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International Community Must Not Miss This Chance to Act on Lake Chad Crisis
International Community Must Not Miss This Chance to Act on Lake Chad Crisis
Report 227 / Africa

The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm

The Sahel’s trajectory is worrying; poverty and population growth, combined with growing jihadi extremism, contraband and human trafficking constitute the perfect storm of actual and potential instability. Without holistic, sustained efforts against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, radicalisation and migration are likely to spread and exacerbate.

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Executive Summary

The huge, sparsely populated, impoverished Sahel is affected by growing numbers of jihadi extremists and illicit activities, including arms, drugs and human trafficking, estimated to generate $3.8 billion annually. Borders are porous, government reach limited. Populations and unemployment are soaring. Within this perfect storm of actual and potential instability, criminal networks increasingly overrun Central Sahel – the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin. State authority is weak in relatively stable Niger. To the south, the radical Islamist, primarily Nigerian, Boko Haram insurgency is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and more than a million displaced. Western and regional counter-terrorism efforts are insufficient, but neither have more integrated approaches proposed by the EU and UN borne fruit. Without holistic, sustained action against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, instability is likely to spread and exacerbate radicalisation and migration.

The Sahel, a vast region stretching from Mauritania to Sudan bordering the Sahara Desert, has always had porous borders and thinly populated areas only loosely controlled by national governments. (For example, Niger is bigger than Nigeria, but its seventeen million population is a tenth the size and concentrated in its southern quarter). But as Libya imploded and Boko Haram expanded across borders in the Lake Chad Basin, criminal networks trafficking illicit goods and humans grew by corrupting officials, forming alliances with local communities and sometimes working with jihadi groups. The region has become a key source of, and transit point for, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe. By mid-June 2015, more than 106,000 were estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Nearly 57,ooo had reached Italy, almost exclusively from Libya and after transiting countries to its south. UN officials project that between 80,000 and 120,000 migrants will pass through Niger during the year.

Western governments have primarily taken a security-oriented approach to the criminal and jihadi threats, upping their military presence and counter-terrorism operations and increasing efforts to secure Europe’s southern borders. Initiatives such as the Rabat (2006) and Khartoum (2014) processes to curb illegal immigration, as well as the latest European Union (EU) plan – including refugee resettlement, but also a military operation to disrupt smugglers’ networks and destroy their boats – tackle only symptoms of the Sahel’s problems.

There is little prospect of stabilising the region without recognising that current policies do not address the deep sources of its instability: entrenched poverty; underdevelopment, particularly in the peripheries; and a booming youth population with little access to education or jobs and no real loyalty to the state. Many youths see migration – illegal if necessary – as their only future. Others lash out at their corrupt “secular” and “Westernised” states in hope of imposing a more morally pure, Islamist government. A huge proportion of the men, women and children crossing the Mediterranean are not coming to Europe simply to escape poverty, but also to flee deadly conflicts and repressive governments.

Heavy-handed military action and closure of political space by co-option or criminalisation of the opposition aggravate tensions. Labelling non-violent Islamists potential jihadis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Government neglect of the peripheries, unwillingness to address local conflicts and tendency to rely on personal, at times criminal, clientelistic alliances rather than develop democratic institutions feed a growing sense of marginalisation, particularly in rural areas.

Remote, weak or even repressive central governments across the region have been supplanted by alternative forms of organisation, including traditional authorities; community-based structures; Islamist movements; and criminal networks. Outside forces, both criminal and jihadi, have particular success exploiting these ad hoc governance systems, aligning with the concerns of local powerbrokers to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, battles, sometimes very violent, for control of the lucrative smuggling routes are becoming more numerous and visible.

To counter the growing jihadi threat, international actors have deployed troops and aircraft and supported national security forces that pursue a militarised approach. Local populations, however, often view the Western military presence as driven by a desire to protect interests in the area’s hydrocarbon and mineral deposits. Prioritisation of counter-terrorism and conflation of violent jihadism with other forms of political Islam are creating a backlash against regional and Western governments alike.

To reverse the Sahel’s deepening instability – in particular deterioration in already precarious Niger – national governments and external actors need not only to manage the short term, but also to take a long view. This would involve committing to sustained efforts to shore-up fragile states by consistently and transparently promoting good governance and durable development, as well as to resolve existing conflicts and address their humanitarian consequences. To do so:

  • Western policies should be reoriented to concentrate on building more inclusive and accountable governments and countering structural factors that drive marginalisation and alienation, and thus criminalisation and radicalisation.
     
  • While Western governments and the EU are likely to continue their security-first approach, efforts to tackle radicalisation and criminalisation should focus on promoting accountable public administration, particularly in Niger and Nigeria. These could include encouraging creation of civilian oversight mechanisms for public institutions and supporting construction of robust, inclusive coalitions against corruption and mismanagement.
     
  • Development aid should be tied not to military counter-terrorism efforts, but to measures that improve governance, limit state corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.
     
  • Addressing youth unemployment through training and labour intensive infrastructure projects to link the peripheries to markets and services could significantly contribute to tackling migration.

Finally, efforts to deter migration need to be accompanied by longer-term strategies to curb unsustainable population growth, particularly in Niger, through support for women’s rights to education and reproductive health.

Dakar/Brussels, 25 June 2015

Op-Ed / Global

International Community Must Not Miss This Chance to Act on Lake Chad Crisis

Originally published in IRIN News

One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is unfolding in West Africa’s Lake Chad region, where 11 million people are in urgent need of emergency aid.

Nigeria, its neighbours, and the world are struggling to find an adequate response. Failure to do so will condemn millions to more suffering, and raise the region’s vulnerability to violent extremism.

Donors meeting at the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad region on Friday must seize the opportunity to act more effectively.

Up to 100,000 people may have died in the seven-year Boko Haram insurgency, according to Governor Kassim Shettima of Borno State in Nigeria’s northeast, the epicentre of the fighting. He says it has made orphans of 52,000 children.

More than 1.7 million people have been uprooted by the violence in Nigeria alone. The International Organization for Migration estimates that roughly 14 percent of the displaced have found shelter in government-run camps, most of which are ill-equipped and poorly administered.

But the vast majority survive on the benevolence of poor host communities, straining those limited resources still further.

Thousands of women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have suffered physical and psychological abuse, forced marriage, sexual slavery or compulsory labour. Some have been used as “suicide bombers”.

Boys, forcibly turned into combatants, have witnessed or committed gruesome atrocities and now battle their invisible trauma.

Although the region’s militaries have made great progress against Boko Haram since late 2015, and the insurgents have been weakened by both internal feuds and lean resources, continuing attacks on remote communities mean civilians are still at risk from the insurgency.

Local economies in ruin

The conflict has devastated the region’s infrastructure. In Borno, the violence has destroyed 30 percent of houses, and hundreds of schools, health centres, water sources, roads and bridges.

Food production has been hobbled by the flight of farmers, herders and fishermen. The Nigerian authorities’ decision to limit mobility and put several key trades, such as fuel marketing, under embargo as part of its counter-insurgency strategy has compounded the situation.

The exodus of large numbers of professionals, including school teachers and health care workers, has hollowed out social services.

The result is that roughly 11 million people across the four countries of the conflict-impacted Lake Chad region now need humanitarian assistance. In Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, some 7.1 million people are facing severe food insecurity.

In northeast Nigeria alone, more than five million are in food crisis. By June this year, 120,000 people could be facing famine in pockets of the region, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

The international response

Since 2016, the humanitarian community has been struggling to strengthen its response, but inadequate international support has been a major drawback.  

First, the outside world has been slow to recognise the crisis because it was underestimated. But significant improvements in security have now allowed access to hitherto inaccessible areas. Media reporting has been patchy, both locally and internationally, compared to other humanitarian emergencies of similar scale.

Secondly, the crisis has not been accorded requisite policy attention by donor countries and agencies. Many would-be donors had assumed that because Nigeria, the main country impacted by the crisis, was oil-rich it was therefore capable of managing its challenge.

But even at the best of times, the needs of the country’s mostly poor 182 million population meant it had limited resources to respond to a major humanitarian crisis. Resources are sharply lower since the slump in oil revenues since late 2014 and have been depleted further since January 2016 by the sabotaging of domestic production by armed groups in the Niger Delta

Some potential donors may also have been put off by long-standing concerns about corruption and accountability in Nigeria, and the government’s sensitivity to external involvement in the situation.

As one Western diplomat in Abuja noted, President Muhammadu Buhari’s charge that humanitarian agencies cooked up the crisis with “hyperbolic claims” in order to boost their own fortunes could be extremely discouraging to some potential donors.

Third, the donor response to funding appeals has been far short of the needs, an understandable result of the poor media coverage and low policy engagement. The UN assistant secretary-general and lead humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, Toby Lanzer, recently observed that the $739 million required under the 2016 response plans was only 53 percent funded.

The Oslo conference is an opportunity to address the deficits in the international response. It provides a forum for better understanding the real dimensions of the crisis and forging a stronger compact between the international donor community, the governments of impacted countries, and UN and humanitarian actors on the ground.

It must, in particular, inspire greater donor commitment to fund the $1.5 billion response plan and appeal for 2017. 

Uprooting Boko Haram

The present humanitarian crisis has roots deeper than the Boko Haram insurgency. These include the region’s rapid and unsustainable population growth, the severe vulnerability of livelihoods resulting from climate change and environmental degradation, prolonged under-investment in social services, and the failure to alleviate mass poverty.

The Oslo Conference must, therefore, focus the international community on the necessarily longer-term engagements that these complex challenges demand.

Mobilising a more effective response to this crisis must be seen not just as an immediate gesture of international charity but also as a long-term investment in international security.

Failure to improve conditions in the region could exacerbate trans-Saharan migration to Europe’s shores – Nigeria was already the third largest source of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in 2016 – and transform the Lake Chad basin into an incubator for new extremist groups, with more ambitious goals and more global targets than Boko Haram.

As Borno State Governor Shettima warned at a conference in Abuja recently: “If we fail to take care of the 52,000 children orphaned by Boko Haram, then we must get ready that 15 years down the road, they will come back to take care of us”.