In the Lake Chad Basin region, which includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, economic viability and control is as important to extremist groups’ resilience as military tactics or ideology. Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Boko Haram faction, is generating income from remote communities in exchange for a range of services to secure its position.
By occupying dozens of Lake Chad island villages, ISWAP has set up state-like structures in the Abadam, Kukawa, Guzamala, Marte and Monguno local government areas in Borno State, north-east Nigeria, community members and security sources say.
The indiscriminate targeting of civilians was a major point of disagreement contributing to Boko Haram’s split into two factions in 2016. Since then, ISWAP has sought to distinguish itself strategically and operationally from the Abubakar Shekau-led Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS). ISWAP avoids harming civilians and focuses mainly on military and government targets.
ISWAP uses both state military responses that have resulted in a clampdown on civilians’ livelihoods, and the absence of basic government services in remote areas, to try to win over Lake Chad Basin communities. The extremist group has elaborately sought to fill social service provision gaps and foster income-generation opportunities.
Locals say ISWAP controls trade, imposes taxes and facilitates agricultural and piscicultural livelihoods to increase its support by providing services including security, public toilets, clinics and potable water through digging boreholes.
Military efforts to eliminate the group’s funding source have had the unintended consequence of endangering civilian livelihoods. This has encouraged people to find creative ways to circumvent government controls, with the help of ISWAP.
The five-year ban on using the Maiduguri-Monguno-Baga and Maiduguri-Gamboru-Ngala roads to transport fish in Borno State is one strategy to counter Boko Haram’s dependence on fish trading. Both community and military sources have reported the seizure, burning and diversion of fish consignments by government forces along these routes. This has often been accompanied by the arrest and detention of fish traders on suspicion of supporting Boko Haram.
This approach has brought socioeconomic hardship to communities, exacerbated unemployment, and caused increases in fish prices and broken homes. It has also not stopped the trade in fish. For decades fishing was a major livelihood, in addition to farming and trade. The blockade, coupled with ongoing insecurity, has negatively affected civilians and allowed ISWAP to position itself as the guarantor of security and badly needed services.
Realising the damage being caused to communities, ISWAP has worked for two years to secure trade routes to ease the transportation of fish from the islands. At the same time, it has encouraged the resumption of fishing and farming on the islands. This has attracted people, including older women from Maiduguri, to the islands to provide paid farm labour. The Nigerian military’s blockade has pushed traders to transport fish from the islands across international borders in order to reach Nigerian markets.
Farming activities and cattle rearing were also revived, as the routes under ISWAP control are considered safe by civilians. In exchange, ISWAP imposes taxes that people appear willing to pay. Secure trade routes mean that everyday commodities – the most important of which for ISWAP is fuel – can reach the islands.
In ISWAP-controlled areas, fishermen, fish dealers and cattle rearers are all expected to pay taxes. Fish dealers pay an average of N1 000 (US$2.8) for every carton of fish leaving the island daily. Individual fishermen using canoes each pay N5 000 (US$13.8) for one-time fishing permits.
Cattle rearers pay according to the number of cows they have. Sources familiar with the tax system on the islands say there is no multiple taxation, which affects legitimate businesses in Nigeria. Cattle rearers don’t worry about their cattle being rustled, and there is little to no harassment or abuse of civilians by ISWAP fighters.
As part of the group’s facilitation of locals’ livelihoods, farmers are not taxed, but those buying from the farmers for commercial purposes are expected to pay a token depending on the quantity of farm produce they purchase. ISWAP also employs people to fish for it and work on its farms.
As it continues to exploit the service delivery gaps left by governments while endearing itself to the locals and boosting its revenues, ISWAP’s economic strategy has made the group financially robust, according to security and civilian sources.
Improving basic government services could lessen popular support for the extremist group. Disentangling its complex web of economic resilience would also undermine ISWAP. But when targeting ISWAP’s source of income and influence, governments need to craft solutions that don’t harm locals’ means of survival. Strategies must take account of what draws civilians to areas controlled by the group, and try to counter these factors.
Nigeria’s government should consider allowing fishing activities to resume in Baga, which, as the country’s Multinational Joint Task Force headquarters, should be safe for civilians. Government must re-evaluate policies that have negatively affected civilians and led to their resentment of it.
Security forces should take charge of safety in rural areas, and prioritise intelligence gathering to identify and target specific individuals involved in illicit activities that support and fund Boko Haram. This includes finding out how commodities get to areas under Boko Haram’s control despite the presence of military checkpoints leading to these areas.
Undermining the economic resilience of violent extremist groups in the Lake Chad Basin is fundamental to effectively degrading them. However, this must be done without harming civilians’ livelihoods.
Malik Samuel, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin
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Picture: ISWAP video, Nigeria