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Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts
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.

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.