and active and the state faces bigger challenges and the difficulties of policymaking in a federal system.

A. The Handling of Claims

One of the most significant issues may be the handling of vigilante claims for service and sacrifice, particularly when economies are struggling at both national and local levels. The conflict has devastated the interlinked Lake Chad regional economy. Trade in cash crops is banned or severely depressed (often intentionally by the military to prevent Boko Haram from taxing it); many traders have fled, fighting has destroyed much of the physical and social infrastructure, and agricultural production is extremely low. Massive displacement has triggered a humanitarian disaster, especially in Borno state. All this makes it harder to address vigilantes’ demands.

Some vigilantes joined not only for protection or short-term material benefits, but also for the rights and prospects they felt membership opened for future state rewards. Many have post-war jobs, scholarship or demobilisation money in mind. Some CJTF members mention the Niger Delta Presidential Amnesty Program, under which insurgents were pardoned, put on the government payroll and given vocational training or education: “These rebels get something, so what should we get, we who have fought for the state?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, 12 January 2017. The Amnesty Program was set-up by President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009. Due to end in 2015, it was extended to 2017.Hide Footnote Some vigilantes view their service explicitly as an advance against an expected reward. Through cooperation with the security services, particularly in Nigeria, vigilantes have become de facto apprentices, a classic path to a job, including a state job, in West African societies.

Vigilante leaders have sometimes been quite outspoken about their expectations from and frustration with the state, and some political leaders have begun to respond. The BOYES program was one such response. The Borno State Vigilantism and Youth Empowerment Agency Law voted in May 2015 was another, and in April 2016, Borno state Governor Shettima announced a program to create 20,000 jobs for CJTF members. In Borno, the army and DSS have absorbed 280 vigilantes into their ranks, but the actual demobilisation programs are only at the planning stage, which makes sense given the persisting security risks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016; “They’re defeating Boko Haram but are they Nigeria’s next security threat?”, IRIN, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote

One of the tricky aspects in handling claims is their administration. There are several instances where previous rewards and incentives, for instance inclusion in the BOYES program, have created strong tensions and competition among vigilantes, with accusations of nepotism and favouritism. Denouncing how some leaders have gotten rich, secured homes in government housing projects or “privatis[ed]” cars, some vigilantes insist they have left the movement, refuse to register and will not become involved in an eventual demobilisation program.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academic and CJTF, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017; vigilantes and state officials, Maroua, Mokolo, and Mora, October 2016.Hide Footnote The handling of vigilantes is even more important at a moment when states are pondering programs to encourage Boko Haram members to “exit”.[fn]Niger, Chad and Nigeria have all set up programs, though their functionality is not always easy to assess.Hide Footnote Several vigilantes expressed displeasure about these, some asserting bluntly that death should be the only way out.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote  This attitude is fed by vigilantes’ security concerns and memories of Boko Haram violence, but also by their sense of entitlement.

B. From Vigilantes to Political Thugs, Mafias or Ethnic Militias

Vigilantism’s downside and risks are well-known in Nigeria, where groups such as the Bakassi Boys and the Oodua People’s Congress have turned into major political forces in other regions.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty, op. cit., pp. 27-28.Hide Footnote There are various ways in which vigilante groups can evolve, even as the situation which has given rise to them fades away – and the Boko Haram threat is still far from that.

The first risk, politicisation of vigilantes, notably around elections, is particularly acute in Nigeria, because votes for governors, who control opaque budgets funded by enormous oil revenues, can be extremely competitive and violent.[fn]Governors also get a “security vote” from the federal government, an undisclosed, unaccounted monthly transfer of money they can use as they want, ostensibly for public safety. Obiamaka Egbo, Ifeoma Nwankoby, Josophat Onwumere and Chibuike Uche, “Security votes in Nigeria: Disguising stealing from the public purse”, African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 445 (2012), pp. 597-614.Hide Footnote Gangs of thugs hired to attack opponents’ supporters and to provide security are common. Indeed, Borno ex-Governor Ali Modu Sheriff relied on a vigilante group, ECOMOG (named after the West African peacekeeping force), for his 2003 campaign. Some analysts argue that soon after his victory, he let most go and that some later turned to Boko Haram in disappointment. An internal source reported that when the CJTF formed, a number of ECOMOG thugs still backing Sheriff joined, but CJTF leaders prevented them from rising in the ranks, fearing they were political proxies.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Boko Haram: les monstres de Maiduguri”, Le Monde, 23 June 2014.Hide Footnote

Whether this is an indication of the CJTF’s neutrality or their own politicisation is open to interpretation. Some observers suspect current Borno Governor Shettima’s BOYES program is partially political clientelism, an attempt to turn the vigilantes into a political network using counter-insurgency funding. At least one episode suggests the vigilantes’ political potential: in 2013, CJTF burned the house of the Borno state chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP), alleging he supported Boko Haram, but some suspect this had to do with an internal ANPP feud.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society official, Maiduguri, January 2017. “Our chairman is not a Boko Haram sponsor – Borno ANPP”, Premium Times, 5 July 2013; “Borno ANPP officials disown state chairman”, Daily Trust, 12 July 2013. Shettima was a party member at the time.Hide Footnote During the 2015 election campaign, many CJTF were seen at rallies of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Shettima’s current party. It is not clear how much control he has over the CJTF, but throughout the Lake Chad region politicians on all sides are keen on cultivating relations with these groups.

Vigilantism has potential to feed ethnic or ethno-religious cleavages, because its focus is the defence of a specific local community.

Vigilantism has potential to feed ethnic or ethno-religious cleavages, because its focus is the defence of a specific local community. In the Cameroon locality of Amchidé, for instance, the initial comité de vigilance was controlled by Christians and harassed Muslims. It was eventually dissolved by the authorities and replaced by a mixed comité.[fn]Crisis Group interview, vigilantes, Amchidé, March 2016; vigilantes and state officials, Mora, October 2016. For examples from other parts of Nigeria, see Harnischfeger, “Ethnicity, Religion”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Vigilantism is often also in an ambivalent relationship with the established orders of chiefdom and patriarchy, particularly in rural areas. It can cut both ways, sometimes revalidating “decentralised despotism”, a two-tier state system whereby peripheral areas, usually rural, are governed on the cheap, through delegation to chiefs with dubious claims to legitimacy and fitness to rule.[fn]Decentralised despotism” is a phrase borrowed from Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, 1996).Hide Footnote At other times, it can give some autonomy to the young men (and occasionally women) who are the muscle of the vigilante forces.

Finally, if vigilantes are not disbanded, they can become mafias that turn to protection rackets and organised crime. The question is what happens when those who have become accustomed to receiving salaries or “gifts” react when these cease. This is not a new phenomenon in the Lake Chad basin, where the distinction between vigilantes, regular security force members and bandits or rebels can be fluid. Some vigilantes have already been using their relative impunity to engage in crime, from small-scale drug trafficking to resale of stolen goods.[fn]Janet Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton, 2005); Debos, Living by the Gun, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF and CSO officials, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Marching on with Vigilantes

Given vigilantism’s size, the persistent insecurity and security forces’ overstretch, notably in Nigeria and Cameroon, neither neglect nor suppression is feasible.

A. In the Short Term, Improving Accountability

Niger’s choice to use vigilantes relatively modestly as surveillance networks is predicated on the ability of its regular forces more or less to keep Boko Haram at bay. This in turn has been possible in part because the jihadists’ assault has come later and been less intense, and because, having largely abandoned its portion of Lake Chad, the country’s remaining area is more easily watched. These conditions may well be changing, as Barnawi’s Boko Haram faction appears to be gathering strength on Lake Chad and along the Komadugu River, which delineates the eastern Niger-Nigeria border.[fn]A Crisis Group report on Boko Haram in Niger is forthcoming.Hide Footnote That there is now a full-fledged vigilante force in Toumour and some other sites may be a sign of the times.

Oversight and accountability improvements are much needed. The institutional mechanisms created by the Borno state CJTF, with provosts and a disciplinary committee, are welcome and could be improved and replicated elsewhere. It also would be useful to show that vigilantes are held accountable by making information publicly available on cases and decisions submitted to the committee, perhaps by a yearly report and periodic engagement with human rights entities.

In any case, the courts must examine allegations of grave human rights violations by vigilantes. Governments should devise a legal framework for their operations that holds members explicitly accountable, and the security services should give vigilantes instruction on human rights and legal obligations along with such practical skills as demining and intelligence work.[fn]The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) might supplement legal training.Hide Footnote The Lake Chad countries should acknowledge a responsibility to those they mobilise. Among other things, they should make sure all vigilantes have access to functional communication networks and can call in regular troops promptly when needed.

B. Symbolic and Material Rewards

There is need to acknowledge, including in national media, the effort vigilantes make. In societies where ethnicity can be very political, and the communities most affected by Boko Haram have come under suspicion as a whole, skilful promotion of some exemplary vigilante figures would be a good way both to recognise their commitment and courage and to contain stereotyping that links certain ethnic groups to Boko Haram.

Symbolic rewards also matter. Ceremonies, medals and diplomas have become standard and have some impact. Honouring those killed or maimed in association with some material attention to their families would also help, but action on this count has been too haphazard. Disbanding vigilante groups should be linked with some gainful sustainable employment and be supported by donors. If this is not fully practical, perhaps a distinction could be made, particularly in Borno state, between those who have stayed local and for whom militia service has been just one aspect of continuing lives, and those who have been displaced or chosen to move and become security-force auxiliaries. For those who have stayed in their community, governments, with donor help, should plan on some sort of association (as paid labour or staff) with the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure that is featured in all post-conflict plans.

National security is the sector most often mentioned by vigilantes themselves with regard to jobs after their groups are disbanded. Nigeria has already taken small steps. This should only apply to a small fraction of vigilantes, however, because normal educational requirements need to apply so as to avoid further weakening the security institutions. This is particularly the case in Nigeria, where the constitution requires a balance between communities in public recruitment, according to the principle of the country’s “federal character”.[fn]On this issue, see, for instance, Abdul Raufu Mustapha, “Institutionalising ethnic representation: How effective is the Federal Character Commission in Nigeria?”, Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) Working Paper no. 43, June 2007.Hide Footnote To make it acceptable that not everyone can be taken, recruitment has to proceed in as transparent a manner as possible.

For the bulk of vigilantes, demobilisation must be carefully planned, with grants to help them go back to their occupations, finish education or develop businesses. Such programs are never fully successful, but they help motivate returns to normal lives. It is the least the countries can do, and partners should assist. It would also help kick-start a regional economy that is in ruins.

C. In the Long Term, Rethinking Community Policing

Throughout the Lake Chad basin, police are largely or exclusively national. Nigeria’s federal police is a dysfunctional, often brutal force, one reason why vigilantes have formed in the first place and Boko Haram has appeared. Some have suggested recreating local forces as a solution.[fn]For an analysis that views local police as an alternative to vigilantes, see Peter Ekeh, “A Review of HRW’s and CLEEN’s Report ‘The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture’. On State Sponsored Vigilante Groups in Nigeria”,, 27 May 2002.Hide Footnote Given how tense state politics has become in Nigeria, a full-fledged police force at the governor’s command would be risky. At least as far as Borno state is concerned and given the likely continuation of some form of jihadist activity and rural unrest, it would make sense to create a federal body of auxiliaries under the army, State Security Service, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) or the mobile police to accommodate a portion of the CJTF, notably those with weapons training. Transparent recruitment is essential, and provision should be made for their potential integration, if they meet educational requirements and are retrained. This breach of the principle of Nigeria’s “federal character” would need national assembly approval.

With the help of local civil society organisations, other selected vigilantes might be retrained and redirected toward reporting and early-warning mechanisms linked to both the police and civil society organisations. This would build usefully on the fact that, particularly in rural areas, vigilantes have become important connectors to the state.

D. For a Reasoned Disarmament

The proliferation of weapons in the Lake Chad basin is part of the structural problems that have fed instability and allowed Boko Haram, at least initially, to portray itself as a provider of (religious) law and order. A disarmament program is necessary. States are already calling for it and have restricted access to gun licences in conflict areas. However, not all guns are the same. The program should be limited to functional automatic weapons and not spend money on decommissioning hunting rifles and locally produced guns, which are easily replaced and less lethal.

VI. Conclusion

Vigilantes have been essential in turning back the Boko Haram tide, but the jihadist group remains resilient. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will vigilantes. They are enmeshed with high politics, particularly in Nigeria, and local intercommunal relations, business operations and chiefdoms. Vigilantism is as much a long-term symptom of state weakness in the Lake Chad basin as a short-term solution to it. To address the drivers of armed extremism, Lake Chad countries must return state presence to the region, not least by reintroducing accountability and law and order. As part of this process, the CJTF and comités de vigilance will need either to be slowly disbanded or formalised and regulated. Getting relations and expectations right with their members should be an urgent aspect of rebuilding security in the region.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 February 2017

Appendix A: Map of the Lake Chad Basin

Map of the Lake Chad Basin Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017

Appendix B: Glossary

ANPP: All Nigeria Peoples’ Party

APC: All Progressives’ Congress

BOYES: Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme

BSYV: Borno State Youth Vanguard

BYAPJ: Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice

CJTF: Civilian Joint Task Force

CLEEN: Centre for Law Enforcement Education

HRW: Human Rights Watch

IDP: Internally Displaced Person

JTF: Joint Task Force

LGA: Local Government Area

NSCDC: Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps

SSS: State Security Service

Appendix C: Number of People Killed by Boko Haram 2013-2016

Number of People Killed by Boko Haram 2013-2016 References: Realtime 2016 All Africa File and Version 6 (1997-2015) dataset. Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 2016; “Global Terrorism Index 2015. Measuring and Understanding the Im-pact of Terrorism”, Institute for Economics and Peace

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