Boko Haram blocks Lake Chad trade routes

Terrorism has disrupted a thriving regional trade hub sustained by generations of boat drivers.

The Boko Haram insurgency has had devastating consequences on Lake Chad boat transporters, a socio-economic group that has been the locomotive of local trade for decades. An effective crisis response must address the needs of this often overlooked group.

Interventions to deal with the Boko Haram threat have largely ignored the impact on the economic activity of boat drivers who have been affected since 2015. Not being able to cross over to Nigeria has deprived Chadian boat operators of their main, if not their only, source of livelihood. 

Before the Boko Haram crisis, generations of boat drivers contributed to a flourishing formal and informal economy based on the movement of people and goods. Their activity helped make the Lake Chad Basin a sub-regional trade hub. Compared to road transport, boats offered a faster solution to delivering large quantities of goods. This meant income for traders and boat drivers, and lower prices for consumers.

Every week, canoes crowded with hundreds of people and goods (smoked fish, corn, wheat, cow and camel skins, among others), would leave Bol and Baga Sola in Chad, in the direction of Baga Kawa in Nigeria. Baga Kawa is an important commercial hub from where fishing, agricultural and livestock products are moved into Nigeria, and Nigerian manufactured products are traded into the other Lake Chad Basin countries.

Trade routes between Chad and Nigeria
Trade routes between Chad and Nigeria
(click on the map for the full size image)

On the way back, the canoes carried food products including pasta, rice, oil, soft drinks, wheat flour, sugar, tea, as well as soap and detergents, cosmetics, loincloths, clothes and cement. These manufactured goods supplied a large part of Chad. Traders and transporters interviewed by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) estimated that the value of goods transported and exchanged weekly was in the range of thousands of euros, a fortune by local standards.

From 2009 onwards, violence in north-east Nigeria gradually spread to countries adjoining Lake Chad, making it difficult for boat drivers to move around safely. In 2015, after the first set of attacks and bombings on Chadian soil, the lakeside borders with Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria were closed. This greatly disrupted the flourishing transnational trade network.

Unsurprisingly, boat drivers who experienced first-hand Boko Haram ambushes around the lake or witnessed the killing of colleagues eventually abandoned the route to Baga Kawa. Local markets remain accessible but they don’t provide the same level of income as sub-regional transport.

This raises the issue of boat drivers’ day-to-day survival, especially as their activity supports entire families and communities and powers the local economy. Many have tried to turn to agriculture or fishing, but access to land and fishing equipment is a challenge. Some have left in search of viable opportunities elsewhere, including Libya, while others remain idle.

Generations of boat drivers helped make the Lake Chad Basin a sub-regional trade hub

Their fate and the implications on local economies receive little attention from governments and organisations working to secure the Lake Chad Basin area. Boat operators who spoke to the ISS said they had not received any form of help, either from the state or other development partners, to help them recover.

Cessation of transport across the lake has socio-economic implications beyond the boat drivers and their dependents. The price of some basic products has increased as a result of longer routes and higher transport costs. Some have been rerouted through Niger or Cameroon. The temporary closure of land borders as a measure to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties.

This situation particularly affects the economies of Bol and Baga Sola (Lac Province), two towns on the shores of Lake Chad that largely depended on cross-lake trade with Nigeria. Boat transportation also provided taxes for local council activities.

Boat drivers’ activities support entire families and communities and power the local economy

Boat transporters are calling for a reopening of borders, but this won’t be enough, as the security situation remains dire. Alternative livelihoods for boat drivers need to be found and supported, with agriculture and fishing the most promising options. They will need help gaining access to land, funds and necessary means of production in order to gain a foothold in these activities.

An effective response must be inclusive and meet the needs of victims who have silently suffered the consequences of the Boko Haram crisis over the past decade. Leaving them without alternative means of survival also makes them vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists and other perpetrators of violence.

Action to restore peace in the Lake Chad Basin should include supporting the livelihoods of boat drivers and efforts to stabilise, secure and reopen trade and transportation routes in the region.

Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

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Photo: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

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