Tide of Lake Chad Insurgency Shifting From Nigeria

Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram attacks pass Chadian gendarmes near the border of Niger and Chad. Malam Fatori, Nigeria, May 25, 2015. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Bombings that killed up to 49 people in the cities of Yola and Kano this week cast doubt over Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s claims that Boko Haram is close to defeat. Even if that were true within its borders, Nigeria’s national war against the insurgency has firmly expanded into a regional one in the Lake Chad area. The number of suicide attacks in Chad and northern Cameroon has escalated massively since the end of August this year, with an average of three a week now occurring. The government of Chad declared a state of emergency last week, following the latest round of violence.

For years, the focus in the battle against Boko Haram has been northeastern Nigeria, with the conflict’s spillover into Chad and northern Cameroon a secondary concern. The narrative had focused on ending the war in Nigeria, with the automatic end of conflict in Chad and northern Cameroon after this taken as a given. This narrative seems to be changing fast on the ground.

The Yusufiyyah movement—the progenitor to Boko Haram—originated and grew in northeast Nigeria from 1998-1999. It quickly expanded into other areas of the Lake Chad region, taking advantage of porous borders. The task of spreading its message was made easier by the fact that languages, cultures, and even family members span all four of the region’s countries. With the outbreak of conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government in 2009, many erstwhile students of Muhammad Yusuf fled from Nigeria to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, where they benefited from the patronage of relatives and local followers.

For years, these insurgents utilized northern Cameroon and Niger as logistical supply and rear-base areas, obtaining supplies and establishing support mechanisms that fueled their burgeoning war across the border. Local governments regarded the conflict in Nigeria as solely a problem for its government and wished not to provoke a Boko Haram uprising within their own territories. They therefore allowed the insurgents a free hand to operate inside their areas, while still keeping a close eye on them.

The situation changed last year when Cameroon arrested, tried, and sentenced 22 Boko Haram fighters in the northern town of Maroua. This was followed by multiple attacks by insurgent units against the Cameroonian town of Fotokol, culminating in the kidnapping of the wife of Cameroon’s Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali.

Following this, the Cameroonian military bolstered its forces in its northern territories, including deploying its Rapid Reaction Brigade. The Cameroonians soon ended up locked in heavy fighting with the insurgents, which subsequently threatened Chad’s trans-Cameroonian transport and logistics corridor, and which the government in N’djamena could not tolerate for long. Chad then launched an intervention into northern Cameroon, after the signing of a bilateral agreement, with the intention of clearing its provinces of Boko Haram fighters and camps, and re-securing the supply corridor.

Since the insurgents mostly held concrete territory inside Nigeria and their origins were in that country, it was widely believed that should the insurgency be defeated there, it would be easy to crush its remnants in the other Lake Chad countries. Thus the Chadian army initiated a unilateral offensive to dislodge the insurgents from their Nigerian territories. This was followed by a Nigerian offensive in the same area, while the Nigerien military launched a campaign in the Diffa region in southeastern Niger to push back insurgent units operating there.

The Nigerian offensive followed the ascension of Buhari in May this year. The President had made ending the Boko Haram insurgency a key point of his electoral campaign, and shortly after assuming office, he began reforming his command structure, appointing new military service chiefs, and moving counter-Boko Haram operations to Maiduguri, where the insurgency originated.

While the insurgents have lost nearly all the territories they controlled in Nigeria, the rate of unconventional attacks, particularly suicide bombings, has rapidly expanded, particularly in northern Cameroon and Chad. The epicenter of fighting has shifted from Nigerian territory to northern Cameroon, with lesser amounts of violent attacks hitting Chad, followed by Niger’s Diffa region.

The response of the four Lake Chad countries has been to create a multinational joint taskforce. This aims to draw together their strained resources, as well as another 700 soldiers from the Republic of Benin, which is not a Lake Chad country. The bulk of its units come from Nigeria and Chad, which already bore most of the burden in the fight.

The resources for the taskforce are already largely on the ground, and remain highly stretched. The only real change in strategy has therefore been the creation of a joint headquarters. Operational coordination, planning, and intelligence-sharing between the regional states has remained poor. Informally, Nigerian officials have complained that they are often not given a true picture of the situation in neighboring countries. These factors, plus a lack of understanding of the dynamics of this insurgency by local actors, has resulted in there being no coherent strategy to tackle the new manifestation of the insurgency around Lake Chad.

Furthermore, there have recently been unconfirmed reports—first reported by researchers in northern Cameroon and Chad—that Chad has withdrawn all 3,000 of its soldiers from Cameroon, after massive losses in combat against Boko Haram, while at the same time deploying more troops to secure its own Lake Chad borders. If true, this would be a heavy blow to Cameroon’s ability to gain a grip on the situation in its northern areas. Moreover, these reports emerged shortly after the Chadians declared the state of emergency on their side of the lake.

Despite this week’s events in Nigeria, the epicenter of the battle against Boko Haram is shifting to northern Cameroon. While the insurgents are losing territory in Nigeria, their ability to conduct unconventional operations remains and has only shifted target. The greatest risk at present is that Cameroonian forces may buckle under the pressure of an increased frequency and scale of attacks, forcing them to cede less important areas. This has already been seen in Nigeria, where the sect’s leadership declared “emirates” in areas it had seized from government control.

Fulan Nasrullah is a Nigerian security analyst focused on the Boko Haram insurgency. He blogs at Fulan’s SITREP.