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Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
A Short Window to Resuscitate South Sudan’s Ailing Peace Deal
A Short Window to Resuscitate South Sudan’s Ailing Peace Deal
Commentary / Africa

Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency

The Boko Haram insurgency is weakening in the Lake Chad basin, but its underlying socio-economic drivers remain to be addressed. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017, we urge the EU and its member states to support regional governments with winding down vigilante groups, funding youth employment projects, rebuilding agriculture and trade, and restoring public services.

This commentary on counter-insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

In the Lake Chad basin, the Boko Haram insurgency has hugely exacerbated pre-existing violence and underdevelopment. Despite recent military setbacks the jihadist group remains a significant regional threat, recruiting members and attacking civilians and security forces in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and has brought in its wake a humanitarian catastrophe. Failure to bring security, other basic public goods and visible socio-economic dividends to affected areas risks derailing recent progress. That would have severe consequences for the security and long-term stability of the four countries bordering the lake.

Divided, but still deadly

Boko Haram faces strong pushback due to falling societal support, the mobilisation of vigilante units and pressure from relatively well-coordinated regional security forces. This pressure has precipitated a wave of surrenders, mainly by women and children, and exacerbated internal tensions leading to a rift between two factions. One remains loyal to the group’s erstwhile overall leader, Abubakar Shekau, and is mostly present to the south of Lake Chad and along the ­Nigeria-Cameroon border. The second claims allegiance to Abu Musa al-Barnawi (Habib Yusuf), is based in the north of Nigeria’s Borno state along the border with Niger and mostly operates on the lake.

Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat.

But Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat. In the region’s border areas and the swampy, heavily vegetated and inaccessible Lake Chad it has found ideal areas to seek refuge, resupply and regroup. Over the last three months the dry season has allowed fighters to move more freely, which may explain the recent small increase in attacks. The spike may also be intended to prove, in response to military pressure, that the movement is far from down and out. Nigeria and Cameroon launched a joint military operation in late 2016, but there are signs that Shekau and his core units had dispersed beforehand. They are now regrouping and have increased suicide bomber attacks (deploying a notable number of female assailants) against soft targets, including in the city of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria.

The faction led by Barnawi is less active. It seems to be trying to rebuild connections with the local population and is focusing on military targets. However, it appears to be suffering significant losses as members surrender to national security forces.

Al-Qaeda’s release of a statement on the Boko Haram conflict in January 2017 – the first in a long time – suggests that it may be trying to use the current rift within Boko Haram to regain influence in the area. But its traction on the ground remains unclear.

A deepening humanitarian emergency

Across the region, over 10 million people are in need of assistance.

The severe humanitarian fallout is getting worse. Across the region, over 10 million people are in need of assistance and about 2.3 million are displaced, of which an overwhelming majority are women and girls. Food insecurity has increased significantly over the last twelve months due to displacement; over a third of the 1.5 million displaced children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Aid workers are only now gaining a clearer sense of the deeper damage to agriculture and trade.

Despite a steady increase in international assistance, the response remains under-funded, lacks gender-sensitive assistance and is still hampered by insecurity. In 2016, donors provided only 53 per cent of the $739 million needed that year. That the cost of the response plan for 2017 has risen to $1.5 billion reflects the deteriorating situation. While more funding is only part of the solution, donors do need to finance adequately the 2017 plan as part of efforts to halt a further worsening of the crisis.

The cost of a militarised approach

Lake Chad countries and their international partners need to be aware that the social and economic costs of continued military operations carry risks for the region’s political future and security. They should balance gains made by the region’s armies against the displacement caused by their operations and the negative impact on livelihoods, including on cross-border trade. This is exacerbated by a military ban on trade in some local goods, for fear Boko Haram could tax it, which is only slowly being lifted.

If the negative impact on livelihoods is not mitigated quickly, it could increase resentment against authorities, make it harder for displaced people to return home (if farmers miss the upcoming sowing season they could become more dependent on humanitarian aid) and possibly make people more susceptible to recruitment by Boko Haram or violent criminal groups. The militarisation of much of the area previously under Boko Haram’s influence risks generating a cycle of alienation and exclusion.

Peeling away Boko Haram

Many fighters, both male and female, have surrendered or been captured in recent months, although evidence suggests very few of the hard core are among them. It is vital to encourage this trend to peel away the outer circle of Boko Haram support, increase intelligence gathering through debriefing defectors and exploit the movement’s declining social legitimacy. To do so, it is necessary to deal with captives quickly and decently, according to their role in the organisation and in strict compliance with international human rights standards. Quick and fair processing could significantly lighten the burden on prisons and justice systems in all four countries.

The European Union (EU) and its international partners should assist in encouraging more Boko Haram members to surrender by ensuring the Lake Chad countries deal appropriately with captured suspects, including by avoiding keeping them in lengthy pre-trial detention and taking into account gender-specific needs. They should also support the four countries to differentiate between hardliners and others, establish community restorative justice programs where appropriate and start to build acceptable penitentiary services.

Planning for the aftermath

While Boko Haram continues to pose a security threat, the temptation is to allow military tactical demands to dominate thinking. This would be a mistake as only by paying early attention to the economic and social consequences of the violence can national and international actors prevent Boko Haram from regrouping or stop a similar group emerging. To deal with the consequences of displacement, the EU and member states should encourage countries of the region to ensure civilians handle much of the response, invest more in creating livelihoods, establish quick-impact youth employment projects and stimulate the longer-term recovery of agriculture and trade.

The EU should support better coordination between the military and civilian branches of the state, particularly problematic in Nigeria, including through its program “Strengthening the management and governance of migration and return and long-term resettlement in Nigeria”. Re-establishing markets and securing cross-border trade routes should be a priority of the EU’s Lake Chad Inclusive Economic and Social Recovery Programme (RESILAC).

The EU and its member states should raise awareness about women’s roles, including in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.

In partnership with civil society, the EU and its member states should strengthen programs to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles including in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. They should develop and support programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in camps for the internally displaced as soon as possible.

The EU should also be cognisant of the longer-term risks of over-reliance on vigilante committees; member states supporting security efforts should press regional governments to formulate plans for winding them down as and when the Boko Haram threat recedes.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Macharshake hands after talks on South Sudan's proposed unity government with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni at State House in Entebbe, on November 7, 2019. AFP/Michael O'Hagan
Statement / Africa

A Short Window to Resuscitate South Sudan’s Ailing Peace Deal

A negotiated 100-day extension for naming a unity government has averted a crisis imperilling a ceasefire between South Sudan’s main belligerents. Regional leaders should use the time to pressure them to agree on how to divide the country into states, an essential step for peace.

On 7 November, President Salva Kiir and armed opposition leader Riek Machar agreed to a second extension of the deadline for forming a unity government, a requirement of their September 2018 agreement aimed at ending South Sudan’s six-year civil war. The 100-day deferral, brokered at an emergency summit in Uganda, comes after a six-month delay in May. Importantly, it keeps alive the war’s longest ceasefire. But it does not bring the two sides closer to resolving their core differences. One issue that is critical to breaking the impasse is an agreement on the number and boundaries of states, which set the distribution of power across the country. Absent such an agreement, Kiir and Machar may have little incentive to form a unity government or to strike final bargains on unifying the army and security arrangements in the capital Juba. Mediators from Uganda, Sudan and Kenya should step up efforts to forge a deal on states. If they cannot do so before January, the new extension’s midpoint, other African leaders should step in. If the two sides cannot agree on states, they risk sliding back into war.

The extension of the deadline for the unity government’s formation was necessary but does not in itself guarantee progress.

The extension of the deadline for the unity government’s formation was necessary but does not in itself guarantee progress on the 2018 peace deal’s implementation, as Crisis Group made plain several weeks ago. Mediated by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Sudan’s Sovereign Council chair General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Kenya’s envoy Kalonzo Musyoka at a Tripartite Summit attended by Kiir and Machar, the deferral preserves a ceasefire that has largely ended five years of war. Thanks to the truce, South Sudanese enjoy more freedom of movement and better access to their fields and humanitarian aid. Rushing the unity government while the parties remained so far apart on key issues – crucially, those of states and internal boundaries, army reform and security arrangements in Juba – could have risked the ceasefire’s bloody collapse. Yet making progress now requires effective diplomacy from outside high-level mediators whose limited engagement over the past year gives little cause for optimism.

A Short Window to Resuscitate South Sudan’s Ailing Peace Deal

Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for South Sudan Alan Boswell recounts what he found during his field trip to South Sudan and touches upon Crisis Group's recommendations for this 100-day period. CRISISGROUP

The question of states and boundaries is one immediate stumbling block. Outstanding issues on the army are important and will likely be difficult to resolve, but the parties have agreed to a roadmap, even if it needs amending. Joint security committees established by the 2018 peace deal are operating and surprisingly collegial and there does not appear to be an absolute impasse. In contrast, on states and boundaries, discussions are deadlocked; committees created to resolve the issue have failed and disbanded. Security arrangements in Juba are also critical, as Crisis Group has previously underscored, given that the capital has been a flashpoint in the past and because Machar will not go back without his security ensured. But negotiations on that issue are, in essence, on hold, largely because Machar almost certainly will not return to the capital absent a deal on states and boundaries. If the two men can strike such a deal, then the road to a unity government becomes clearer and pressure will mount to resolve outstanding issues related to the army and Juba security. A priority for international mediators should be to unlock the states and boundaries question.

Both Kiir and Machar bear responsibility for creating that dispute.

Both Kiir and Machar bear responsibility for creating that dispute. In 2011, when South Sudan became an independent nation, it had ten states. State governors wield substantial power, access to resources and influence over political appointments down to the local level. Powerful allies of both Kiir and Machar, who at the time was Kiir’s vice president, wanted to increase the number of governors so as to widen the pool of spoils. In turn, state boundaries matter a great deal, as they can determine which ethnic group dominates each state and benefits from its resources, including oil. In 2014, after the civil war began, Machar called for redividing the country into 21 states. Kiir subsequently redrew the map to divide it into 28, and later 32, states, carved up to favour his political base.

The 32-state configuration is a source of great aggravation to Machar and many of his fighters. Rebel hardliners view it as surrender for Machar to join a unity government so long as that configuration remains in place. Meanwhile, some armed groups in Machar’s coalition vow to keep fighting if there is no change to specific boundaries, which they believe have been used to apportion their land to other groups. The most bitter of these disputes is over control of Malakal, a city in South Sudan’s north east that was once one of its three administrative capitals. Since Machar is the weaker party, his commanders know that he will have little leverage once in government to win concessions on states or boundaries. For this reason, he is unlikely to join a unity government absent a new deal on those questions. Nor, indeed, should diplomats attempt to force him to do so: were that to happen, the new government would immediately deadlock over the issue and Machar’s coalition might splinter, leading to renewed but more fragmented conflict.

If pressed hard enough, Kiir could budge from the 32-state configuration.

There could be a way to break the impasse. Many insiders to whom Crisis Group has spoken believe that, if pressed hard enough, Kiir could budge from the 32-state configuration, especially if mediators made clear that intransigence would mean he would shoulder much of the blame should the peace deal collapse over this issue. Machar has also said in private that he is not wedded to a specific number of states so long as he is not forced to accept the status quo.

Nor do the stickiest boundary disputes, especially over Malakal and its surrounds, need to hold up the process. The two sides could settle on a compromise on the number of states, even as a temporary arrangement. At the same time, they could bracket for later the most contentious boundary disputes, like those around Malakal, while setting in place a process for addressing them. This workaround would offer those of Machar’s fighters who are primarily concerned with boundaries a genuine alternative to perceived surrender or a return to war.

The roadmap the two sides have agreed upon is unrealistic, underfunded and fraught with logistical delays.

With an agreement on states and boundaries and a unity government in sight, mediators are more likely to make progress on the other major obstacles: a reasonable timetable for unifying a government and rebel armed forces into a single national army and security arrangements in Juba. On the former, Kiir and Machar have made some progress on a technical deal that would unify a first batch of 83,000 fighters and, as noted, commissions charged with advancing army reform are functioning. But the roadmap the two sides have agreed upon is unrealistic, underfunded and fraught with logistical delays. Kiir’s government is justifiably concerned that Machar is using cantonment – a process the 2018 peace deal lays out for assembling and registering his forces – to amass fighters. Bolstering rebels’ ranks jeopardises the peace process, because Machar could draw on more forces if the ceasefire collapses and because Kiir’s camp may refuse to integrate such a large number of opposition loyalists into the military. For their part, Machar and his allies fear that Kiir will renege on pledges to bring in their forces.

Work toward an agreement on the army should not sit still even if international mediators are focusing primarily on states and borders. Machar will need to make compromises – involving a more realistic timeline, rigorous screening of his forces to reduce the number of new recruits and a reasonable ceiling for the number he can bring into the army – and he is unlikely to do so until the states and boundaries questions are resolved. At the same time, Kiir needs to show that he is committed to integrating opposition contingents. Important first steps would be releasing funds for army unification and making progress on creating new joint units.

Settling the issue of states could also facilitate resolving the question of Machar’s personal safety in the capital. Negotiations over that issue will likely only commence in earnest once Machar believes he has the go-ahead to return to Juba from his coalition, which requires a deal on states. That said, some preparatory steps could help. The UN Security Council could, for example, consider mandating the UN Mission in South Sudan or request assistance from regional states to offer Machar third-party protection. This would prevent him from using his safety as the rationale for returning with a large opposition contingent, as he did in 2016; fighting subsequently erupted in Juba between his and Kiir’s fighters. Kiir has reportedly indicated that he would accept third-party protection, presumably since it would allow him to maintain military hegemony in the capital. African and Western diplomats will likely need to pressure Machar to do so, though he is unlikely to consider such an offer until he is ready to form a unity government and once his own negotiations with Kiir over the issue reach an impasse.

The costs of failing to resolve key disagreements are rising.

The costs of failing to resolve key disagreements are rising. The ceasefire is unlikely to indefinitely survive without forward momentum and if South Sudanese on all sides lose hope in the peace deal. Moreover, despite the benefits that the ceasefire has brought much of the country, conflict still rages in parts of the Central Equatoria and Western Equatoria regions between the government and rebel leader Thomas Cirillo, who is not a signatory to the peace agreement. Consolidating the 2018 peace deal’s gains would allow international actors to focus on pressuring Kiir and Cirillo to negotiate an Equatorias ceasefire.

An accord between Kiir and Machar – first on states and then on security arrangements – will require concerted diplomacy. That Uganda’s President Museveni and Sudan’s Burhan brought Kiir and Machar together for the 7 November meeting is encouraging albeit overdue: it was the first such high-level mediation this year even as the peace deal stalled. This track must be sustained. These leaders should schedule another high-level meeting by early January, the midway point set for reviewing progress; that meeting should focus on brokering a way forward on the configuration of states so as to break the impasse. Mediators, working with South Sudanese civil society delegates to the peace process, should begin drafting compromise plans to put before the two leaders to get talks started.

Regional states should set aside their remaining divisions and pressure the South Sudanese parties to find common ground.

If this fails, others need to step up. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should call a wider heads of state summit to resolve the issue. The sub-regional bloc itself has been divided over several issues, including its leadership succession, quarrels over which have repeatedly postponed a summit. Now that Sudan has assumed the chair from Ethiopia, these disagreements are over. Regional states should set aside their remaining divisions and pressure the South Sudanese parties to find common ground. For their part, the so-called C5 group of African nations, which is chaired by South Africa, also comprises Algeria, Chad, Nigeria and Rwanda, and was mandated by the African Union to support IGAD’s efforts, should press IGAD members to convene a summit and Kiir and Machar to reach an agreement on states and boundaries. Donors led by the U.S. and the EU should do the same.

Both Kiir and Machar face dangers in continuing to stall in forming a unity government, even after this second, 100-day reprieve. The pressure on Machar’s cash-poor coalition will only mount if he remains outside Juba as Kiir’s regime rakes in oil revenue. The longer the deadlock persists, the likelier more defections and a split in Machar’s rebel forces. Kiir, meanwhile, will face renewed isolation if war breaks out. Indeed, officials from the U.S., South Sudan’s largest donor and historical partner, are losing patience with him and Machar and say they are inclined to re-evaluate relations and impose sanctions on key individuals in both camps.

Both men may be nearing their last chance to make peace together in the country they helped birth.

To bolster mediation efforts, Washington could respond to calls from Congress to nominate a special envoy to South Sudan senior enough to conduct high-level shuttle diplomacy in the region and augment the efforts of U.S. allies in the so-called Troika, the UK and Norway, which already have their own envoys. The AU Peace and Security Council could also outline to Kiir and Machar that they would face punitive measures, including targeted sanctions, if they fail to reach an agreement. The Council threatened to move toward sanctions last year; the parties signed the peace deal soon thereafter.

Both men may be nearing their last chance to make peace together in the country they helped birth. Kiir, as the stronger party, is well able to absorb the costs of peace; his close advisers should encourage him to do so. Machar’s allies should press him, too, to make this peace deal work, since he may not get another shot at helping lead the country. There is a path forward, should they choose to take it.