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The confluence of violent extremism, drop in oil prices and climate change is profoundly changing socio-economic dynamics in the Lake Chad region, consequently our understanding of violent extremism and how to respond to it. Boko Haram is taking notice, but can the same be said of governments and international donors engaged in the fight against violent extremism in the region?
Boko Haram – Last week, Boko Haram (BH) made news by killing more than 80 people in the village of Dalori in Borno State, Nigeria. I have lost count of Boko Haram attacks in Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. These attacks have taken place despite increasing military pressure from countries of the Lake Chad Basin region with the support of Western Powers including the United States.
Since 2015 Boko Haram has lost a good number of villages and towns, but not its lethality. It has gone on to become the deadliest terrorist group in history (more than 20,000 killed between 2009 and 2016). The loss of territory has in fact mislead some analysts and officials including President Buhari of Nigeria, to announce the defeat of Boko Haram. It is fair to say that the Nigerian army has achieved some military successes such as, seizing major towns and cutting supply routes, among other things. But it is too early to claim victory. The organization has temporarily shifted from a territory-centric strategy (control of territory) to increased targeted suicide attacks on soft targets, the use of female suicide bombers, harassments of local businesses, and propaganda. As previously discussed in this blog, BH hopes that governments of the region will respond to its spectacular attacks with brutal and indiscriminate military offensives, which will inevitably create abuses and victims among innocent populations and eventually de-legitimize security forces and play into Boko Haram’s advantage. Boko Haram has used this tactical shift in the past with noticeable success.

In sum, the multiplication of Boko Haram attacks amidst loss of territory should not be necessarily considered a sign of despair or agony, but rather a coping mechanism, a Machiavellian plan to push governments and military of the regions to recreate the conditions both “pull” (grievances, illegitimacy, discredit of security forces) and “push” (poverty, corruption, communal tensions) that have propelled BH in the gruesome circle of violent extremist organizations. In addition to this shift in strategy BH has its job cut out for it by two unexpected bedfellows: The drop in oil prices and climate change.

Drop in oil prices – Three of the countries waging the fight against violent extremist groups (Boko Haram, Ansaru and other local groups) in the lake Chad neighborhood are also oil producing countries and revenues from oil constitute an important revenue stream for these governments. For instance, in Nigeria, the oil and gas sector accounts for about 35 percent of gross domestic product, and petroleum exports revenue represents over 90 percent of total exports revenue, roughly 70% of government revenues (according to Government and OPEC data). In Cameroon, oil revenues represent roughly 40% of export revenues and 20% in government revenues. In Chad oil revenues constitute about 48% of government revenues. These countries were forecasting in their 2015-2016 budget an average price of 70 $US a barrel, with a barrel currently below 40 $US and future prospects not looking good, these countries will experience some cutbacks, and possibly worst. They will have to make difficult choices between sustaining their military engagement against BH and keeping their promises of addressing humanitarian, economic and infrastructural projects in regions mostly affected by violent extremism and terrorism amidst dramatic loss of revenues. But this difficult dilemma may also be a blessing, as it could push these countries to review their strategy and strike a smart balance between military approaches that take into consideration the new BH strategy and much needed non-military interventions that are structural in nature but targeted to community needs, for example, the adoption of so much needed land administration reforms policy (structural change) in Cameroon that secure and provide easy access to land ownership for local farmers in North Cameroon.

Climate change –Climate change is a brutal reality in the Lake Chad region. The region is experiencing radical and erratic weather conditions with longer periods of drought that are affecting food production. The adverse effects of climate change are destroying most local economic value chains including: fishing, agricultural, dairy and meat products. Local farmers, cattle owners and fishermen are caught between increased Boko Haram taxes and decreased revenues due to loss of productivity. Entire communities are witnessing the gradual erosion of their livelihood and resilience. Herders’ and farmers’ communities are fighting over shrinking arable land. For some young people in communities in Northern Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad, joining Boko Haram has become a viable option to ensure one’s livelihood and family’s survival.

The drop in oil prices, albeit temporary (hopefully) is eroding capacities of government to respond comprehensively (military and non-military responses) to the threat posed by violent extremism. The effects of climate change are aggressively destroying communities and people’s livelihoods and pitching communities against each other (pastoralists vs. farmers; IDPs vs. host communities, etc.). Boko Haram is exploiting these dynamics. BH clearly has a regional strategy with the end goal of building a caliphate in the region of the Lake Chad basin. While its strategy is regional, its operations are decentralized and local. BH leverages its good knowledge of local contexts and local loyalties to, on one hand, exploit communities and individuals’ frustrations due to government’s unresponsiveness and deficiencies (corruption, abuses, etc.), and on the other hand, exacerbate communities’ vulnerabilities aggravated by climate change among other factors.

Understanding violent extremism in this new context requires exploring the complex links between the traditional hypothesized drivers of violent extremism (grievances, perception of injustice, sense of belonging, poverty, corruption, among other factors) and micro and macro phenomena that affect governments’ capacities and actions, local communities’ vulnerabilities and resilience and violent extremist organizations (VEO) adaptive and coping mechanisms. It means integrating macro phenomena at regional level with local experiences of these phenomena at the levels of communities and individuals. Personal stories and experiences become powerful mediums of information and understanding. Boko Haram uses them to build its appealing narrative and inform its actions.

Therefore, to effectively address violent extremism in the region and effectively defeat groups like Boko Haram, governments and international actors should recognize the complexity of the situation from a regional perspective, commit to sustained multi-sectoral efforts, informed by local realities. While smart and targeted military interventions are still necessary, integrated or multi-sectoral non-military interventions informed by ongoing assessments of both regional and local communities’ aspirations, vulnerabilities and resilience are crucial. Yes, it is fair to say the situation in the region is complex, involving many diverse, yet interconnected elements. That is why a military solution or a development approach alone is no match.

Governments from the region and international actors will have to think regionally, design comprehensively and act locally. We are in for a long haul!

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