Boko Haram continues to rely on communities in the Lake Chad Basin area for combatant recruits
In the Lake Chad Basin area, waves of Boko Haram members have deserted the violent extremist group since August 2016. Those who voluntarily leave the group are often referred to as deserters, returnees or repenters. While these three categories are not mutually exclusive, creating clear distinctions between them presents a conceptual challenge with potential policy implications for the region.
Operational successes achieved by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)2 in the Lake Chad Basin area, deepening rivalry between the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions of Boko Haram and growing disillusionment, have contributed to waves of members deserting the violent-extremist group.
This report explores the factors underlying desertion from the group, as understood by community, development and security actors in the region. It emphasizes the importance of processing and categorizing the various kinds of deserters within the broader context of preventing and countering violent extremism. Specific contextual challenges make new-generation desertion, de-incentivisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) approaches emerging from the demobilization and disengagement of violent extremists particularly relevant in the area.
Thus far, post-desertion intervention in the region has been limited to detention, encampment and processing along three main channels – judicial processing, de-radicalisation programmes and return to either recipient communities or communities of origin from which deserters were enrolled into or kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Although DDRR interventions are largely carried out at a national level, the phenomenon that warrants these interventions is regional. The interventions are performed in a complex conflict environment in which Boko Haram continues to recruit and coerce communities.
In the absence of a ceasefire, it is difficult to safeguard against resources earmarked for DDRR seeping into the broader political economy of violence in the region. The Lake Chad Basin is a highly volatile area, with civilian communities constantly targeted by violent-extremist tactics. This raises important questions about the transitional social justice dimensions of DDR processes.
Introduction and background
According to the MNJTF, some 3 500 members of Boko Haram have voluntarily surrendered in the four countries that converge in the Lake Chad Basin area. 4 Deserters and returnees often turn themselves in without weapons to local vigilante groups, or official administrative authorities. The various forms of surrender that have been observed in the region – categorized, broadly, as desertion, return and repentance – signal a shift in
conflct dynamics and raise significant policy questions about how to deal with ex-combatants and deserters.
Traditional disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes have tended to be incorporated into peace deals as part of post-war stabilization and peacebuilding. In the absence of a peace deal in the Lake Chad area, however, attrition through voluntary desertion is an important factor in combating the influence of Boko Haram. Security actors believe that wearing down Boko Haram through attrition from within its ranks will degrade the group to the point of collapse.
Within this context, the policy focus on Boko Haram deserters needs to integrate security and development responses to violent extremism.
This report, which is the product of engagement with community, development, humanitarian and security actors working in the Lake Chad Basin area, builds on previous research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies. 5 It explores the potential contribution achievable by, and the challenges to, context determined DDRR programming in interim stabilization operations in the area.
Based on an understanding of this specific context, the report provides recommendations informed by previous generations of DDR programmes that have been carried out both inside and outside of United Nations peacekeeping operations.
It also contributes to continental DDRR discourses that reflect changing conflct dynamics, as evidenced in the case of the Lake Chad Basin area. 6 While identifying Boko Haram deserters as the main targets for DDDR interventions, it also encourages broader approaches, designed to complement community-sensitive rehabilitation with efforts to de-incentivize recruitment and prevent forced enrolment. Meanwhile, rehabilitation and reintegration should also take into account cross-cutting individual, communal and contextual factors.
The Lake Chad Basin area: a complex conflict environment Geostrategic, humanitarian and ecological factors combine to make the Lake Chad Basin area a complex conflct environment. The area includes the peripheries of four countries – Cameroon, Chad and Niger and Nigeria, and incorporates two regional economic communities: ECOWAS7 and ECCAS. The political geography of the area, bounded, as it is, by four converging countries, means that it experiences specific human-security and service-delivery vulnerabilities.
These four countries have developed counter-terrorism strategies largely shaped by their own particular experiences with and understandings of violent extremism.
Furthermore, changes in climate conditions in the region have resulted in increased food insecurity, social tensions and poverty, which have contributed to growing levels of internal displacement. 10 A political legacy of ineffective and often contested state authority in the area, together with deteriorating ecological conditions and human-development dynamics, contributed to the emergence of Boko Haram. These factors also account for the embedded and resilient nature of the violent extremist group.
Boko Haram recruits
Since 2009, violent extremism perpetuated by Boko Haram, which originated in north-eastern Nigeria, has spread across the Lake Chad Basin area, simultaneously preying upon and relying on this ecologically vulnerable space for its survival and expansion. As the group’s capacity to wage asymmetric combat operations wanes owing to factionalism and disillusionment in its ranks, military operations and a concerted international effort to support affected communities, it increasingly and more ferociously targets civilian populations. As a result, Boko Haram has wrought Africa’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis.
As of October 2017, over 21 million people had been directly affected by this crisis, which has internally displaced over 2.6 million across the four Lake Chad Basin countries. Meanwhile, Boko Haram continues to rely on these communities for combatant recruits, who are either forcefully enrolled or politically, ideologically and socio-economically enticed to join the group.
The region struggles with overlapping ecological, security and humanitarian emergencies, making it a highly complex geopolitical conflct environment. Boko Haram emerged against this backdrop of interwoven ecological and human-development crises on the peripheries of several states, launching assaults on the countries’ sovereignty and territoriality. Through the MNJTF, the countries opted for a security-fist approach in dealing with what they perceived to be the most potent of the regional threats – Boko Haram.
From collective security to security development: adapting responses to violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin area
The MNJTF was established as an offensive and stabilization force to combat Boko Haram and other terrorist groups operating in and around the Lake Chad Basin.
In 2015 the MNJTF was given an additional mandate specific to the Boko Haram insurgency. 14 Since then, its successful military operations have helped degrade Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin area.
At the community level, the national armies are supported by ad hoc and volunteer security configurations known as auto-defense or vigilante groups, which are often armed with artisanal weapons. These have become part of the security landscape in the area, frequently mounting checkpoints across the territory. By controlling movements, on the one hand, they constitute an initial dissuasive line of defense for communities and, on the other hand, they are intelligence-gathering assets for state security institutions in the fight against Boko Haram.
Nevertheless, Boko Haram has proven to be a tenacious and resilient opponent in the face of both national military forces and community auto-defense groups. This is partly due to its geostrategic positioning – its members are embedded in communities at the Lake Chad Basin area, where the presence of state authorities is both limited and often contested. Being able to operate in these geographical margins has been a factor in the group’s ability to carry out both forced and voluntary recruitment among the communities living in the Lake Chad Basin area.
Interim stabilization in the prevention and countering of violent-extremism operations.
With only about a fifth of the MNJTF’s area of operations left to be cleared of Boko Haram, mainly in north-eastern Nigeria, the fight against the group is entering a new phase. The mandate of the task force is shifting from predominantly combat operations, aimed at depriving Boko Haram of territorial control, to implementing stabilization programmes. 19 It is a factor inherent in the region that although the effective territoriality of states is threatened by Boko Haram in and around the Lake Chad Basin area, their central authority, functionality and capacity to wage military operations endures.
The stark difference between post-war contexts and countering violent extremism (CVE) contexts is an important one to consider in the development of DDR interventions. CVE operations do not often benefit from the types of ceasefire reprieve that peace accords offer local, national and international actors to establish stabilization operations. Hence states would individually and collectively take the lead in what would be more aptly described as ‘interim stabilization’.
Interim stabilization is a phase of combined humanitarian, development and security interventions in regions that continue to be under imminent threat of violent extremist attacks. The prime objective during this phase is to reduce immediate security threats while addressing prevailing human insecurity and delivering interventions that target root causes of and enduring vulnerabilities resulting from complex conflct dynamics.
Interim stabilization is therefore a preparatory phase for full stabilization and sustainable transition once the terror threat has been considerably diminished. Given the volatility of certain contexts, programming during the interim stabilization phase should be flexible and adaptable enough to meet changing threats.
The MNJTF’s military operations have helped degrade Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin area DDRR during interim stabilisation goes beyond merely focusing on mechanisms for dealing with ex-combatants. It should also address desertion ‘push’ and recruitment ‘pull’ factors that continue to coexist within the complex conflct environment. As ex-combatants desert the violent-extremist group,
conditions that attract new recruits remain, while the degradation of the group itself does not prevent the kidnapping and forced recruitment of new members.
Stabilizing the status quo, therefore, is untenable in the long run and would only provide Boko Haram with an opportunity to regroup and resurge. There is growing international attention on the humanitarian consequences of violent extremism in the Lake Chad area, and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council has taken the lead in prescribing that development projects should supplement military action at both community and individual levels. The African Union (AU) envisions interventions that would focus on socio-economic development of communities liberated from Boko Haram, so as to deprive the terrorist group of its support and recruitment grounds.
However, the nagging political problem of both limited and contested state authority remains, especially in a region where the four countries have had varying encounters with Boko Haram.
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