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Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential
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.

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential

Originally published in Peace Lab

The European Union has put instruments and tools in place to improve its early warning mechanisms. Member states must now work with EU institutions to make them more effective. One concrete step that Germany could take is to push the new EU leadership to regularly put countries ‘at risk’ on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The European Union has always been stronger at reacting to crises than predicting or preventing them. On too many occasions the EU was lacking strategic foresight to anticipate major developments that impacted its internal and external policies. The widespread protests and their repercussions during the Arab Spring or Russia’s annexation of Crimea were as much a surprise to most European leaders and EU institutions as to other international actors, leaving them with no better options than to scramble for crisis management solutions since it was too late for preventive measures that might have had lower costs and better outcomes.   

The EU’s Early Warning System ensures higher awareness of structural risks

Aware of these shortcomings, the EU has invested more resources in its early warning and early response capacities. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has put in place its own Early Warning System in 2014. In the EU’s own words, this system is a “tool for EU decision-makers to manage risk factors and prioritize resources accordingly.” The Division in charge of the Integrated Approach for Security and Peace (ISP) within the EEAS leads this process. Every year it works with other EU institutions to identify a number of countries ‘at risk’ with a time horizon of four years. The analysis is based on a wide range of quantitative and qualitative information from internal and external sources. This includes a Global Conflict Risk Index elaborated by the EU’s Joint Research Center which evaluates quantitative indicators in social, economic, security, political, geographical and environmental dimensions. This is complemented by intelligence-based analysis from the EU’s Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity as well as qualitative input from an EU staff review and expert country analysis. The resulting list of countries ‘at risk’ is presented to the EU member states’ ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee, before EU institutions undertake a comprehensive conflict analysis and develop concrete objectives for early action. 

This Early Warning System, in combination with flexible financial tools, especially the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), and better intra-institutional coordination allows the EU to be more aware of structural risks of conflict around the world and have mechanisms and tools at hand to respond before the outbreak of a crisis.

When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action.

While this is all well and good in theory, the practice can sometimes pose challenges to this system, especially when it has to face (geo-) political realities. When EU member states have different views on the analysis of the countries ‘at risk’ or on preventive measures, this comes to the forefront. Even though they do not decide on the final list of countries identified by the Early Warning System, their buy-in is critical to ensure effective early action. When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action. A member state that has important (or sensitive) relations with a country on the list can have an interest in blocking political or diplomatic action at the European level. It suffices to look at the Libyan example – not an early warning country, but a telling case – to see how diverging views and strategies among member states can paralyze the EU’s abilities to prevent the escalation of a crisis.

To ensure that the information gained from the EU’s Early Warning System is translated into policy despite diverging views and interests, EU member states, including Germany, can push for collective action in three areas:  

Fostering joint analysis among the EU and member states

Firstly, a regular involvement of member states in the Early Warning System and follow-up work is important. While diverging approaches to the list of countries ‘at risk’ are understandable – there is not always an obvious solution to fend off a crisis and there are limits to EU influence – it is all the more important to have a mechanism for reconciling competing views and identifying the best path forward. Both the EU and several member states have already taken steps in this direction. The EU for instance involves member state embassies in the conflict analysis they undertake in-country. Germany and the Netherlands, which both have their own national early warning systems, initiated a European Early Warning Forum that allows European governments to engage with EU institutions twice a year on the list of countries ‘at risk’.

However, there is room for more regular informal exchanges to ensure the buy-in from member states throughout the process. EU institutions should find additional ways to take member state views and inputs into account, and all 28 national governments need to actively use these opportunities to share information and ideas. Germany could work on both ends of this process, by engaging with the EU to explore creative ways to involve member states and by encouraging the latter to contribute their analysis and expertise.

Bringing early warning countries onto the political agenda

Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

Secondly, even with an early warning list at hand, the focus ultimately tends to remain on managing ongoing crises, with a particular emphasis on member states’ strategic interests. Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

An important step could therefore be a clear commitment by the incoming High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to pay specific attention to the countries identified by the Early Warning System and to rally member states behind common preventive action. Germany should incentivize this by proposing to add one of those countries as an agenda item to the Foreign Affairs Council, where ongoing crises usually dominate the debate among European foreign ministers. Germany can also host informal high-level discussions on early warning countries in Brussels to foster debates around preventive action.

Preserving important early action tools

Finally, during the upcoming negotiations for the new EU budget for 2021-2027, member states and EU institutions should make sure that the achievements that have been made over the past years will be preserved, specifically when it comes to flexible funding of rapid reaction and long-term preventive approaches. The proposed Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) would channel the EU’s specialized funding instruments, such as the IcSP, into one single tool. Even though the NDICI proposal foresees specific pillars for Stability and Peace as well as Rapid Response, ongoing negotiations between the EU, member states and the European Parliament could result in an over-emphasis of short-term crisis management support at the expense of long-term preventive and peace-building action.

As these budget negotiations will most likely be finalized under the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020, Germany will have an important role in fending off attempts to cut or dilute budget commitments in this field.

All this shows that the full potential of the EU’s Early Warning System, while an important tool for increasing Europe’s awareness and joint understanding of conflict risks, is not yet being fully utilized. A higher level of political support by both EU institutions and member states might help the EU use it to better effect and become more effective in its early response to brewing crises. In recent years, Europe has seen and felt the impact of deadly conflicts around the world, several of them right at its doorstep. It should therefore be in the strategic and humanitarian interest of all member states to prevent further escalation or outbreak of violence and resulting shocks to regional stability. Member states have given the EU a clear mandate to increase awareness of conflict risks. Now that instruments and tools have been put in place, member states should work with EU institutions to make them more effective.