As millions suffer from hunger, disease, illiteracy and grinding poverty in the Lake Chad region of West Africa, a sinister game of resource extraction and exploitation is playing out, with geopolitics at the heart of it all.
NEW YORK — (Analysis) In late February 2017, Norway hosted an international humanitarian conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad region in hopes of attracting major donors to fund relief work. As Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende explained, “The conference has three aims: to raise awareness about the crisis, to gain more support for humanitarian efforts, and to secure greater political commitment to improve the situation.”
Brende’s concern for the region may be laudable. But no serious examination of the crisis in West Africa can ignore the political and strategic calculus that surrounds the region. As with all conflicts in Africa, questions about resource extraction and neocolonial exploitation abound, with corrupt governments in the region (and their backers in wealthy countries) making the discussion all the more uncomfortable for the most privileged members of global society.
A real discussion of the issue would highlight the questionable connections between regional governments and the development of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror group that is responsible for much of the havoc being wreaked in the region. It would note the vast energy deposits beneath Lake Chad that evoke an almost Pavlovian response from the leaders of surrounding countries, blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes. It would point out the moves that former colonial powers in Europe are making within the region to enrich themselves and expand their military presence, as well as increase their influence and political power.
In short, the humanitarian crisis around Lake Chad is a symptom of a much larger sickness afflicting the region. We must diagnose the illness in order to treat it, not simply observe its side effects and call for more drugs.
The Shadowy Networks Behind Boko Haram
Some of the statistics on the humanitarian situation around Lake Chad are truly appalling.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are at least 2.1 million internally displaced people in the region, as well as 7.1 million suffering from hunger. One in every two families need life-saving assistance, according to aid workers. Countless thousands have been killed, injured or otherwise terrorized by Boko Haram and other terror groups. The situation is dire.
So when the UN announced that the conference had raised 672 million dollars to help the people of the region, the news was obviously welcome. With such funds come very serious questions about how the funds will be distributed and who should be responsible for overseeing the distribution process. But determining the real causes of the crisis is perhaps the real million-dollar question.
First and foremost is the question of Boko Haram, its murky origins in Nigerian political conflicts and the ramifications of its actions in the region. While definitive knowledge of the group’s sponsorship remains elusive, there is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest that elements within Nigeria’s government (and potentially other regional governments) have been sponsoring the group from its infancy.
Renowned hostage negotiator and Boko Haram intermediary Dr. Stephen Davis has gone on record as saying that high-ranking elements within the administration of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan were involved, including Ali Modu Sheriff, the former governor of Nigeria’s Borno State (the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency) and one of the country’s top military commanders.
The Jonathan Administration and Nigeria’s military in turn have accused Chad’s government, led by President Idriss Déby, of fueling the unrest for geopolitical and strategic reasons. According to these sources, Déby facilitated the rise of Boko Haram in order to destabilize Nigeria and take advantage of growing energy extraction from the Lake Chad Basin.
While the claim was certainly convenient for a Nigerian government that then was fending off accusations of its own collusion with Boko Haram, it does substantiate a 2011 intelligence memo from field officers in Chad, which noted that “members of Boko Haram sect are sometimes kept in the Abeche region in Chad and trained before being dispersed. This happens usually when Mr. Sheriff visits Abeche.”
Though the details remain murky and may never be fully publicized, even a conservative assessment would note that the domestic politics of Nigeria, as well as regional political infighting, facilitated the emergence of Boko Haram. Indeed, as former President Jonathan’s own presidential panel investigating Boko Haram noted:
“The report traced the origin of private militias in Borno State in particular, of which Boko Haram is an offshoot, to politicians who set them up in the run-up to the 2003 general elections. The militias were allegedly armed and used extensively as political thugs. After the elections and having achieved their primary purpose, the politicians left the militias to their fate since they could not continue funding and keeping them employed. With no visible means of sustenance, some of the militias gravitated towards religious extremism, the type offered by Mohammed Yusuf [leader of Boko Haram].”
From its origins as a collection of gangs used to intimidate people and influence elections to its later development as a cohesive terror organization, Boko Haram has been one of the driving forces of the humanitarian crisis in the region.
Of course, Boko Haram’s rise would have been impossible without the criminal U.S.-NATO war on Libya, which not only toppled the Libyan government, but also led to a tsunami of weapons flowing out of Libya and into the hands of regional terror groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the nascent Boko Haram.
In a very direct way, the U.S.-NATO war birthed the violent conflict we see today in the region.