Civilian Suffering In Chad’s War Against Boko Haram

The Chadian army has declared the Lake Chad borderlands a warzone following the deadly Boko Haram attack which killed an estimated 100 soldiers stationed in the region last week. There are widespread concerns that civilians will be hit hardest by the violence. Conflict in the African Sahel region has already displaced approximately 2 million civilians and a further 169,000 could be told to leave their homes following the recent declaration.

In 2009 Boko Haram, the West African Jihadi terrorist group, launched a vicious insurgency in Nigeria, which has since spread across Cameroon, Niger and Chad. In recent years, the group – whose name translates to “non-Islamic education is a sin” – have established themselves in the Lake Chad region which spans the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. Attacks on local soldiers and civilians have intensified, and the ambush on the Chadian military at the Boma Peninsula on the 23rd March was the deadliest that the army has ever suffered. 

Consequently, experts fear that hardline government response will lead to Chad becoming the focus of more attacks by terrorist groups, and a centre of conflict. Jacob Zenn, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said that he thinks, “Chad will risk becoming too ambitious in attacking Iswap and Boko Haram. That would lead to a snowball effect of more attacks in Chad.” Rida Lyammouri of the Institute for Global Change commented that, “major humanitarian consequences” will come as a result. Her concerns are echoed by Christos Styliandines, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, who remarked that, “the disastrous effects of armed conflict and violence in the Lake Chad basin have hit a region already damaged by poverty and the consequences of climate change hard.”

Whilst the Chadian army is internationally well-respected, the country is not equipped to deal with conflict on home turf. Under Idriss Déby’s precarious dictatorship, it is politically complex and geographically vast. At 1,284,000 square kilometres, it has a population of 16 million divided into over 200 fractious ethnic groups; in 2019 the government declared a state of emergency to dispel inter-ethnic violence in the east of the country. Moreover, an estimated 66.2 percent of its population live in severe poverty. 10.7 million Chadians need daily help from humanitarian aid to survive, a quarter of which are already displaced due to conflict and climate change. Indeed, the Lake Chad basin has felt the direct impact of global warming: increased temperatures in the region mean that the lake, a vital source of food, water and irrigation, has shrunk by  nearly half from 25,000 (1964) to 14,000 (2020) square kilometres. Prior to the escalation in violence, the U.S. government’s famine warning system issued an alert that civilians would struggle to meet food requirements over the summer. The displacement of hundreds of thousands more people will put increased pressure on host communities and their limited resources. 

Full-on conflict in the Lake Chad area will put some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens at greater risk of violence and starvation. The German and Norwegian governments, with help from UN agencies, have already committed millions of euros to help stabilize the region and support citizens. However, the shadow cast by the coronavirus pandemic means the world’s attention is largely turned elsewhere, further endangering the lives of those affected by conflict and famine, who rely on external help. It’s vital that the people of Chad are not forgotten about by the international community in their time of need.