Lake Chad; chaos & the Dead Heart of Africa 21-Jan-2022

The region around Lake Chad used to be an important stop on busy African trade routes.

It’s almost in the middle of Africa, between the old Mali Empire (where thanks to gold and salt, Mansa Musa was the richest man in the world) and Egypt and the Middle East.

It is still a small centre for fishing, farming, and transport, but Lake Chad has lost about 90% of its surface since the 1960s (UN 24-Dec-2019). Climate change is the main suspect though there is still disagreement about the cause (Quartz 24-Apr-2019).

Whatever the case, the region around the lake supports approximately 30 million people split across the countries which share its shores: Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. Within these countries the region around the lake is remote, the borders meaningless, and it’s relatively sparsely populated with the impoverished, not closely watched or controllable, and open to a certain lawlessness.

Lake Chad sits at the south of the Sahara Desert, which is creeping in.

It’s for these kinds of reasons it is sometimes known as the Dead Heart of Africa.

The French forces are relatively small with about 5,000 people. They receive some help from US air support such as transport and British intelligence. The French Foreign Legion itself is set up for specialist, precise strikes rather than anything big and sweeping. Macron announced an end to Operation Barkhane, due to end Q1 2022 (France 24 14-Jul-2021), though the French military will have some continued presence.

There’s no real cooperation at all between France, the G5 Sahel countries, and Nigeria, nor any real prospect of it. In Addition to all of Nigeria’s (and the other African countries’) problems, Nigeria likely sees France as a rival to its regional hegemonic power.

It’s difficult to really judge if the problem is “solved”. It probably isn’t. Left unchecked there’s a risk that it could degrade into a worse problem for Nigeria and Europe.

What’s next?

Unless enough countries are prepared for radical overhaul, or one of the regionally interested (Nigeria or France) are willing to take that kind of action unilaterally, there’s not much that can probably be done.

The problems in the area are tribal, from-the-gut, religious, and home-grown. Solving this could mean redrawing of political boundaries, other substantial political change, or massive economic development.

This doesn’t seem likely.

Crushing the violent factions could be difficult because of the terrain and inability to properly separate fighters from civilians. They’d probably also just move to a different area or spread out. This would make the problem much, much worse.

Pulling out completely would probably lead to more warlordism and more groups which could grow and thereafter threaten West Africa and Europe.

Until someone is prepared to make a big move, the best, though terrible, option is to keep it along at the level it exists now.

The Sahel region is approximately where the Savanna starts turning into the Sahara.

In West Africa, France leads 5 nations which are the main participants in Operation Barkhane: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The French forces are headquartered in N’Djamena (Economist 21-Jul-2014), the capital of Chad, about 60km away from Lake Chad.

Melting pot or no man’s land - about the region

The Lake Chad region sits between Arab, French, and English speaking regions of Africa, never mind the many other African languages.

Chad itself was under French control and struggled after independence. Today it ranks 199th out of 213 countries and regions for GDP. Oil accounts for approximately 60% of its export revenues. Chad has unstable neighbours like Libya and Sudan. It doesn’t have a lot of governmental resources and they have potentially dangerous external problems on their doorstep. Niger isn’t much better. By the same GDP ranking list it’s 205th. The religious divides in the region are significant - generally between poorer, more Muslim norths, and relatively richer, Christian souths.

Nigeria is a relative giant in the region. Its population is over 200 million, compared to Chad’s 16 million, Niger’s 24 million, and Cameroon’s 26.5 million. Nigeria also has a north/south divide. It has a poorer, less fertile, muslim north, and a richer, more fertile, Christian south. The oil interests and coastal cities are in the south. English is much more widely spoken in the south.

Lake Chad is a low priority.

It’s shrinking, no notable oil reserves, people with a different language and religion, and it’s remote. Colonial era map drawing may have created some difficult divisions, but without common languages such as Arabic, English, and French, these countries would certainly be even more divided.

Fair share - distrust in the region

Many conflicts in Africa are indigenous and ethnic. This is basically true within Nigeria where the north/south divide is also about how the government is often viewed as wealthy and powerful but also weak, vicious, and corrupt.

Nobody in the west seems to have a clear picture of precisely all the factions and groups which have formed around Lake Chad. None of the four countries which share the lake work particularly closely together.

The most famous of these groups is probably Boko Haram. It’s ostensibly a Sunni Islam terrorist group, as are its splinter factions, but behaves a lot like an organised criminal gang. Boko Haram and similar groups raise taxes (racketeering) and kidnap for ransom, but they also receive donations, remittances, “charitable donations”, and participate in the black market.

Lake Chad is quite big, with a lot of little, difficult places to hide.

As it shrinks it’s becoming more shallow and marshy, with a surface area of around 1,500km². For comparison, Lake Michigan is about 58,000km², Lake Victoria 60,000km², Lake Geneva 580km², and Lake Baikal 31,700km². Or, it’s about half the surface area of Long Island at 3,500km²

I’ve got my eye on you - risk of degradation

The risks around Lake Chad are comparable to Afghanistan. Impoverished, religiously motivated, tribal, and remote.

Bad actors in the region are more than willing to engage in all sorts of violent and criminal behaviour. This is a local and potentially international problem.

Terrorism and violence in West Africa is cheap. Crude bombs are easy to make. Small arms move around from warzone to warzone across Africa. The domestic Nigerian weapons industry is productive. It’s all easily self-funded locally and outside of the international financial system which means it’s also difficult to cut off financial support.

Migration routes through West Africa go through Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger. Gaddafi used to keep Libya in order. It’s widely accepted now that migration across the Mediterranean increased after his overthrow and death. Slave markets full of West Africans, including Cameroonians (France 24 23-Nov-2017), opened in Libya. There is a serious risk that it’s not just migrants but other types of human trafficking which spill over into Europe. The Europeans, particularly the French, have a great interest in security in the Lake Chad region.

The real questions are about why the Nigerian and French militaries haven’t stopped Boko Haram and other factions around the Lake Chad region.

With bombings and other attacks, the political elite in Borno State, Nigeria’s northeastern province where Lake Chad sits, certainly wanted the problem tackled. The reality is just that factions in the region are split across different nebulously related structures. They can go in and out of the bush or marshes and it’s not easy for the Nigerian military to follow. Ambushes are easy. The 7th Division, a light infantry division, in the Nigerian Army, headquartered in Maiduguri, is 1 of 9 in a relatively small army. The total budget for the Nigerian Army in 2021 was ₦966bn (approximately $2.35bn) and it only has about 160,000 people total. The Nigerian Army is infamously riddled with corruption, embezzlement, fake arms deals, skipping payment, skipping leave, and desertions. The 7th Division itself has been troubled by mutinies in the face of fighting Boko Haram (Al Jazeera 16-Sep-2014).

France is active in the Sahel region with the French Foreign Legion as part of Operation Barkhane. It’s an anti-Islamic insurgent group.