Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures

Since 2015, the conflict between Chad’s armed forces and Boko Haram has destabilised the Lake Chad region in the west of the country. Defeating this resilient insurgency requires the state to go beyond a purely military campaign and relaunch trade, improve public services and reintegrate demobilised militants.

Executive Summary

Since early 2015, attacks in Chad by the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram have killed hundreds, displaced more than 100,000 and damaged the regional economy of the Lake Chad basin. Violence peaked in 2015 with suicide bombings in the capital and in the Lake region, and has since declined. Chad’s military engagements and its role in the fight against terrorism – around Lake Chad and elsewhere in the region – have brought significant diplomatic gains, most recently the appointment of Foreign Minister Moussa Faki as chairperson of the African Union Commission. But the security risk hasn’t disappeared. To counter the ongoing threat while responding to the immediate and longer-term needs of the population, Chadian authorities need to build on the relatively successful regional security cooperation, start to move away from their highly militarised response to include a more significant civilian component, elaborate a more coherent economic development plan and deal more effectively with former Boko Haram members.

Boko Haram’s presence in Chad has been most strongly felt around Lake Chad, which lies primarily within Chadian territory. The area combines rich agriculture, pastoralism and fishing and is a magnet for migrants from all over the Sahel, leading to tensions over control of resources. Boko Haram has taken advantage of the geography of the lake seeking refuge on its many islands. The cultural and religious influence of Nigeria’s Borno state facilitated the penetration of the Borno-born jihadist group, which has also taken advantage of longstanding communal tensions in the area.

Initially, Boko Haram’s presence on the Chadian side of the lake was limited. But violence rapidly escalated in 2015, partly in reaction to the intervention by Chadian forces in neighbouring states. Two suicide bombings in the capital N’Djamena and multiple attacks on villages and army posts followed. Attacks diminished at the start of 2016, having never reached the levels seen in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. This was accompanied by a wave of surrenders of Boko Haram members in the second half of the year, but which seemingly included few if any of the hard core. Attacks continued, however, throughout 2016, as the jihadist group showed repeated resilience and adaptability.

The violence Boko Haram unleashed has led to over 100,000 displaced and 7,000 refugees on Chadian territory by the beginning of 2017. In 2015, this heightened longstanding antagonisms between communities and made community-level conflict management more challenging. Some community chiefs have been caught in the violent crossfire. Some have been pressured by the national authorities, while others have been accused of complicity or targeted by Boko Haram and one has even been killed. Stigmatisation of some of the Buduma ethnic group, suspected of colluding with Boko Haram, was acute but has lessened since violence decreased.

The reaction of the Chadian authorities has been primarily military, both in the Lake region and through interventions in neighbouring countries. A state of emergency was imposed in November 2015 and has been renewed several times since, and administration has been partly militarised. Many suspected Boko Haram members captured on Chadian soil have been imprisoned for long periods without trial. Local defence militias have been created and have played a significant role against the jihadist group. But the heavy security response has come at a cost, especially in restrictions of movement imposed on a traditionally highly mobile population heavily dependent on cross-border trade.

As the first phase of a new military offensive by armies in the region has just been launched (Operation Rawan Kada), the risks of infiltration and a rise in attacks on the Chadian territory are real. A large-scale attack could act as a trigger and, as in 2015, lead to stigmatisation, particularly of the Buduma population. Until now, national authorities have failed to articulate any longer-term plan for the area, and there is little sense of how the impact of Boko Haram is dealt with at a civilian level. A clear new development strategy is needed, which should be driven by the needs of the population in the Lake Chad area and not tied too closely to the fight against the jihadist group.

The reduction of the Boko Haram threat largely depends on actions taken in neighbouring countries, primarily Nigeria. However, measures can be taken to contain it in Chad and in particular in the lake area:

  • Chadian authorities are ill-prepared to deal with suspected Boko Haram members who have surrendered or been captured. A screening process must be initiated to distinguish between real members and those who were either at the periphery or even not associated to the group at all. The latter should be released and integrated in broad community development projects targeting the youth. Following the recent initiative of the interior ministry in neighbouring Niger, Chadian authorities should elaborate a framework document for the treatment of surrendees and communicate it to its international partners.

  • To encourage surrenders, counter violent radical messages, improve communication by the authorities and allow local people to express their concerns, community radio stations should be supported and expanded. Most of these will necessarily operate at local level, but consideration should be given to developing community radio stations with a remit to cover the whole lake area, to reflect the diversity and integration of the populations. Such radio stations, which could be based on existing initiatives in neighbouring countries, should broadcast in a wide and balanced range of local and national languages, and should include messages of peace, calls for surrender directed at Boko Haram members and information on other issues of lakewide interest such as cattle prices.

To balance the heavily militarised response to the Boko Haram threat in the lake area and to avoid its militarisation, and to address the needs of the population suffering from violence and displacement, including through better and more sustainable development strategies:

  • Far more civilian capacity must be gradually brought in. This should include a stronger involvement of local authorities in strategic decision-making and a better administrative presence to rebuild social services and ensure civilian needs are taken into account. To encourage civil servants to work in the region, a system of temporary bonuses could be considered. Measures should also include support for community-level initiatives concerning social cohesion.

  • Chadian authorities should propose clear political options for the future of the lake. They should elaborate a medium- and longer-term plan for the development of the Lake region, together with the development donors and in consultation with the local population. It should be sensitive to the needs of a highly mobile population.

  • The risk of concentrating financial resources on the lake to the detriment of other regions should not be neglected. Chad is a very poor country with many areas in a precarious situation. It is therefore necessary to rebalance the portfolio of projects so as not to neglect the pressing needs of other regions.

  • The welcome efforts of donors to set up projects in the region must take account of risks of injecting large amounts of development funding so to avoid reinforcing some conflict drivers. As a first step, development agencies should finance a socio-anthropological study into the livelihoods and mobility of the population, and consider how to involve local communities in development programs.

  • Chadian authorities should review their current policies, which restrict economic activities on the lake, and take measures to support, protect and relaunch the regional economy. A protected trade corridor between Chad and Nigeria would facilitate trade and improve the living conditions of the population.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 March 2017


In the aftermath of the April 2016 presidential election, which saw Idriss Déby win a fifth term, Chad became central to the struggle against terrorism in Africa. With the election on 31 January 2017 of the country’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki, as head of the African Union Commission, the Chadian regime is reaping the benefits of an active military diplomacy which has seen it intervene in many foreign countries and notably, since early 2015, against the jihadist group Boko Haram.

Even so, it still faces massive challenges: a major economic and financial crisis resulting from both the slump in oil prices and the disruption of trade with Nigeria and Cameroon; the absence of any change in power and the risk of a future succession crisis; and resurgent security threats beyond Chad’s borders – the prevailing anarchy in southern Libya recently led the Chadian authorities to close their northern frontier, while conditions are worsening in the Central African Republic (CAR) and problems persist in Darfur.

Moreover, following the interventions of its army against Boko Haram in neighbouring countries, Chad has found itself exposed to attacks by the jihadist group on its own soil, causing many civilian deaths both in N’Djamena and on the islands and shore of Lake Chad, as well as large-scale displacements. Although the number of attacks in Chad dropped sharply in 2016, the threat posed by Boko Haram is continually evolving and will most probably persist over the long term. The growth of the terrorist group drew on deep structural problems in Nigeria. To solve them will take time, and regions that neighbour Borno state will long remain vulnerable.

This Crisis Group report makes no attempt to analyse Boko Haram’s structure, leadership or resources. Instead, it seeks to understand the factors that facilitated the extension of the jihadist group’s activities into Chad – particularly through an analysis of the historical, cultural and economic features of the Lake Chad area – and how the group’s activity and the state’s response to it have affected the communities living there. Finally, it makes recommendations to replace a predominantly military response with a stabilisation strategy. Based on research carried out during visits to the Lake Chad region and N’Djamena in 2015 and 2016, this report is one of a series of Crisis Group publications on the jihadist threat in the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin.

II.Lake Chad: Fertile Ground for Boko Haram

Except for two spectacular bombings in N’Djamena in 2015, Boko Haram’s attacks and recruitment in Chad have mainly targeted the Lake region. The jihadist group has exploited the history, the physical and human geography and the economic dynamism of this distinctive lake environment, finding – like others before – both a refuge from the pressure exerted by the region’s national armies and a financial windfall. Boko Haram has also been able to draw on support, albeit often sporadic, among local communities that are sometimes competing with each other and have a history of resisting external attempts to impose a political authority. The geographical, linguistic, religious and cultural proximity of Nigeria’s Borno state – which each year attracts large numbers of Chadian immigrants – has facilitated its recruitment and the extension of the conflict to the Chadian shores of the lake. However, subsequent chapters will show how the military response by states in the region and, above all, the absence of a broad-based social constituency for Boko Haram in Chad, limited this expansion.

A.A Complex History of Human Settlement

Lake Chad, whose shrinking, allegedly caused by global warning, is already under scrutiny, now faces a new threat, having become the arena for a conflict between the bordering states and Boko Haram – with the local population caught in the middle. The history of human settlement in this area helps to explain how the jihadist group established itself. Once subjected to military conquests, the Lake region has found itself accommodating economic and environmental migrants, and armed insurrections have sometimes developed there.

Historically, the Lake Chad basin, in its broad multi-country sense, has endured numerous invasions, motivated by a mix of religious ambitions, desire to impose political authority and to forcibly take control of the local economy. In this situation, the islands in the lake were places to both live and take refuge for populations insubordinate to political authorities, such as the Kouri and the Buduma (also known as Yédina), who account for the majority of island residents.Although they were willing to accept the arrival of new population groups, they persistently resisted the external influence of the Kanem, Kanem-Bornou and Baguirmi pre-colonial empires. During the colonial era, these populations often refused to merge their villages to facilitate tax collection.

Even today, this desire for autonomy persists. Islanders fall under the authority of neither the “Alifa” of Mao – whose purview ends at the shores of the lake – nor the emir of Maiduguri, capital of the Nigerian federal state of Borno; their sense of belonging to a nation state is weak.Having long resisted forcible conversion, the Buduma only adopted Islam at the beginning of the twentieth century, eight centuries after the Kanem Empire had built its own political project around this religion. They are regarded by neighbouring communities as having an inauthentic practice of Islam, but sometimes accused of complicity with Boko Haram and stigmatised for that reason.

The lake’s recent history is characterised by population mixing. In the twentieth century, its resources attracted new settlers – which fuelled economic growth but also sparked competition for control of the islands and the areas subject to seasonal flooding, a tendency that has been exacerbated by the current conflict. From Hausa migration to the Nigerian shores of the lake in the early twentieth century to the arrival of fishermen from southern Chad or West Africa some decades later, many communities were drawn to the lake, transforming it into an ethnic and cultural mosaic.

Starting with the great drought of the 1970s and the process of contraction into the “small lake”, the region found itself hosting new economic refugees. These included farmers and Chadian, Arab, Fulani and Kreda and even Nigerien Toubous livestock herders, who altered their transhumance routes in search of grazing. With the water level sinking, new islands have appeared and seasonal fishing camps have become villages, inhabited by local people but also government officials and soldiers. Over the past 40 years, due to this “race to the lake”, the net migration rate has been strongly positive in the region. The small lake, which had 700,000 inhabitants in 1976, is today home to about 2.2 million – 13 million with the surrounding countryside – set to reach three million in 2025.

Successive armed opposition groups have chosen to base themselves in Chad’s Lake region, even though the area is barely politicised and has little history of dissent. In 1978, the “third army” (or “Forces armées occidentales”) – a strand of the National Liberation Front of Chad (Front de libération nationale du Tchad, FROLINAT) – and later the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Chad (Mouvement populaire pour la libération du Tchad, MPLT) established itself in the area, supported by rear bases on the Nigerian shore. Some of their senior figures, native to the area, recruited numerous fighters from lakeside communities and from the Kanem region. After Déby took power in 1990, supporters of the former president, Hissène Habré, grouped in the Movement for the Defence of Democracy (Mouvement pour la défense de la démocratie, MDD), also tried to establish a foothold in the marshy areas of the lake, beyond the Grande Barrière. Finally defeated by the Chadian army in the mid-1990s, some of its fighters were absorbed into the Chadian army, while others fled to Nigeria. Today the leaders of the successive rebellions that developed around the lake are no longer a threat to the regime.

B.Trafficking and Violent Raiding

In part basing itself on the smuggling networks that operate across the lake, Boko Haram has repeatedly raided local communities and traders. This is just the latest episode in the region’s long history of such attacks – which have not only made their perpetrators rich but also boosted their social status. And even today, such kudos, which earns its holders the chance to choose a wife, is certainly one of the factors that encourage people to join Boko Haram or ally themselves with it. A number of sources report that, during their rest breaks, fighters often talk about marriage.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, some local communities took refuge on the lake’s islands to escape raiding by sultanates and empires in the region, particularly those seeking to capture slaves. Arms traders also led military expeditions into the area, sometimes combined with religious proselytisation. The last few decades have seen smaller scale attacks staged by islanders, concealed in the reedbeds, mainly seeking to steal livestock or fishing boats. Such activities have been facilitated by the way some island communities have organised themselves around local warlords, called kella, who are able to agree on a carve-up of areas to target in raids.

At the end of the colonial era, the dynamism of the economy and the limited local presence of the state, encouraged trafficking in fuel, medicines, drugs, weapons, identity documents and people. Customs officials were sometimes complicit, thus fostering the emergence of alternative illicit sources of authority. The lake’s topography, its distinctive vegetation and the difficulty of navigating its labyrinth of islands also helped smuggling to flourish.

Moreover, the past 30 years have seen a intense growth in the activity of highway robbers (zarginas) – a reflection of the fact that pastoralists have become poorer, due to the drought, while successive Chadian civil wars have flooded the region with weapons. Many former Chadian rebels or soldiers – sometimes both simultaneously – became highway bandits before making their skills available to Boko Haram. Among them is Mustapha Chad, presumed to be a former Chadian soldier, whom some sources believe led the Boko Haram attack on Gwoza in Borno state in August 2014. Some Chadian prisoners suspected of being members of the sect say that they had also served in the Chad National Army (ANT). Boko Haram has managed to associate with or even incorporate some trafficking or bandit groups in order to get supplies or sell off what it seizes.

C.Economic Attractiveness but Political Neglect

Boko Haram’s success in establishing itself on the lake and its recruitment of youths with few prospects despite the area’s economic dynamism cast a harsh light on the shortcomings of the region’s states in dealing with their peripheral areas. The economic attractiveness of the lake and its resources have created a trading hub, contrasting with the inadequacy and unreliability of the lakeshore national governments’ public policies.

In Nigeria, the development policies of the 1970s and 1980s, such as major irrigation schemes like the old Baga Polder Project, created many jobs, particularly for Chadian migrants, yet had only limited success. In Niger, and even more in Cameroon, the lake was regarded as a remote border area until the 1990s. In Niger, despite the construction of a road linking Diffa and N’Guigmi in 1975, it was not until the end of the 1990s that the state reestablished a serious presence in the Komadougou area – a result both of its proximity to Agadem oil fields and the accession to power of Mamadou Tandja, Niger’s president from 1999 to 2010, who has a stronghold near Diffa.Today, although Diffa is much better equipped and richer than many other towns in Niger, the Nigerien villages near the lake remain marginalised. In Cameroon, the Far North region became a focus of attention only recently, particularly because of the growth in highway banditry.

The Lake Chad area is not, in geographical terms, a remote border area for N’Djamena, as is the case in neighbouring countries – and more than half of the lake’s surface area lies within Chad’s territorial frontiers. Often known as “N’Djamena’s garden”, the lake and its polders (agricultural fringes) supply the city with fish and agricultural products. The headquarters of the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), which has official responsibility for managing the lake’s resources, are in N’Djamena. And yet, the lake has some characteristics of a peripheral area, far from the centres of power. It was not until October 2015, after the attacks on Baga Sola, on the lakeshore, that Chad’s president visited the lake for the first time in his life.

Having not been greatly affected by the civil wars, being little politicised and having produced few members of the Chadian elites, Lake Chad has largely stayed off the radar of successive regimes. While the Rally for Democracy and Progress (Rassemblement pour la démocratie et le progrès, RDP) of former President Lol Mahamat Choua still wins the votes of many Kanembu in Mao and on the shores of the lake, it is not regarded as a political threat by the central government and it allied itself with President Déby’s party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (Mouvement patriotique du Salut, MPS), in the last presidential election. Moreover, two of the six members of the National Assembly from the Lake region are affiliated to the RDP and the other four to the MPS. Local elites from the lake area do not have much representation in N’Djamena.

The extent to which the Chadian state has shown interest in the lake has fluctuated considerably. In the 1960s, it made a serious commitment, creating the Lake Chad Development Company (Société de développement du lac Tchad, Sodelac) and building polders. But the 1970s civil wars, combined with the impact of structural adjustment programs, substantially reduced available project funding and just a few donors continued to fund the Sodelac, notably its work on irrigation. In the 1980s, with the help of the UN, Hissène Habré launched an integrated project to develop road infrastructure and a seed farm, but these initiatives once again came to nothing due to security problems.

The growth in oil revenues from 2007 onwards brought about change. While the state poured resources into infrastructure development in N’Djamena, Abéché and other major cities, some places around the lake also benefitted, albeit to a modest degree. Thus, to accompany an unfulfilled devolution scheme, infrastructure projects (such as a secondary school and a hospital) were launched in Ngouri, which had been made the centre of local administration, Bol and Guitté.

Despite the area’s economic dynamism, access to public services is poor, and far below the national average. The gross school enrolment rate in the Chadian lake area is below 30 per cent and “community teachers” – in other words, the parents of pupils – generally have to stand in, in place of trained teachers. There is only one doctor for every 140,000 inhabitants, which is only a quarter of the national average. As a border area politically divided between four distinct states, the lake has not become an integrated whole for the purpose of providing the inhabitants with services – and this partly explains why local people pay little heed to their national capitals.

Island populations’ distant, even mistrustful, relationship to the states, and very low rates of literacy, have certainly helped Boko Haram to recruit and indoctrinate in the lake area. In these regions deprived of public services, the group has managed to appear attractive. According to a recent study carried out in Nigeria, many young people, including women, felt that the group offers “unique opportunities” in providing access to Islamic education and a degree of social power.

D.The Lake in the Orbit of Nigeria’s Borno State: Emigration, Trade and Influence

The porous nature of borders in a region that has long been in Nigeria’s orbit facilitated the extension of the Boko Haram threat to the Chadian shores of the lake. In cultural terms, the lake forms part of what used to be the Kanem-Bornou Empire and the political organisation, language and customs of the Kanembu in Chad are very similar to those of the Nigerian Kanuri. The Chadian lakeshores and islands’ economy is heavily oriented toward Maiduguri – the epicentre of Boko Haram in Nigeria; the city serves as both a commercial hub and a religious and cultural centre for many Chadian migrants.

1.Economic emigration and trade relations

For many years, inhabitants on the Chadian shore of the lake have looked more to Maiduguri than to N’Djamena. Islanders use the Naira, Nigeria’s currency. Many Buduma, Kouri and Kanembu have a limited sense of national identity – and only express it on rare occasions. They are used to moving across the border freely, in response to climate hazards or economic opportunities and they often possess identity documents from several lakeshore states. For many young Chadians in the region, the journey to Nigeria is crucial to build up savings and a marriage dowry. Numerous Chadian Buduma have worked as cattle herders on the Nigerian side of the lake, earning money to buy their own animals before returning home to get married.

Climatic and economic migration reached peak levels during the great droughts of the 1970s. In search of grazing land, many Chadian pastoralists crossed the lake’s northern basin to reach the Nigeria-Niger borderlands. In this same period, some Buduma fishermen settled for several months of the year in Baga Kawa on the Nigerian shore to fish and sell their catches, adapting to fluctuations in water levels. And many Kanembu from the Chadian shore sought work in the ports or landing points – baga in Kanembu or Kanuri – in Nigeria: Baga Kawa, Malam-Fatori and Woulgo.

The clashes between Boko Haram and the region’s armies have caused serious damage to these ports, which were revenue collection points for the jihadist group and demonstrations of its territorial control. In January 2015, its attack on Baga Kawa – one of the main Borno lakeside markets that it had previously controlled – left 2,000 dead and forced many Chadians and Nigerians to flee across the lake. More generally, the Islamist group’s attacks on the Nigerian shore, and the sometimes violent counter-insurgency strikes by the region’s armies, have led to massive population displacement, thus helping the conflict spread across the lake and on to the Chadian shore.

2.Borno state, a “boarding school” for many Chadians

Religious education has also been a factor behind the migration of many young Chadians to Borno state. For many years, Chadian children and young men have gone to study in Maiduguri, the cultural and religious centre of the region. This trend has been particularly marked among the communities that live on the shores or islands of Lake Chad.

From the 1960s onwards, Quran schools attracted more pupils – even for classes in the open air, sometimes sitting on the ground – than public schools, which were few in number and tended to be headed by Christians from the country’s south. Young Kanembu learnt the Quran from a mallum– a teacher or spiritual guide – in the island towns of Nguéléa, near Baga Sola, Liwa in the north east of the lake, in many small villages or even further afield, in Mao.

Many of these youths subsequently set off for Maiduguri or Monguno – also in Borno – to continue the next stage of their studies in changaï, higher Quran schools. They thus spent several years in Nigeria on a journey that often resembled a rite of passage: “You have to study far from home and then come back later”, said a Baga Sola resident. These paths often combined religious learning with survival economics, particularly begging. In Baga Sola and Bol, recollections of childhood departure to Quran schools in Borno are legion: “When I was younger, a Chadian religious teacher collected us; we were 40 Chadian children, and we went to spend three years studying in Maiduguri. We had to beg people for money and food. Then my teacher wanted to come home so we came back”.

The population explosion that got underway in the 1970s in the Lake region and the absence of government policies to deal with the impact of this demographic growth fuelled the pace of departures to Nigeria. While the vast majority of children who left to study in Borno returned to Chad without incident, some were exposed to the preaching of ulema close to Boko Haram, either within or outside Quran schools. Others had to flee or were repatriated when the Nigerian army intervened. In 2009 and 2012, hundreds of Chadian children fled to Ngouboua in Chad, having been expelled from Quran schools in Borno state, or because their villages had been “burnt down by Nigerian soldiers”.

III.Evolution of the Boko Haram Threat in Chad

For many years, Boko Haram’s activity was mainly concentrated in Nigeria’s Borno state, its historic stronghold. But since early 2014, the threat has become regional, and attacks on civilians and military positions have multiplied in northern Cameroon since March 2014 and in southern Niger and western Chad since early 2015.

The arrival of Boko Haram in Chad is often dated back to 12 February 2015, the day of the terrorist group’s first attack on Ngouboua, on the shore of Lake Chad. But this statement should be nuanced. Chad had not been specifically targeted until the country decided to join the war in January 2015, in alliance with its neighbours (see the following chapter). This casus belli brought an end to the tacit non-aggression pact between Boko Haram and Chad and was very quickly followed by Shekau’s declarations of war: “Kings of Africa, I challenge you to attack me now; I am ready”. However, Boko Haram’s strategy of establishing itself on Lake Chad was not new. Since 2013, its fighters had been moving around the lake using Baga Kawa as a support base, helped by outboard motorboat operators familiar with the lake waters.

A.Early Signs of Boko Haram’s Presence in Chad

Before 2010, the growth of Boko Haram in Maiduguri did not affect N’Dja­me­na or the other big cities in northern and eastern Chad, characterised by very different cultures and the predominant use of Arabic. Thus, right up to today, neither the “classic” Chadian armed opposition nor the fundamentalist or purist Islamic associations – whose relations with the state are far from easy – have sought to politicise the phenomenon or take advantage of it.

Yet, from the early 2000’s onwards, Kanuri and Bornouan living in N’Djamena were listening to the sermons of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohamed Yusuf, on audio cassettes. Some even posted stickers of his image on their cars. And his Chadian disciples regularly preached in the capital. Yusuf was violently critical of the Nigerian state, sometimes even calling for armed struggle. But in N’Djamena