By Airi Price
The Chad Basin is one of the largest bodies of freshwater in Africa, serving eight countries in the continent’s western region. Countries included in the basin are Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, and Libya. Throughout history, the basin has functioned as a vital water source for its 30 million inhabitants – supporting the livelihood of farmers and herders requiring freshwater for irrigation and maintaining livestock. Over the last 60 years, however, rising temperatures have led to a 90% shrinkage of the basin, per Down to Earth.
"Despite Chad's success in pushing back jihadists from the mainland, displacement persists on a number of islands throughout the Basin"
The resulting resource scarcity and economic crisis has spurred bouts of violence throughout the region. Jihadist groups have exploited such widespread instability by swiftly expanding their control in large portions of the territory.
Since the early 2000’s, jihadist groups have been present in the Chad Basin. Boko Haram, in particular, has held a dominant presence, as the group originated in Nigeria’s Borno State. Since their initial insurgency in 2009, Boko Haram has ravaged villages throughout the basin, targeting civilians through suicide attacks and the recruiting of child soldiers.
In 2013, the group dispersed throughout much of Nigeria and Niger, terrorizing the communities that laid in its path. It has maintained a stronghold on the region by using the basin’s many islands as a secure base for members.
Though Chad makes up the largest portion of the region, much of the country remained unaffected by jihadist violence for some time. However, Chad recognized the significant threat posed on other basin members and promptly deployed soldiers to affected areas. Despite military retaliation by Chadian, Cameroonian, Nigerian, and Nigerien forces, Boko Haram’s assaults persisted with increasing aggression.
The violence reached its peak in 2015, when jihadists attacked the Chadian capital of N’Djamena in retaliation for the country’s military involvement in their previous attacks throughout the basin.
The Chadian government’s reaction to the attack was almost exclusively military. In the years following, some conflict persisted near Chad’s western border province of Kaiga-Kindjiria, but violence was largely contained. There are even reports of a series of surrenders by Boko Haram members in 2016. Despite ostensive success of Chad’s highly militarized response, much of the decline in hostility is attributed to Boko Haram’s fragmentation into two factions – Boko Haram and the newly formed, Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).
Nonetheless, the Crisis Group had already totaled more than 100,000 IDPs and 7,000 Chadian refugees by 2017.
In 2019, jihadist groups re-emerged and swiftly intensified throughout Chad’s Lac Province. The conflict moved south through the province on 23 March 2020, when Boko Haram carried out an elaborate attack on the Chadian military base of Bohoma. Militants surrounded the base just prior dawn, with hundreds of men approaching the grounds via motorized boats. They looted facilities, destroyed equipment, and seized vehicles as they overtook the base. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies reported that the encounter lasted for 7 hours and resulted in the death of 98 Chadian soldiers.
The surprise attack elevated concerns among the international community, as such degree of coordination suggests improvements in jihadist combat intelligence. Chad is often perceived as the dominating military force in the basin region. Given the extent of damage to Bohoma base, neighboring countries (supported by Chadian forces) fear their declining ability to resist jihadist hostility. In fact, an ISWA-led ambush of Nigerian soldiers occurred on the same day as Boko Haram’s assault on Bohoma base in Chad. The Council on Foreign Relations reported the subsequent death of 47 Nigerian soldiers.
Some speculate that the two factions have ramped up threats in an effort to compete with one another and expand their influence throughout the basin.
The Chadian government immediately responded, once again, with military action. On 31 March 2021, Chadian President, Idriss Déby, initiated Operation colère de Boma for reprisal of Chadian casualties at Bohoma. Government forces – equipped with hundreds of soldiers – moved through the Lac Province and through the western border into Nigeria and Niger. Déby declared parts of the province official war zones, with his men destroying makeshift forts and driving militants out of the area. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 1,000 militants were killed in the operation and 58 were apprehended by Chadian officials.
Despite Chad’s success in pushing back jihadists from the mainland, displacement persists on a number of islands throughout the Basin. The lessened threat of capture on these islands has emboldened militant attacks. As a result, victims flee for the mainland and largely settle in the Lac Province.
As of October of 2021, the number of IDPs in the Lac Province has inflated to 457,948, per the International Organization for Migration. Additionally, there are 2 million IDPs in Nigeria, 65,000 in Niger, and 342,000 in Cameroon. In total, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates there to be 2.8 million IDPs in the Chad Basin.
As made evident by such IDP distribution, Nigeria has been most devastated by jihadist aggression. However, its heavy dependence on Chadian military support puts more pressure on Déby, as conflict persists on his own land. Though his militarized tactics have made strides in anti-terrorism efforts, a more comprehensive strategy is required to restore regional security.