CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Four armies and a multinational joint task force (MNJTF) of the countries bordering Lake Chad, officially counting 7,500 troops, have been engaged against Boko Haram since 2016. This coalition has been given a mandate to put an end to Boko Haram. The true scope of the mobilization of troops around the lake is difficult to determine, since the number of “ghost soldiers” supposedly on the ground must be deducted from the official recorded figures. The area is vast, stretching over more than 25,000 km2 of swampy lands, criss-crossed by open waters which are in turn scattered with thousands of archipelagos and islands. [1] It is yet more difficult to determine how many gangs of Boko Haram fighters have taken refuge in the area. Abandoning the lifestyle of their former home regions, they have adapted to that of their hosts and allies, the Yedina, moving like nomads through the islands in harmony with the movement of the waters of the lake.
For the time being, no one can claim to have the security of the Lake Chad region under control. Nevertheless, since mid-2016 many military figures have believed that, while the war against Boko Haram has not yet been won, the stage is set for the final scene to be played out at the lake. And while a “return to normality” is called for, it will not be possible to simply turn the clocks back, and uncertainty prevails.

2This article, a second chronicle of events, is very much like the previous one (Seignobos 2016). A preliminary section attempts to analyze the general development of the Islamist movement Boko Haram, drawing attention back to a number of earlier points that have been more or less forgotten. The second section consists of a close examination of Boko Haram’s involvement at Lake Chad.

Tracing Boko Haram’s Development in 2016

3It is important to reexamine the historical, social, and demographic matrix that gave rise to Boko Haram. Without this background, the “historical accident” of the execution of the ultra-rigorist popular Islamist preacher Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009, and the brutal military repression that ensued, would not have been the spark that has inflamed the whole region.

4A Seething Hotbed for Boko Haram Recruitment. Only limited and sketchy statistics are available, such as those for Kolofata, the only Kanuri (or Bornu) township in Cameroon, on the Nigerian border, which is at the epicenter of a Boko Haram stronghold, the Kerawa-Mora-Waza triangle. In this township of 80,000 people, 700 young people have left to take part in jihad. Fewer than 200 of them have survived, and are known as the “enraged.” These are young people, mostly from Koranic schools, who have joined Boko Haram. [2] They became the recruitment base for more than fifty percent of its members, and come from beyond Maiduguri and its region. The religious influence of the state of Borno and its capital, where the greatest number of madrasa (religious schools) are to be found, infiltrates throughout the wider Beri Beri area, with its Bornu population. Families send their children to the madrasa from age seven to fourteen and above to learn the Koran (fuu’ra).

5These almuhajiray not only represented an “antithesis to modernity” [3] but were to become the foot soldiers of a real army in the hands of Boko Haram. They are more commonly referred to as the “allalaro” because they beg in the name of God—“Allalaro, Allalaro…”—to which one replies “Allah Yaftah” (“God will provide”). To these thousands of allalaro, who attend Koranic school at night since they beg by day, Boko Haram deliver this message: “You have traded your begging bowl for the Kalashnikov that God has given you to rescue you from oblivion.”

Growing Cross-Border Pressure from Boko Haram. Situation map 2015

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Growing Cross-Border Pressure from Boko Haram. Situation map 2015

This map shows the cross-border armed presence of Boko Haram across Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. It also shows areas under pressure from Boko Haram groups.
Source: Data and design by Christian Seignobos (2015). Édigraphie, 01/2016.

6The ranks of the allalaro are swelled by many who were deliberately flung between the market and the mosque to learn to “get by.” [4] Children would thus be drawn into the social networks of the trade guilds that have long constituted the framework of Kanuri society, and not only the powerful guild of the slaughterhouses and butchers of Maiduguri that is described by Corentin Cohen (2016, 78 and 85). [5] At the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, these corporations already represented a form of religious resistance to the goni (judges) and mallum (teachers) who were entrenched in circles of power. These guilds, which were run by kacalla, are easily mobilized thanks to their structures and to the unfailing lifelong loyalties between masters and guildsmen. A typical model of this structure are the professional hunters, the gaw, with their jagordo (boss) and burza (apprentices), and many of these have infiltrated Boko Haram. [6]

7The Mandara mountain dwellers, on both the Nigerian and Cameroonian sides, have complained for years about recruitment by the Kanuri guilds, which certainly facilitate access to urban labor markets and hence to paid employment, but have become channels for Islamic indoctrination, as is particularly the case for the guild of shoe recyclers (katsa katsa kimaka). They were among the first followers of Boko Haram to be arrested. In Cameroon, where these guilds are found among the Kanuri, where they are called Sirata by the Fulani, we see the same structures of mutual aid and solidarity. [7] As early as June 2014, arrests took place in Maroua of Boko Haram accomplices, for the most part barber-circumciser (juulnoo’be) Sirata, who held the monopoly there as elsewhere in the region, alongside a handful of retailers.

8These trades, which are often very mobile, base themselves around the markets with their adjacent mosques. One of the best known of these sites, at the heart of the Islamist uprising of Boko Haram, is the famous Maiduguri Railway Station district where, for decades, hordes of young people who have been uprooted from their homelands deep in the bush have ended up.

9This vital fact helps us to understand the astonishing mobilization of these trades following the repression that afflicted those of them who had followed Mohammed Yusuf. This led to the birth of a popular army that did not lack in technical knowledge since it had been learned on the ground by its thousands of taxi-motorcycles, drivers, repairers of motorcycles and radios, and small-time mechanics, all followed by swarms of more or less volunteer apprentices, as well as numerous blacksmiths, tailors, and other small traders. [8] Each Boko Haram base incorporated all these trades by assigning each one a specific role. Some of these, in Sambisa, would even make utopian attempts at creating new norms of religious and social life.

10Amongst them were many who had followed the teachings of the Yusuffiya, the movement initiated by Mohammed Yusuf. They were of course joined by troops of Koranic students, who had been an important part of the urban landscape, where they had experienced even greater solidarity. Highly active religious members of the Yusuffiya movement took them in, including even the most frustrated amongst those who had campaigned in the towns. This train of events led to the mobilization of a whole troop of Bornu peoples whom nothing and nobody could stop for more than four years.

11These were the makings of this brand of Salafism of suburbs and markets, particular to Borno, which we are still struggling to understand in the West. The rest of the story is basically a question of a skillful way with words or stage play, a knack for “storytelling,” a way of setting the scene against a backdrop of globalized Salafism, of presenting information to those who have little to say on the subject. We need to forearm ourselves as best as possible against jihadist rhetoric.

12The Religious Melting Pot of Boko Haram’s World. Élodie Apard (2016, 45), quoting Kyari (2014), speaks of the Ibn Taymiyyah markaz, [9] built by Mohammed Yusuf on his return from his stay in Saudi Arabia, and which is also in the Maiduguri station district. It was razed during the crackdown of 2009 after the execution of its founder. The marakiz (plural of markaz) call for comment. These are spiritual retreat centers offering accommodation, where Koranic education is provided alongside libraries and catering facilities. Often represented as “refuges,” these centers sometimes have an austere appearance, and may even be fortified.

13In recent decades, Salafism has founded mosques using Qatari, Saudi, and Libyan funding and the intermediary of the Alhaji, those local merchants who are less generous than they are keen to capitalize on the religious rent coming from abroad. The establishment of the mosques is followed by da’wa (preaching and missionary activities), directed mainly against the Brotherhood in Muslim society. At this point, the marakiz make their appearance. Building a markaz is not within the reach of all local communities, and many attempts in Borno and its region have been doomed to failure. [10] But when the marakiz work, as did Mohammed Yusuf’s, they are fiery forges, shaping Salafist ideology, producing the greatest numbers of followers who are destined to become Boko Haram zealots.

14Élodie Apard has collected, transcribed, and decoded the preaching and messages of Mohammed Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau. A familiar rhetoric can be found in her trilogy: the denunciation of the secular state, the victimization of Muslims, and the promotion of jihad and the glorification of the martyr (Apard 2016, 51-52). She gives an account of their subliminal preaching about Abraham’s sacrifice and the blind submission to God’s commandment. The virtue of sacrifice would have been an important theme from the very beginnings of Boko Haram. Subsequent followers of the Yusufiyya have continued to present martyrdom through jihad as a divine injunction to all. Martyrdom raises the poor allalaro and all of the lowly above the mighty and the rich. This form of preaching may well be naive, but is nevertheless highly effective (Apard 2016, 55). The inevitable consequence of the territorial retreat of the sect would be an increasing tendency to promote martyrdom (shaheed). The militants are bombarded with daily preaching, of which some is aimed at preparing the individual for martyrdom. One key theme is developed in many ways: Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac.

15For the individual to be able to fully prepare for martyrdom—the act of being killed in battle—they must have participated in the “experience” of Abraham’s sacrifice. There is nothing ambiguous about the ways in which this sacrifice should be fulfilled. This duty of sacrificing “one’s nearest and dearest” leads to some of the most ignominious actions to be blamed on Boko Haram’s followers. There is a complete generational breakdown between young jihadists who have entered the fundamentalist hothouses of Boko Haram and their parents. Many of them “sacrifice” members of their families, taking as further justification the fact that their loved ones do not follow the true path of Islam.

16A more secular interpretation would see these auto-da-fés as “a sort of initiatory rite that prevents any form of reintegration” (Tilouine 2016b, 2). The consequences are one and the same: they put the fear of death into not only community leaders, figures of authority, public servants, and all those in the pay of impious governments, but also their own kinsfolk. This all adds up to the fact that when a young person departs on jihad, not only are they deemed to be lost but also a danger to their own family.

Lake Chad, a Cosmopolitan Area. Population distribution in the Lake Chad Basin, 2015

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Lake Chad, a Cosmopolitan Area. Population distribution in the Lake Chad Basin, 2015

The map shows the cosmopolitanism of the people living in and around Lake Chad rather than any ethnic groupings. In 1976, the population around the lake amounted to 0.7 million, and in 2013, 2.2 million inhabitants were more densely gathered in the south. Groups coming from the inland regions to the south of the lake are joined by seasonal groups of fishermen—some from West Africa—and farmers from the neighboring Sahelian zone.
Source: Géraud Magrin, Jacques Lemoalle and Roland Pourtier (eds.), Atlas du lac Tchad (Paris: IRD/Éditions Passages, 2015), 71. Édigraphie, 12/2015.

17Sermons and Dissonant Voices. Besides these extreme forms of behavior, as early as 2014-2015 life in the Boko Haram camps in Sambisa or the Gwoza region was suffused with religiosity. The camps come under constant fire from various forms of preaching. On the one hand there is a type of catechism addressed to new recruits over the course of several months; on the other hand, the group’s followers are subjected to constant exhortations to participate. Hostages held in these camps have spoken of the atmosphere. [11] From the jailers, to the chef, Amir Taham, who cooks up meals of cowpeas and palm oil, to the docta (pidgin for “doctor”) who supplies them with so-called “kapsoles” made in Nigeria, to the emirs who communicate with the outside world over ransoms… no matter who is speaking, all conversation revolves around the religious, and consists of commentary on the “Holy Koran.” Hostages are incited to consider the Boko Haram doctrine and to adopt it. It goes without saying that non-Muslim hostages are asked to embrace the Boko Haram faith; this was the case for the ten Chinese workers from a public works company, Sinohydro, who were kidnapped in Waza on May 17, 2014 and had tried in vain to escape from Sambisa. If hostages convert, they are clothed in beautiful gandoura robes and feted. In these camps, a kind of naivety rubs shoulders with bloody brutality

18With football, cinema, and other forms of entertainment being prohibited, social gatherings take the form of open air trials of delinquents or other public applications of Sharia. The inescapable executions of hostages are sometimes simply a form of entertainment. These displays often become scenes of public jubilation, albeit punctuated by chants of Allahu Akbar.

19Religious feeling is also expressed through internal conflicts or shura meetings (i.e. meetings of the camp council or command). Shura leaders compete among themselves to demonstrate the greatest religious one-upmanship. Accusations fly back and forth on “trivial” subjects such as the interpretation of the surahs (Koranic chapters) and, in the absence of any true figure of authority, these “jihadist” circles are full of condemnatory dialogue. [12] Such religious disputes conceal internal confrontations of a more political nature. These hidden conflicts appear to the outside world through the unexplained disappearance of well-known emirs and the emergence of new ones among the thirty or so who rule the camps of Boko Haram. The emirs—known as “zone commanders” by their military opponents—are all flanked by musr or musarrim (the “turban wearers”). These kapitas, who boast some extra rudiments of religious knowledge, command thirty to fifty fighters. They may be called upon to replace the emirs, who are sometimes known as “emirs of one hundred or two hundred fighters,” or even more. How can we imagine felling a movement like Boko Haram? Curiously, this military organization makes less reference to the times of the prophet than to the days of the Ayyubids and the Mamluk armies (Ayalon 1953). Among the jihadists, there are always individuals who are well versed in the historiography of Islam and its glorious epochs. The changes in shura leaders that we see may be the consequences of purges or, for some, death in combat or defections. Both the religious debates and the political rivalries that animate the daily life of the camps reach us only in snippets.

20Religion is not the only subject of conversation in the camps. They discuss razzia (raiding), its objectives, the way it is carried out and, above all, the sharing of plunder that follows. For followers of Boko Haram, razzia is justified by the goal of putting an end to the practices of the Islamic Brotherhood. [13] They claim to have put an end to “marabout” rituals as well as those related to siiri (from the Arabic sihir, secrecy, and meaning knowledge of spells), including occult forms of enchantment and disenchantment and talismans. These various rituals, collectively and euphemistically known as of the “work of the hand” (from kuugal junngo in Fulani), have their exact equivalents among the Kanuri. These activities allowed the religious practitioners to earn their money from traditional chiefs, wealthy merchants, politicians, and indeed anybody else. This religious business reached its peak in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium, and was denounced by the first waves of fundamentalists, the “people of the Sunna” in Cameroon, who were similar to the current Izala Society in Nigeria, before the Boko Haram uprising. [14]

21Razzia, long described as a process of predation-accumulation-redistribution, is redefined by Boko Haram as a means of serving the cause. To this end, the emirs retain 75 to 80 percent of goods seized. [15] This means that the majority of the fighters remain in a constant state of need. This imbalance is often the topic of discussion among young people in the camps. It is reported that these young and unmarried fighters would prefer that, rather than attempting to create a “marriage market” by the regular abduction of Christian girls, their emirs help them to pay real dowries rather than simply offer them these abducted girls, such as the girls of Chibok. [16] They talk of wanting to refuse these “female slaves.”

22Many of them would also like to increase their opportunity, whether within their camps or as auxiliary soldiers, to take part in smuggling activities in these disastrous economic times. We are also seeing the return to the plains of the old phenomenon of cattle theft, which remains the only way of raising money quickly. On the other hand, the taking of hostages, which has been an albeit taboo means of commerce for Boko Haram, is in decline as a consequence of the fact that the area they control is increasingly patchy and threatened. Will we see a period of drudgery and criminality take over from an initial era that was religious, exalted, and warlike? After being recruited by Boko Haram, the “resourceful” one can become a martyr, but he can also remain or return to his “resourcefulness.”

23However, Boko Haram fighters continue to die on the shores of the lake, stripped of their lucky charms (because “God must not be set against talismans”), but perfumed with the low-end patchouli that is favored by the martyr, and decked out in the familiar paraphernalia of the jihadist (sandals, ankle-length pant legs, and the white cotton kameez that is typical of the “companions of the prophet”).

“Boko Haram of the Lake”: Who Are They? How Many Are There? What Do They Want?

24The infiltration of Boko Haram at the lake predates the devastation of Baga Kawa in January 2015; it took place as a result of Kanuri fishermen-preachers roaming the fishing camps in waters belonging to Nigeria and Niger. [17]

25The “Exodus” Toward the Lake. It became impossible for Boko Haram to remain on the open plains of Borno and to defend the towns that they had taken once a cross-regional coalition had been declared, so some of the emirs decided to mobilize themselves for withdrawal before the arrival of the coalition forces. This decision was brought into play by the first contact with the Chadian army in early 2015, which intervened by main force with its light armored vehicles. The emirs therefore organized ahijra (from Hegira, or exodus) from the Maiduguri region. A motorized column described as “never-ending”—with hundreds of pick-ups and other vehicles—departed at the end of August 2014 toward the lake. No forces attempted to intercept it. Some would say that the exodus to the lake was the result of conflicts between shura and the desire of certain emirs to free themselves from an ideologically “redundant” Boko Haram. This hypothesis is in need of further examination. A few months later, attacks were made on lakeside settlements, culminating in the infamous devastation of Baga Kawa, Borno’s lakeside port.

26Among the followers of Boko Haram, who remained and who left for the lake? Some particularly territorial groups refused to move away from “their” forest in Sambisa; others did not want to move from the protective foothills of the Mandara Mountains, from Magadali to Gwoza; yet others remained on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, from Kerawa to Fotokol, where in 2016 there were still close to 3,000 adherents. After the exodus from the main camps near Michika, Madagali, Banki, and Ngoshe, the increasingly autonomous actions of Boko Haram began to draw the attention of local stakeholders, who benefited from a small network of entrepreneurial crime on the borderlands.

27Throughout 2016, from March onward, the Cameroon-Nigerian operation “Tentacle” was trying to eliminate these residual camps along the border by supporting “vigilance committees” of village militias. [18] These latter regularly brought down the avenging wrath of Boko Haram, as was the case in Limani on June 29, 2016 and again on September 23, when Naga Hami, the somewhat notorious chief of operations of the vigilance committees of the Kerawa region, was killed by Boko Haram (Gatama 2016).

28Such acts of violence fly in the face of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s repeated allegations that the “group is technically defeated” and “reduced to committing only suicide bombings.” His claims are also contested by some senior officers and elected representatives of the State of Borno, who draw attention to the number of roads that are still not secure, and are particularly anxious about events taking place near the lake.

29It is estimated that there is a core group around the lake of perhaps 1,300 to 1,500 men, [19] along with a flock of women, concubines, female victuallers, and various other hangers-on, flanked by local allies from the Yedina or Kanembu, not forgetting a whole colorful and conspiratorial tribe of traders, informants, and double agents who come and go just like in the days of the precolonial razzia camps. But these days, all of this hustle and bustle must be hidden from the “eyes of the sky,” the drones. In their flight to the lake, Boko Haram brought with them their dawla (government). There are also, no doubt, some seasoned fighters from the first battles of around 2010 and, even more likely, survivors of this army of child soldiers.

30Previous Cases of Armed Gangs on the Lake. In 1990, when Hissène Habré was expelled from power in Chad, some of his men fell back on the lake and hid in the northern basin above the swampy land that divides the lake. Mostly of Tubu origins, this group are not accustomed to this swampy environment and, having failed to integrate with the Yedina population who quickly vanished from the scene, the majority of them would last little more than a year on the lake, moving on after having sold their weapons and uniforms.

31Under Hissène Habré and again under Idriss Déby, the government conceded certain privileges to some of their “soldiers.” [20] In this case, these are former fishing inspectors “employed” in Mani and Karal, whose role was to levy taxes from foreign fishermen in the Chadian or allegedly Chadian territorial waters which start at Kofya Island, opposite the mouth of the Chari River. [21] There are also the so-called “bogobogo,” armed customs officers who are not officially part of the customs system (Debos 2013, 206-208). These unpaid individuals levy income for the administration and for themselves in return for services rendered and as payment for future freedoms of movement; much of this depends on their proximity to the centers of power.

32When Nigeria occupied the area of Darak, from 1987 to the end of 2008, this western part of the Cameroonian shore was partly inhabited by victims of the drought of 1983 to 1985. At that time, Nigeria said that it was simply allowing its nationals to follow the retreat of the waters as the lake shrank. [22] Cameroon, which was already engaged in a border conflict with Nigeria in Bakassi, in the south, chose not to react. In response to this near-surrender of sovereignty, around the year 2000 a few hundred Chadian soldiers occupied the Cameroonian islands north of Darak including Naïra, Birni Goni, Kasuwa Mariya, Nimeri, Bachaka, and Aissa Kura.

33Wishing to take advantage of this unregulated zone, other Chadian combatants joined them in 2008. A decade later, in this area of ​​the lake, the term bogobogo has become synonymous with “highway bandit” (Koultchoumi 2014, 143).

34In 2016, the Cameroonian army was still doing little to remove them. [23] They make a living from petty trafficking, medications that can be used as narcotics, [24] light arms, fuel, spare parts for motorcycles or outboard engines, but also from rackets and the confiscation of fishing gear. They have negotiated protection agreements to protect fishing communities from potential competitors. Some of them have found wives among these groups of fishermen. They demonstrate that a militarized gang can make a living on the lake, albeit a frugal one. Boko Haram appear to have steered clear of these groups, and if indeed there is any interaction it is certainly not a close reationship.

Kirta, to the northeast of Darak, visited by Boko Haram

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Kirta, to the northeast of Darak, visited by Boko Haram

Drawing by Christian Seignobos, 2016.

35The New Order on the Lake. The presence of Boko Haram brings new opportunities, and the lake-dwelling Yedina, with their age-old savoir-faire fired up by new ambitions, have taken advantage of opportunities to act both in cooperation with Boko Haram and under their cover. There was clearly a mutual interest in their seizure of the last Hausa fishing vessels on the lake. Beyond the sale of fish, the entire Hausa fishing business is undermined, from the rental of pirogue canoes to nets, Malian-style nets, metal fish ovens, and wood for smoking. In the early 2000s, the Hausa had complete control of the Nigerian shore of the lake. The relationship between the Hausa and Boko Haram is complex, because this vast area is far from being monocultural. In 2015, Boko Haram’s attacks targeted Hausa capitalist entrepreneurs in the towns, both those who were attempting to gain a hold on the agricultural areas of the lake, and those who wanted to impose a monopoly on certain types of fishing or on fishing grounds, or in other words all those who were bribing the political authorities to this end (Seignobos 2016, 108-109). In 2016, there was an increased complexity in relations between Boko Haram and certain Hausa-speaking groups such as the Hadijawa, or the Kabawa fishermen, who had also been propagators of the Islamic faith before the arrival of Salafism along the rivers from Léré in Chad to the Mayo Kebbi. The alliance between Yedina and Boko Haram can be seen in their attacks on settlements of West African fishing communities, as they attempt to drive out of Lake Chad not only the Bozo (who are also known as “Malians”) or various Hausa-speaking groups, but many others including the Zarma, Jukun, Margi, Masa, and Ngambay Bao. For the analyst, a study of surnames in these camps would start to shed light on this strategy. Are we seeing a “purification” in action? This would seem excessive because the actions taken appear to be unplanned and decisions are often random. The fishing settlements that have embraced the Boko Haram faith help to conceal the non-indigenous origins of this group.

36Since Boko Haram launched their jihadist mission, they have rarely deviated from the Koranic procedure of forewarning the enemy of an attack and asking them whether they want to save themselves by embracing the religion of the prophet, or more specifically Boko Haram’s version. On their arrival in a village, the emir first asks the gathered community: “Who wants to join our ranks and follow our teaching?” Young people tend to comply, often to protect the village from reprisals. These practices were ongoing in the lake region in 2016.

37Boko Haram contingents have long moved around the lake with impunity and police themselves, freely entering the fishing settlements to arrest members on the run who thought they had reached safety, as we saw on the island of Kofya in August 2014 (Koulchoumi 2014, 146). As they travel around, they always deliver their messages, claiming themselves to be victims of impious governments, and particularly that of Nigeria. In some places, they leave money for the needy with the imams who watch over the places of prayer on the islands.

38Nevertheless, the Darak region was to undergo a bloody raid, and on June 11, 2016, the bodies of forty-two fishermen from the village of Tubom Ali were found. Using a flotilla of “outboards,” long motor boats of fifteen to twenty meters, Boko Haram attacked fishing camps located in open waters and even those located in the floating islands, known as kirta. [25] They ran the risk of being spotted on the open waters. However, once they reached their target, “the attack was soundless, à la Yedina.” They stopped the engines and seized the fishing haul. Should we interpret this as an act of piracy or a desire to control the richest fishing grounds in the open waters? On November 21, a Boko Haram attack was reported on Darak Island against an MNJTF station: one officer, one non-commissioned officer, and four soldiers were killed along with a member of the vigilance committee.

Yedina Kirta, Northern Basin

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Yedina Kirta, Northern Basin

The Yedina have their own kirta, of a more temporary nature but built on the same principles, established at the edges of the Phragmites marshes. The reeds are cut down to water level and stacked to create a floating islet, on which a reed base will be constructed for each of the huts and topped with a self-supporting, removable reed roof, rather like those of the islands, but much smaller.
Drawing by Christian Seignobos, 2015/2016.

39The infiltration of Boko Haram in the northern basin of the lake directly threatens settlements such as Bosso, Malam Fatori, or Boulatoungour downstream of Diffa, toward the mouth of the Komadugu Yobe, which forms the border between Niger and Nigeria. Since February 6, 2015, Bosso and its region, including neighboring refugee camps, have been under constant attack. Boko Haram is disrupting an entire region that has become prosperous thanks to its pepper farms; and this disruption is in fact aided by the governments blocking all commercial movements on the grounds that they could strengthen Boko Haram. The Boko Haram groups that are scattered throughout the islands and archipelagos from the northern basin to the dividing barrier have found themselves in an environment that offers high levels of protection from threats from the shores. Stands of Prosopis juliflora, a thorny plant reaching more than ten meters high, have invaded the northern basin since the droughts that began in 1980. [26] They make up a vast forest of 300,000 hectares, which has become partially dead, suffocated at root level as the waters have risen since 1990 (Lemoalle 2015b, 48). On the shores of the islands, belts of these Prosopis thrive and are useful to Boko Haram as shelters. In these dead forests, moving around by boat is difficult, which inconveniences the fishermen considerably, although they do find wood for smoking their fish in these areas.

40It is clear, though, that Boko Haram groups cannot survive from the produce of the lakes alone, but need other essentials such as grain. But these impecunious jihadists have always practiced. In mid-2016, they had two priorities: food and weapons. On June 3, 2016, Boko Haram launched a “massive” attack on Bosso, in Niger, with motorized vehicles and scouts, proving that the group still has access to anchorage on the shores of the lake. The toll was thirty soldiers dead from Niger and two from Nigeria, and sixty-seven wounded. No one made an exact tally of the “dozens” of Boko Haram casualties, who were reported to have been dressed in jihadist outfits. The facts behind the death in combat of these martyrs were obscured by the vagueness of the reports.

41The attack was followed by looting of foodstuffs (millet, sorghum, maize, cowpea), which had been stored in easy-to-carry plastic sacks, in storage drums or in underground silos that had been previously reconnoitered on the outskirts of Bosso. [27]

42The attack took place at dusk, around seven p.m., since Boko Haram knew that the armed forces would not operate at night, even if they heard exchanges of fire from their barracks. The next morning, after roll call, the soldiers went out to discover the night-time damage caused by Boko Haram. The night belongs to Boko Haram, and there is no doubt that the local populations do not feel protected. Once again, this attack was described as the work of a “heavily armed” group. Alongside the element of surprise, this rhetoric is used to excuse the absence of reaction, the flight of troops… in short, the defeat of a garrison. Yet Boko Haram is rarely “heavily armed,” and this was especially the case in 2016. [28] Many other attacks along the southern shores of the lake have not been documented. [29] This state of affairs led to a first attempt by the military to blockade certain points on the shores, such as the Baga Kawa hotspot, which had long been the convergence point of activity on the lake, whether originating from Gadira in the north, from Baga Sola and Bol on the banks of the Kanem, or from Darak and Kinasserom to the south. [30] Since the 1970s, Baga Kawa has been connected to Maiduguri by a tarmac road.

43This attempt soon proved inadequate. There did, however, appear to be a drop in activity by Boko Haram, which could also have been attributed to the rainy season. On the contrary, this apparent decline was the effect of a desire to silence or downplay events that contradicted the official message that the governments who were engaged against Boko Haram were gaining the upper hand once and for all.

44In fact, 2016 saw the highest annual tally of attacks by Boko Haram, [31] with the sect being particularly active on the banks of the Komadugu Yobe. On September 12 and 14, villages in the inland area of Diffa were looted and the Niger army, after a sweep of the region, claimed to have wiped out thirty-eight “terrorists.” More serious still was the attack on Malam Fatori on September 21, which again saw looting of food and ammunition and dozens of soldiers left on the ground. Malam Fatori, close to Bosso, is historically a crossroads and large border trading center with a fish market, and occupies a key strategic position for monitoring the northern basin of the lake. Malam Fatori had been regained in 2015 by the Chadian army but was then left without a proper garrison; its subsequent fall in 2016 demonstrates the difficulty the coalition armies have in agreeing and in directing a unified strategy against Boko Haram.

45As is always the case where Boko Haram are concerned, the Western media struggle to understand either the course of events or their murky consequences. Yet it is crystal clear that, from their sanctuary on the northern basin of Lake Chad, Boko Haram, the Yedina, and other allies are able to mount an increasing number of food raids around the shores of the lake. By using this vantage point to prolong their war indefinitely against the impious governments in league against the group, [32] Boko Haram seek to show how powerless these governments are in the hope that other centers of Islamic subversion will become aware of this impotence and strike elsewhere. [33]

46In this landscape, with its thousands of islands and islets (some of which are intermittently submerged) dotted among the labyrinthine marshlands, the horizon is unclear and it is almost impossible to get one’s bearings. One imperative remains clear for the emirs of Boko Haram: they must cultivate relations with the Yedina, who are the true masters of the waters of the lake.

47But, beyond this, will the new emirs of the lake, such as Abubakar Melok, forge new alliances that might change the flavor of Boko Haram’s Islamism in their quest for a renewed strategy? Will they break free from the shura of Sambisa? Will they finally substantiate the speculations of Western observers who continue to suspect Boko Haram of wanting to consolidate alliances with other jihadists? The fact that there is no apparent trace of such alliances may not mean that they do not exist.

48This lack of clarity is enhanced by the fact that jihadists of the northwest, such as AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) continue to be suspicious of Boko Haram, who they know as the “sons of Cham of Borno,” even though they are engaged in the same battle. AQIM believe the Sub-Saharan jihadists to be a priori steeped in heterodox, even idolatrous, views and incapable of detaching themselves from their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the Western media question whether Boko Haram, through sheer persistence, might not attract other Sudanese communities tempted by jihad.

49Similarly, growing suspicions of a Sudano-Sahelian pan-jihadism were heightened by the arrival in Abadam (on the border of Nigeria) of a group of Senegalese Wahhabis who were taken to the forests of Sambisa where they would stay for a year near the seat of Abubakar Shekau (Carayol 2015). The arrests in Niger and in Senegal of members of this group, with sums of money, could suggest that a “branch” of Boko Haram is forming in Senegal. [34] The hullabaloo surrounding this case is a good example of knock-on effects.

The Attempt to “Contain” Boko Haram at the Lake

50Boko Haram’s intrusion on the lake caused panic among the governments bordering the lakeside, notably Niger and Chad, and they took the dramatic decision to clear the lake of some of its inhabitants. As for Nigeria, in a kind of knee-jerk reaction, it tried to blockade the lake by closing off the main routes of access. Cameroon, as usual, has made no decision, most likely regarding the lake simply as the distant extremity of its “extreme north” region.

51The leaders of the four countries have adopted only one common policy: the suppression of all circulation of products from fishing and agriculture, and the closure of the markets, a measure that is hardly realistic. One serious consequence has been that the Fulani are not able to move their livestock around the region. The herds remain to the south of the Komadugu Yobe River. Those from the north of the lake who need to travel south are forced to take routes where there are no wells. If the water level falls on the lake, they try to cross it. Others return to their former migratory routes west of the lake. The army is cracking down on smuggling, whether fuel or the basic food staples. They are also targeting a few significant trades such as the money changers, with their packages of Nigerian currency. The latter come under great suspicion because this is a trade that has always been in the hands of the Kanuri in the border markets of Gambaru, Banki, and Mubi, and some Boko Haram members are attempting to return to their former trade. It is clear that all trade in the region was led, on all levels, by Kanuri/Bornuans and related groups. The suspicion that is directed at these communities cannot be without consequences in the long term.

52The attempt to prevent Boko Haram from gaining control of the main forms of economic transaction in the area is effectively forcing an entire region to go into survival mode in the face of a devastated economy. Some areas, such as the shores of the lake, are struggling to do so. This leads to a strange type of war, in which periods of calm and partial resumption of activities alternate with outbreaks of great tension between the military and Boko Haram. This article simply aims to highlight the economic consequences of the Boko Haram insurgency and its repression. A full analysis is beyond the scope of this piece. [35] We will, however, consider the Nigerien part of the lake in greater detail.

53Boko Haram interferes in local conflicts in each of the four national sections bordering the lake. On the Nigerien shore, the Kanembu have been joined for several decades by Hausa from Zinder and Maradi. They all practice a floodplain agriculture, made up mostly of maize and cowpea. Peppers are still primarily grown by the Mobeur. This group lives inland from the lake and prefers to use the roads, especially since the eruption of Boko Haram into the region. Of all these groups, the Kanembu are said to have an understanding with Boko Haram. In the northern region of N’guigmi, a strong Fulani community sprang up after 1973, after losing its livestock. These “climate refugees” survived by the lake thanks to the timber trade and then some farming activities, before more recently trying to rebuild their herds. The Buduma/Yedina, however, never leave the shores of the lake. Their name reflects their division between two administrative zones, that of N’guigmi and that of Bosso in the south. When they returned to making a living from the lake after the droughts of 1980 to 1990, their interests were divided. Those of Bosso sought to regain control of the main fish markets and to oust the incoming populations, such as the Mobeur. There are essentially four markets: Gadira, Karamga, Boulatoungour, and Kwatan Mouta, near Koundowa, at the junction of the waters belonging to Niger, Nigeria, and Chad.

54The Yedina of the north are, in turn, engaged in driving back the Fulani herdsmen of the lake. Officially, eighteen islands, including the largest ones in the area, are under the jurisdiction of N’guigmi. The Yedina have retaken all but one, which was “seized” by the Fulani when the northern basin dried up. It plays an essential role when they need to move their livestock at times of low waters. The ban imposed by the lakeside authorities on all commercial activities, including trade in timber, peppers, maize, and fish, has forced people to abandon vehicles that are too easily identifiable in favor of caravans of dromedaries and cattle that they use to transport goods. These pack animals belong to the Fulani. Some of the Yedina hire them to transport their fish and those who are allies of Boko Haram can use this alliance to put pressure on the Fulani and to lower their prices, or even to lever free transport. On the other hand, the rents paid by the Fulani for access to pasture have increased. Not only the Yedina chiefs, but also the emirs of Boko Haram take their share.
Nevertheless, at the time of a long period of conflict with the Tubu herdsmen of the north in around the year 2000, the “Fulani of the Lake” formed armed groups, which were in principle controlled by the leaders of the lakeside settlements, of Mobeur and Kanembu origin. These latter grouped together in a “High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace,” which was formed in 1998 in this borderland area of Niger, long plagued by insecurities. These armed groups have now been reactivated. Their mission is to safeguard their pastoral interests, which they regard as threatened.

55This could only result in bloody conflicts. Boko Haram and Yedina kidnapped about thirty young Fulani women in July 2016. The Fulani counter-attacked and freed them, but the battle left about forty dead, with losses on both sides. In this area of the lake, the only source of wealth besides fish is the age-old resource of cattle. All communities are engaged in the theft of livestock, which they then attempt to sell in more remote markets far from the lake. These thefts have never been so intense. Cattle is stolen on all sides: “kuri cattle” known as the “white cows” of the Yedina, and “azawak cattle” known as the “red cows” of the Fulani. Various gangs run amok in this climate, some pretending to be the Fulani armed groups and others posing as “Boko Haram apprentices”… not to mention various acts of violence by actual soldiers. [36]

56Blockade the Lake? By shutting the overland borders between Nigeria and Cameroon and between Nigeria and Niger, from 2013 to 2014, the governments of these countries have in fact favored the passage of traffic on the lake itself. Both smugglers and tradespeople had no choice but to travel by lake. After a heavily repressive attack by a Joint Task Force (JTF) on Baga Kawa (May 1, 2013), which resulted in the burning of 2,300 dwellings and the massacre of 200 people in the Kanuri-Kanembou-Yedina quarters, which were said to be housing jihadists, some of the followers of Boko Haram retreated to the islands. Reprisals came in January 2015, when Boko Haram devastated Baga Kawa and its surroundings, which were inhabited by Hausa who had meanwhile sworn allegiance to he army.

The Lake as a Refuge Zone and Strategic Position. Lake Chad, theater of Boko Haram actions, 2015

figure im5

The Lake as a Refuge Zone and Strategic Position. Lake Chad, theater of Boko Haram actions, 2015

This map shows cross-border areas of fighting and clashes involving Boko Haram in 2015 and movement of its armed groups, as well as attacks perpetrated. It shows the infiltration of the lake by Boko Haram and possible areas of settlement. This clear pattern proves that, over the course of 2015, Lake Chad became not only a refuge zone for the groups, but also a strategic zone on the borders of the four countries neighboring the lake, and a base for its armed violence across the region.
Source: Data and design by Christian Seignobos (2015). Édigraphie, 01/2016.

57With the presence of Boko Haram on the lake, the populations bordering the southern parts of the lake were suddenly trapped. Only those who hired out their labor were able to leave. Lakeside populations have lived in dire circumstances since 2015, and now look back on the period of 1990-2000 as a golden age when the recession of the water levels benefited everyone alike, as lake dwellers could fish and then farm and so benefit increasingly from double annual harvests. The large families that were typical during the prosperous years now find it difficult to sustain themselves.

58By the beginning of 2015, movement on the lake was disrupted, boats were seized and burned in their dozens, and goods were confiscated. In the transportation sector, Hausa entrepreneurs have had to cease operations. The Yedina have quickly regained control of “their” lake. It should be remembered that, in the early 1960s, they had control of all movement of transportation on the lake (Couty 1964). They were the ones who made kadey (papyrus canoes) to rent to the Kanuri of Wulgo, which at the time was the most important port on the lake and fishing trade center.

59Any movement on the lake now involves a great element of risk, even during periods of truce. The production of the smoked fish known as banda, which is the main commercial product of the lake, stands today at less than half that of 2000. [37] Banda is increasingly sold on credit by a declining number of wholesalers who do not know where to turn to seek trading permissions—the army, Boko Haram, the traditional powers, or all three at once.

60With the fight against Boko Haram, the control of the landing stages of the lake takes on a completely different dimension. Those on the southern shores, from Malam Fatori to Wulgo, where a historical absence of proper authority has meant that their status is unclear, have always been problematic. It is unclear whether they are currently controlled by the army, by local figures of power, or by the Shehu (traditional ruler) of Maiduguri … Some of the old Hausa merchants of yesterday may still have some influence. As for the inhabitants of the Cameroonian stretch of the lake, according to Rangé (2015), Boko Haram is a newcomer with influence, whether over the landing island of Kofya, which is claimed by the Kotoko sultanate of Goulfey, or the landing stage of Katikimé II, which belongs to the Arab chiefs of Karena, who are rivals of Goulfey. These baga (ports) or kwolta (landing stages) are the focus of trade movements which, even in times of great insecurity, can prove to be lucrative. The army, in its struggles against Boko Haram, can hardly avoid being drawn into shady trade deals, and the traditional powers are led to take risks by declaring themselves either for or against Boko Haram. Can the four governing powers hope to control all these elements and outlets? The very fluctuation of the lake waters has no small part to play in this war of strategy. For each major landing stage, there are several alternatives that may be used depending on the water level in any given year, not including those clandestine landing stages that attract traders on motorcycles. This capillary action, flowing to and from the shores of the lake, is destined to undermine the official blockade of the lake.

61Clear the Lake of its Inhabitants? The evident presence of Boko Haram on the lake and the attacks, in the Nigerien zone of the northern basin, on military posts such as that on Karamga Island (April 25, 2015) have caused Mahamadou Issoufou’s government to overreact, leading to the decision to “evict” some of the lakeside communities to improvised camps. Undertaken in a great hurry and using brute force, this forced exodus seemed to be more damaging to communities than the presence of Boko Haram. Some families of the Yedina, Bujiya, and Majigojiya groups chose to stay with their livestock and wait for events to play out (Seignobos 2016, 114).

62In turn, Chad declared a state of emergency on November 9, 2015, and has extended it twice since. Its capital of N’Djamena evacuated a number of islands, in a similar scenario as in Niger: those who remained are said to be in league with Boko Haram. [38] This mistrust was not unfounded since the Yedina assisted in the suicide bombings carried out by Boko Haram in N’Djamena on July 10 and 11, 2015. [39][40] Despite a second program of “eviction,” many persisted in staying with their livestock, which is their livelihood, while others returned to the northern shores where, whether the authorities liked it or not, they entered the refugee camps that are located between Bol and Koulkimé.

63For the governing powers, it is not a matter of protecting the people of the lake, of whom they have always been wary, but rather of preventing their collusion with Boko Haram, which is seen to be inevitable. For successive governments, the lake has been an area of criminal activity. They do not consider the indigenous peoples of the lake to be trustworthy, nor do they trust most of the groups of fishermen, who have often embraced Salafism.

64Described as the pirates of the lake by the first European travelers (Denham and Clapperton 1826; Barth 1857), throughout the colonial regime the Yedina had to contend with a French administration that had hopes of putting an end to their piracy. The N’Djamena archives have reports of the ensuing “police operations” on the lake as late as the 1970s. The Yedina still remember those heroic times when they used to take on the French whaling ships. Incriminated villagers would flee with their ultralight skiffs (made from a material similar to balsa wood, known as ambaj by the Yedina and fogo by the Kanuri, and with a density lower than that of cork), which they could carry on their heads as they leap-frogged across the islands. [41] They could slip back behind the lines of their pursuers, as reported by Sikes (1972, 181). The Kanuri describe these “people of the grass,” the Yedina, as “amphibians,” capable of hiding and moving about under water in the marshes, breathing through a reed. They would use a secret signaling system to let one another know whether channels were navigable or blocked. These days, these groups have clearly developed techniques better suited to modern-day threats. It is not hard to understand why the authorities are nervous at the idea of having to carry out armed operations in this lake.

65There are also a number of fishing groups, from a wide range of backgrounds, who have long been aware of Yusufiyya messages and who have received Boko Haram favorably. Some of them, such as the Makka Bass (“Mecca Alone”), a group of Musgum fishermen from north of Pouss on the Logone River, have villages at the mouth of the Chari, one of which is known as “Pakistan.” By the 1990s, their women were entirely veiled in black. [42]

66On the southern shores of the lake, where gossip and rumor are rife, the security situation had become untenable by 2014: “Suspicion is all the greater because we do not know who is Boko Haram and who is not […]. To the military, the locals are ‘Boko Haram’ and to Boko Haram, the locals are traitors” (Koulchoumi 2014, 146). People are afraid to say the word “Boko Haram” for fear of reprisals, so communication becomes like a game of Chinese whispers. This situation is not limited to the Cameroonian shores but is experienced all along the southern shores of the lake. On the one hand, the spread of rumors about Boko Haram has created a climate of fear; on the other hand, by instilling a widespread mentality of suspicion, the army has created a regime of informing across the region.

67In the refugee camps, which are often nicknamed “Kousseri” [43] or “Dar es Salaam,” the Yedina are isolated because they are accused of embracing the cause of Boko Haram. The same happens in the market places. They suffer the same discrimination as the Kanuri have since 2015 in Chad. [44] Families, many of whom have been split apart, have to go back and forth, which fuels the suspicions of the military. All of the local lakeside leaders, caught between the Islamist insurgency and the military, are worried, including the most important of them, Youssouf Mbodou Mbami, former minister and ruler of Bol, whose jurisdiction straddles the lake.

68In 2015, the governor of Bol decided to suspend all movements on the lake, thus prohibiting the main activity, fishing. Motorcycle traffic had already been forbidden in the bush, and was permitted only in the towns, such as Bol. In the region of Diffa, two-wheeled vehicles were also forbidden in an attempt to distinguish the local residents from the fighters of Boko Haram. All round the lake, the hand of Boko Haram can be seen, such as for example in the mutiny at the prison in Bol at the end of June 2016, where a number of Boko Haram members were among the escapee prisoners.

69Intervention on the Lake? The option of a military operation on the lake seems to have been temporarily postponed in 2016, even though Chad has equipped itself with some “frigates.” In July 2015, south of Bol, the “search and sweep” operations carried out by the army were hardly effective. The impenetrable expanses of reed beds and papyrus, through which channels must be cut in order to reach the islands, blur the boundaries between water, marsh, mud, and land. Some of the boats carrying Chadian troops capsized and some of the soldiers, unaccustomed to this environment, panicked and drowned, while others were swallowed up by the marshes. The outbreaks of fighting recorded on the lake in 2015, including the attack of the chief town of the canton of Ngouboua by Boko Haram, make it clear that the barrier dividing the two basins of the lake is an important strategic element. The routes between the two basins are concentrated in Chad’s south-west, on the Nigerian side. Channels cut across many kilometers of the marshes by the Yedina became more or less visible, depending on the year, as seen in certain aerial photographs (1975-1976). It is not clear whether they are still navigable or even in the same areas. [45]

70The Chadian government has refrained from deploying its elite units, the DGSSIE, FS, and DAR, which are made up largely of the Zaghawa people. [46] As for the Chadian air forces, they bombarded their targets on the lake with their MIG-29 (acquired in 2014), piloted by Ukrainian mercenaries. American Reaper drones, taking off from Garoua in Cameroon, fly over the lake, but just like in the forests of Sambisa, it is easy enough to hide from them by placing covered huts under the cover of the trees. Although drones provide information other than just images, their use is not conclusive.

71Since it is almost impossible to impose a protective belt around the lake against Boko Haram, the Chadian government is very vigilant against the possibility of Boko Haram infiltrating beyond the lake. With fishing prohibited on part of the lake, some fishermen have gone east to Lake Fitri, a smaller version of Lake Chad which is fed by the Batha. In Yao, on Lake Fitri, the fear of contagion by Boko Haram meant that in 2016 the administration hastened to suspend fishing activities, on the grounds that regulations concerning nets were not being respected. During inspections of groups of fishermen, subversive religious writings were discovered, and a vehicle loaded with explosives was seized.

72Since January 2016, there has been a gold rush to the south-east of Fitri, as people flock to the rich alluvial bahr (similar to wadi) that fan out from the Guéra massif. The arrival of 40,000 people from Sudan has ignited rumors of the presence of ISIS, or even Boko Haram, who are entrenched in the great markets of Khartoum where the Bornu and Hausa communities from the former pilgrim settlements along the road to Mecca are particularly active.

73Has the Hunt to the Death Commenced against Boko Haram? Questions are raised by the management of the repression around the lake, but especially in Borno. The different armies of the coalition do not operate in the same way, having neither the same directives nor the same attitude toward the followers of Boko Haram and those villagers who coexist with them. Whenever the Nigerian army “conquers” a village, it almost invariably eradicates Boko Haram fighters and assumes that the villagers share their “cause” or have been “contaminated” by Boko Haram, so they often suffer the same fate. The army has enjoyed impunity, and this is one of the key issues in the resolution of the Boko Haram conflict.

74After the withdrawal by Chad, the Cameroonian armed forces, including the BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) were permitted to pursue Boko Haram into Nigeria; they view the villagers as hostages of Boko Haram, so they release them. The latter then remain in Cameroon, or come to take refuge there if they have been released in Nigeria, but it is not known who they really are. However, during 2016, the Cameroonian army and the BIR aligned themselves with Nigerian conduct, following the lead for example of units operating in the Gwoza region. The more circumspect Chadian army seems to leave such decisions to its commanders on the ground.

75By 2016, the majority opinion is that young people who have undergone indoctrination by Boko Haram are a lost cause. Even their families often regard them as socially and emotionally dead. [47] The fact that these families denounce their offspring as “inhuman” serves in itself as justification for the forces of repression.

76Faced with an Islamist movement, counter-insurrection forces must be nothing but pitiless, but this in turn strengthens the call to martyrdom. Boko Haram gangs who find themselves backed into a corner will no longer dare to believe in an amnesty process and will hesitate to lay down arms for an aman (an Islamic pardon), since these hold no guarantee of reliability. As for the “extrajudicial” executions, which are sometimes covered up as mass graves of Boko Haram victims, they are only likely to multiply …Who will claim these dead as their own?

77Displaying little curiosity about their opponent, the armies fighting Boko Haram have preferred to denigrate them and turn upon them as barbaric. We ought to be questioning the fact that so few return from mass interrogations of hundreds of members of Boko Haram who are arrested, imprisoned, and questioned. The military “know” a priori who they are dealing with, dismissing them as “morons” and “butchers” who have been duped by their religious training. The jihadists are quick to reinforce these expectations. They have no hopes of escaping the predetermined outcome of these interrogations.

78Furthermore, analysis of metadata, such as that of mobile phone data, indicates an obsession with finding connections to the outside world. And when we remember that communities such as the Kanuri and the Hausa are scattered in diasporas across much of Africa and elsewhere, then we can understand why there are suspicions of collusion with other jihadist movements. The lack of knowledge about Boko Haram’s chain of command, as well as a general ignorance concerning the ideological evolution of the sect, are largely due to a failure in interpreting the available sources of information.

79With regard to Boko Haram, history often seems to be replaying itself in events on the lake. I have already drawn attention to this fact in connection with events in the Mandara Mountains (Seignobos 2015, 160-161). If there is an imbalance in this conflict, there is also a time warp. Boko Haram is waging a nineteenth century war. Moreover, it has returned to the story of jihad, a story that has taken center stage through the ages, while the post-colonial armies of the nation-states are trying to get to grips with twenty-first century strategies.

80The most reliable commentators of Boko Haram, who do not engage in jihadology, concede that there is a desire in this war to misunderstand the intentions of the enemy, which explains the need for the smoke screen of a globalized jihadism. While this is clearly a religious war, it is less acknowledged that it is also a civil war with a tangled web of historical and economic causes. Raising its head in 2010, without a word of warning, unforeseen, and certainly not declared, will this war—cruel, unavoidable, inexpiable—burn itself out eventually, like others in history, through sheer exhaustion? And when will that be?


  • [1]
    At the end of 2016, the eastern part of the southern basin, which is the most predominantly Arabic-speaking part of the lake, inhabited by the Kuri (related to the Yedina) and the Haddad, was not affected by Boko Haram.
  • [2]
    Almuhajiri, pl. almuhajiray in Arabic; pukaraajo, pl. fukaraa’be in Fulani.
  • [3]
    In Cameroon, for non-Muslims and in the southern newspapers, they are simply “beggars,” the word pukara having even become synonymous with “street children.”
  • [4]
    The French word débrouiller means “to get by, to be resourceful.” The “débrouillards” are therefore young people who live from hand to mouth, seizing any opportunity, usually in markets and bus stations (tasa). Living on the fringes of the law, they say they may be cunning, but for them “getting by is not the same as stealing” (see also Debos 2013, 152-153). Their slogan is to keep moving forwards, miin yaha yeeso in Fulani, but generally they do not go very far. This remarkably fluid social class can easily tip over into armed delinquency.
  • [5]
    In the State of Borno and on its margins, as in the north of Cameroon, the market chiefs, who are appointed by the traditional authorities, are always Kanuri or, failing that, Hausa. They are called sarki paawa (chiefs of the butchers) because they control the market slaughterhouses.
  • [6]
    Other groups of hunters, previously engaged in “vigilance committees” against groups trying to block the roads, remained on the side of the authorities in the Diamaré département in Cameroon and in the region of Michika in Nigeria.
  • [7]
    To my knowledge, there is no study on the subject but there is no lack of evidence. I met these guilds through the Bornu communities of northern Cameroon. They had the monopoly on crafts: weavers, fullers, blacksmiths, barbers, hunters, all highly structured groups, under the authority of their kacalla, right down to the frog hunters in the Yaéré floodplains.
  • [8]
    They made up the first troops of Boko Haram, composed of “divisions” of motorcyclists accompanied by a few four-wheelers, all highly mobile. Even as the stockpiles of sophisticated weapons taken from the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies as well as the fleets of motorcycles were dwindling, the end of 2015 saw an exponential increase in new know-how relating to the manufacture of explosives and home-made mines, so that Boko Haram’s ranks, which also included an increasing number of women, were transformed into an army of munitions specialists.
  • [9]
    Ibn Taymiyyah, a thirteenth century Syrian theologian, was the instigator of radical Islam in the form of Wahhabism. Throughout his life he castigated the bi’da, the religious “innovations” that appeared after the time of the prophet. He also distinguished himself in the struggle against the “saints.” In France, many mosques display the Salafist seal of Ibn Taymiyyah.
  • [10]
    In Maroua, Cameroon, I was able to study the center located in the Dougoy district, on the edge of the city. Although it had managed to send several “teams” of tabligh (a Sunni mission) to preach in the villages, it collapsed quite quickly (2006).
  • [11]
    Data was largely collected during those years through the testimonies of hostages who had been in the Boko Haram jails in Sambisa, and particularly the testimony of one hostage (SBL), collected in April 2016.
  • [12]
    The Kanuri elite of Maiduguri, themselves Wahhabists, should be interviewed by researchers as observers and critics of Boko Haram. Some of their members interpret the “abusive” explicitation of the Koran by Boko Haram as a corrosion of their own teaching as it was expressed from its incarnation until the rise of their capital, Birni Gazargamu, in the fifteenth century. The specific and universally recognized nature of Bornu teaching is characterized by the complete memorizing, reciting, and copying the Koran, and the teaching of the tafsir (commentary of the Koran).
  • [13]
    The questions raised by the use of the profits of occult practices to support the Salafist ulemas arises in all the revivalist Muslim communities of the Sahel. Local or State initiatives have been proposed to try to avoid violent sub-groups such as Boko Haram (Bodouni 2014).
  • [14]
    The Izala Society, founded in Jos in 1978, picks up on some of the characteristics that underlie the practice of the “Muslim Brotherhood,” mainly those relating to their strategies of social and political infiltration.
  • [15]
    The emirs take the share of the sponsor or receiver-redistributor in this cycle of razzia loot distribution, who were often the very same figures who had previously been road blockers (from the late 1980s to the beginning of 2000). This activity has been typical to Bornu through the centuries. During the pre-colonial period, Bornu traders were always the main receivers and redistributors of goods from of highway bandits active on the edges of Borno, Mandara, and the Fulani principalities (Seignobos 2013, 85-86).
  • [16]
    This would explain why the Chibok hostage girls serve as a bargaining chip against Boko Haram fighters who are taken prisoner by the Nigerian army, as was the case for twenty-one of them on October 13, 2016.
  • [17]
    In a previous contribution to Afrique Contemporaine (2015, 150) I pointed out that Boko Haram was not active on the southern shores of the lake and that the physical and economic environment of that region were not favorable to them … until the capture of Baga Kawa on the lake, on January 3, 2015. Up until that point, there had not been sufficient understanding of the work of preaching carried out by the Yusufiyya among the fishing communities and the Yedina.
  • [18]
    Too often, vigilance committees have become denunciation committees that even act as informants. These are the “reliable sources” of the courts of Maroua and elsewhere. They cite “evidence of belonging to Boko Haram” in line with the register of “suspicious activities” used by prosecutors: an irregular lifestyle, associating with unknown persons, unexplained wealth, or acquisition of a motorcycle, which was still the preferred mode of transport of Boko Haram (Amnesty International 2016, 44).
  • [19]
    Author’s estimate.
  • [20]
    The French word combattant had a particular meaning under Hissène Habré, namely a form of military status specific to the Tubu. The title of combattant brought with it a social capital enabling him to draw on the assistance of an armed group of relatives and clients.
  • [21]
    In September 1989, just off Kofiya, I witnessed a number of arrests of vessels accompanied by warning shots on the water, and the confiscation to the Chadian shore of boats whose owners could not pay the “taxes.”
  • [22]
    Darak, 35km from the Nigerian border, is part of “Wulgo District” under the local government of Ngala, Borno State.
  • [23]
    Despite the creation of a military flotilla trap between Blangoua and Kofya in 2012.
  • [24]
    They provide Tramol (Tramadol HCI, Tropidol, Tralam) to the lake’s populations. The fishermen all take these opioids or amphetamines when they are at their fishing grounds, while they are guarding their nets and lines at night against thieves. These are also the drugs of choice for all drivers and carriers. The Cameroonian newspapers attempted to sell us the story—but in vain—that Tramadol was used by Boko Haram fighters before combat.
  • [25]
    Kirta form only to the south of the expanses of open waters. These are floating clumps of tangled grasses and rhizomes that are blown about by the harmattan and collect in thick “mattresses” and cling to clumps of Aeschynomene elaphroxylon (which is called ambaj in Arabic, or mariya in Yedina and Kanuri). Forests of ambaj grow only at the edges of open waters. The fishermen then cut off the ambaj at water level to use it to build floating platforms and pontoons for their camps. They then set up huts, ovens for smoking fish and trestles to dry the timber they will harvest for fuel. In 2006-2008, there were hundreds of these unusual islands, set up as fishing camps by the villagers on the southern shores who live from fishing and agriculture.
  • [26]
    Originating from a sand dune fixation project in an area near Diffa in 1977, Prosopis juliflora was spread through cattle movements by the Fulani to the northern basin (which at that time was dried up).
  • [27]
    In these times of insecurity, there has been a return to nineteenth century silage methods, with underground silos (nugra in Arabic, gaska in Fulani). Sorghum grain is kept in baskets which are protected from pests by bales of millet or sorghum stalks. To protect against termites, the silos are sealed with the glutinous leaves of Calotropis procera, which stick together, and finally the whole thing is covered in plastic sheets as a nod to the twenty-first century.
  • [28]
    Whenever an episode of combat against Boko Haram is exposed to the media, it is clear that they have very little in terms of an arsenal. They do of course have Kalachnikov AK47s from all kinds of sources. This is the weapon that can most easily be customized, adapted or even personalized. Boko Haram are attached to them, as to their motorcycles, because they are skillful at maintenance and repair of these items. There is also evidence of hand-made weapons (belonging to reserve troops?), such as the “one shot” (Dane Gun), which are similar to the adaka shotguns used by poachers on the edges of Waza National Park, known as the “world’s greatest biosphere reserve,” which has been heavily poached by Boko Haram.
  • [29]
    The looting of food is not unique to the lakeside Boko Haram. In the Nigerian State of Adamawa in that same month, on June 17, 2016, a Boko Haram operation was carried out using a modus operandi that has been popular for some years in the mountainous regions west of the Mandara range (Seignobos 2015, 154-156). A punitive and/or warning expedition conducted by a group on motorcycles burst in on the funeral wake of a local chief in Kuda, where the Margi live, to the north of the village of Gulak (between Michika and Madagali). They opened fire from their motorcycles and killed twenty-four people. The locals ran away. The attackers then plundered food supplies and left. It is always a shock to discover what can be carried off by motorcycle in these regions.
  • [30]
    After Wulgo and Malam Fatori, in around 1970, Baga Kawa would become the most important fishing center on the lake, dealing with fish hauls from both basins. But by 1984, this would make it necessary to cut channels through the marshes to new landing stages. Competition began to come from Blangoua on the lower Chari, then Kofya, and finally Darak from 1997 until the arrival of Boko Haram in 2015 (Seignobos 2009).
  • [31]
    See the International Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, IHS’s Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, 2016.
  • [32]
    See article by Gatama (2016).
  • [33]
    See Blench (2016). In this presentation, he points out that the attention paid to Boko Haram is preventing us from seeing what is going on among the Fulani (Peul). There is turmoil in the Fulani enclaves in the states of Plateau, Taraba, Nasarawa, and even Zamfara. The governor of Benue State did not hesitate to declare that “Fulani are worse than Boko Haram.”
  • [34]
    One of the ulemas, Makhtar Diokhané, now under arrest in Senegal, is said to have been invited by emirs from the lake to teach their fighters for a semester (according to security sources).
  • [35]
    We note the commendable effort of a research team from the University of Maroua (ENS), created in 2008, and led by the historian Saibou Issa. This team devoted a special issue of its journal Kaliao to analyzing the “impact” of Boko Haram’s actions and to identifying the “suffering” of the communities affected, before analyzing any wider socio-economic impact.
  • [36]
    This data was collected in December 2016 by Mahamadou Abdourahamani, doctoral student in geography (Abdou-Moumouni-Dioffo University, Niamey).
  • [37]
    How many fishermen remain from the 203,000 estimated in the recorded fishing units (22,300) (DeGraaf 2014)? How many smokers? Fish dryers? How many of those who prepare the fuel for smoking, and fishmongers, have lost their livelihoods?
  • [38]
    Since independence, the Yedina populations, long destitute of their elite figures, have been abandoned by successive Chadian governments. They now have two deputies, and Idriss Déby has conceded to them a Ministry.
  • [39]
    It should be remembered that a number of Yedina are among the refugees in the camps to the north of the lake. Others collaborate with the various national administrations. However, understandings of current events on the lake depends on the alliance of some Yedina communities with Boko Haram.
  • [40]
    Leader of a Boko Haram cell in N’Djamena, a known motorcycle and arms trafficker, a “logistician” of the June 15, 2015 bombing that killed thirty-eight people in N’Djamena, Bana Fanaye is the only “big fish” of Boko Haram to have been arrested by the Cameroonian and Chadian authorities (August 2015). The mission, which was unraveled during questioning, implicated many buduma (Yedina) fishermen in a “highly convoluted transfer of funds,” according to the interviewers (Tilouine 2016a).
  • [41]
    Ambaj proliferates only at certain periods when open waters dry out around their margins, making it a less constant and less commonly used material than papyrus. The major form of water transport on the lake were kadey canoes made of papyrus.
  • [42]
    Fishing societies have always been more religious than others. In these same islands in the south of the lake, during visits in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I witnessed forms of ostentatious religious display. On Fridays, the Muslims (Bornuans, Hausa, Kotoko) streamed into the rudimentary mosques in their finest attire, and on Sundays the Christians (Jukun, Kim, Ngambay), got up in their Sunday best and, clasping enormous bibles under their arms, processed into their houses of worship.
  • [43]
    During the many outbreaks of fighting in N’Djamena since independence, the defeated party has always taken refuge on the other side of the river, in the Cameroonian town of Kousseri, which explains the origins of this Chadian nickname.
  • [44]
    In 2015, the Chadian government tried to control the Bornu community, with little respect for the Kanuri despite their claim to have been a key element in the founding of the city, which was then known as Fort-Lamy. It was the Kanuri who created and organized the markets of the capital. As for the mosques, it is not long since they were still largely in Kanuri hands.
  • [45]
    I examined Boko Haram’s strategy on the lake in July 2015, without understanding it (Seignobos 2015, 111).
  • [46]
    The Directorate General of Security Services of State Institutions (DGSSIE), created in 2005, originates from the Republican Guard. Directly attached to the presidency, better armed and better paid than the ANT (the Chadian National Army), it serves as a kind of Praetorian guard. The FS (Special Forces) and the DAR, also composed of Zaghawa, complete this army within an army, dedicated entirely to the president.
  • [47]
    The young people who left to serve the cause of Boko Haram were initially called the “misled,” a term previously attributed to those who had joined the gangs of roadblockers. With the arrival of Boko Haram, this form of delinquency developed into a religious category, which they claimed would be temporary until the time of a still-awaited “resocialization” or “redemption.” Once they became known as the “contaminated,” the semantics change as well as the implication that there is no known cure.

To escape the images of Boko Haram portrayed in the media, it is necessary to retrace the outlines of this Islamic uprising, recall its social rooting in trade guilds and crowded mosques, and review the religious underpinnings which, despite the decline of its territorial gains, have preserved their mystical impetus, thus bolstering the “call” to martyrdom. In 2014, a few Boko Haram groups decided to retreat to the Lake Chad region prior to the creation of a coalition piloted by Nigeria and its neighbors to combat the organization. The occupation of the lake by Boko Haram has resulted in a veritable regional security problem, with it becoming an epicenter for armed violence. Niger and Chad have responded by seeking to depopulate their respective parts of the lake, while Nigeria has closed access to the lake and Cameroon has not taken any action. The security response by countries involved in combatting Boko Haram has seriously worsened the disastrous current economic climate.


  • Nigeria
  • Chad
  • Cameroon
  • Lake Chad
  • Boko Haram
  • Borno
  • Yedina
  • Islamism
  • Jihad


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Christian Seignobos
Christian Seignobos is a geographer and research director emeritus at the IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement, France). His research themes (atlases, regional studies, architectures, landscape analysis, human/animal relations) have often been linked to development projects (local and regional development, property issues).
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