UPDATE 23/03/2018: They posted a video of the debate. My intervention starts at 22’54 and lasts for around 13 minutes. I also recommend that you watch the interventions of Amina Mohammed and Mohammed Bila before me.

Earlier on today, I briefed the Security Council on current conflict dynamics in the Lake Chad region as root causes of future conflicts. This session was organised by the Netherlands as part of their presidency of the Security Council (March 2018). What follows is the text of my briefing. I had only ten minutes so had to, unfortunately, leave a lot out (the original draft was double this length) but conflict analysis that I worked on last year (soon to be published) will give more depth. I’ll post it under research and publications as soon as I can.

This year marks 15 years since the start of the violence we identify with armed groups in the Lake Chad region. I will focus my briefing on current conflict dynamics, potential trajectories and the need to prevent root causes of future conflicts. I was born and live in Maiduguri and have been working on conflict analysis, human rights, peacebuilding and protection for 12 years. I will talk about the region as a whole but, given my background, will draw a great deal from Nigeria.

I will talk about 4 sets of dynamics.

The first dynamic revolves around environmental and climate factors. The problem is not the alleged shrinking of Lake Chad but increased variability. Lake Chad has been fluctuating throughout history. Communities adapt to changes although coping mechanisms have been tested. The issue is rather governance of and access to natural resources, the impact of insecurity and increased climatic variability. Farmers complain of impacts of changing lake levels and increasing rainfall variability, inability to plan properly, lower or no crop yields and insects that do not die. Pastoralists have to change grazing routes. Fisher folk talk of changing amounts of fish in water bodies. We are seeing:

  1. Decreased resilience due to climate and conflict: One Nigerian farmer told me how he would farm in rainy season, use irrigation from a stream and by the lake in a year, saying that if rains, the stream or the lake did not come, that was okay as “all three disasters would not befall you in the same year.” He said now, “Due to the crisis, every avenue to develop yourself economically has been destroyed. You do not have the money and even if you do and one fails, which is likely because of rainfall, security restrictions and Boko Haram, you cannot do others. Virtually all economic activities have collapsed.”
  2. Tensions between and within occupational groups: Conflict between and within farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and hunters has been exacerbated by decrease in arable land, planting of crops on grazing routes and areas, changing pastoralists’ movements, changing rainfall patterns affecting crop yields and cattle health, military restrictions, security concerns and insufficiency of land and water given increased population density due to displacement. Moreover, the conflict has led to increased ethnic and social tensions – in all 4 countries.
  3. Firewood collection by civilians and cutting of trees by the military increasing deforestation, as well as agricultural burning across the region has an impact on protection and security now but also impact on soil degradation, desertification, agricultural livelihoods, and availability of wood for smoking fish in future.

There has been no clear empirical link made between these changes and recruitment into AOGs but these impacts on livelihoods, increasing inequality and financial incentives to join are happening in the same space so they may well be a link.

The second dynamic is the gendered nature of violence. Men and older boys are often the first to flee insecure areas, are deliberately targeted, killed and forcibly recruited by armed groups, viewed with suspicion, arrested and detained by security agencies and involved in fighting, leaving women – of all ages – as well as girls, younger boys and older men struggling to cope. High levels of violence against women and girls include: abductions from schools; use to detonate explosives, the so-called suicide bombers; higher levels of early and forced marriage, either to fighters or to reduce pressure on resources; sexual exploitation, abuse and violence, including by those whose job is to protect not exploit; and survival sex. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected: unable to escape violence and struggling to cope when displaced. Unknown numbers have also acquired disabilities due to violence. Their experiences have left many struggling to cope with trauma. What does this mean in the long term when so many men are missing leaving women to cope? When so many have experienced violence and trauma? When all children and young people have taken part in and/ or experienced violence?

Thirdly, tensions between IDPs, refugees, returnees and host communities. The people of the region have been extraordinarily generous, sheltering and assisting those displaced. With time, this dynamic has given rise to tensions. For example, I was in Baga Sola in Chad two weeks ago. There, Nigerian fishermen feel discriminated against when it came to access to information and services as they cannot speak local languages. These tensions are exacerbated by humanitarian assistance, seen as only benefitting IDPs despite violence affecting everyone.

Fourthly, governance and security provision. The region has long suffered from weak or absent governance and state services. This has been heightened by the conflict. There is dissatisfaction with community leaders too, sometimes viewed as corrupt and politicised before, and now often seen as diverting aid for themselves and their families. We know corruption and inequality are root causes of the conflict. People say these have worsened. Security provision is also problematic. Military action or inaction has caused civilian harm through: failure to protect communities from violence; failure to prevent collateral damage during operations; and directly targeting civilians with human rights abuses. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenges facing the militaries of the region and we have seen some positive developments. For example, in Nigeria, a national policy on civilian protection is awaiting President Buhari’s signature and the military is trying to further institutionalise civilian protection and harm mitigation in training. However, civilian harm continues, increasing unhappiness and frustration with the state. There are also issues with community militias. In Nigeria, there are growing concerns about the yan gora – or Civilian Joint Taskforce – in particular. Civilians say they intimidate, settle scores, trade drugs, extort and steal, divert aid and sexually harass, exploit and abuse. People worry about increasing politicisation, electoral mobilisation, criminality and gangs and this developing into a new conflict phase.

While we hope peace will soon return, here are three ways the conflict may develop further:

  1. JAS, the group headed by Shekau, is defeated but ISWA, the group headed by al Barnawi, grows stronger and more difficult to combat as its policy of avoiding the targeting civilians means it both retains fighters and has more strategic relations with local populations.
  2. Community militias, due to incomplete and ineffective processes of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation, form the next phase of the conflict, engaging in criminality that escalates into sustained violence against civilian populations – and perhaps the state.
  3. Intercommunal tensions coupled with reprisal attacks and decreased access to resources as people are living in more crowded spaces leads to formation of community militias that are identity based, leading to clashes and violence.

Let’s also remember we have elections coming up in Cameroon in October 2018 and Nigeria in February 2019. It is important that political contestations do not affect and are not affected by these dynamics.

So, what is the way forward?

First of all, the crisis is not over. Humanitarian needs continue. Funding and support for humanitarian action is essential. We also must pay attention to current conflict dynamics and trajectories. The Lake Chad Basin region needs to be on the Council’s agenda. The Council needs more systematic reports that are conflict, climate and gender sensitive from the Secretariat, including on root causes and conflict drivers, as well as more regular situational awareness briefings to ensure the Council is attuned to changing conflict dynamics in a volatile region.

Secondly, we need proper analysis on which to base policy and programming decisions. There may be humanitarian needs assessments out there but proper integrated analysis that looks at conflict, climate, gender and social inclusion is lacking. Of course, we should not do nothing while waiting for analysis but we do need to ensure interventions are meaningful, do no harm and are responsive to the situation.

Which brings to me to my third and final point. The UN, donors and affected states need to ensure every CFA, naira, euro, pound and dollar spent in the region from now on is context – climate, conflict, gender, social inclusion – sensitive – and that impacts of interventions against these factors is monitored. For example, a livelihoods programme must look at future rainfall trajectories to see which crops will still be viable. If it supports the polder system in Chad, it must consider who will have access to increased areas of fertile land this will bring about, who will not and how this plays into existing tensions. Otherwise interventions will not lead to sustainable change and improvement. Even worse than a bad situation is hoping for change only for this optimism to turn to ashes.

A few weeks ago, I met a young former JAS member. She joined to transform society for the better. She told me: “I thought society would have improved while I was away but, when I came back, I saw society has gotten worse.” Looking back 15 to 20 years ago, we can see the genesis of where we are today. Circumstances have gravely deteriorated for most people. The question is: if the situation before led to this conflict and the reality now is worse than it was then, what does this mean for the future?

I urge you to take action now geared at preventing current conflict dynamics from becoming the root causes of future conflicts.