The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the Lake Chad Basin

The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the Lake Chad Basin

Black flag flies against a blue sky background

The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the Lake Chad Basin

Commentary

6 min read

A Boko Haram flag flutters from an abandoned command post in Gamboru after Chadian troops chased members of the group from the border town in February 2015.

Recent developments in the Lake Chad Basin reveal that the Boko Haram offshoot known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is playing a worrying long game to win the support of local people and establish its version of an Islamic state. Understanding and appropriately responding to this strategy would go a long way in averting the emergence of a Boko Haram 2.0 and the devastation that may bring with it.

Extremist groups all over the world have a record of adapting to developments that are unfavourable to them. Boko Haram is no exception. In 2016 the ISIS affiliate in the Lake Chad Basin split into two factions: a main group widely referred to simply as Boko Haram and led by Abubakar Shekau, and a rival offshoot called ISWAP headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Many observers saw this split as good news, not only because it was interpreted as a development that could weaken the militia, but also because Barnawi’s branch was considered less dangerous than Shekau’s.

The faction led by Barnawi, who is reported to be the eldest son of Boko Haram’s founder, may be more measured than the main branch of Boko Haram. Barnawi’s group does not deliberately target civilians, does not use girls as human bombs and is reported to be more open to dialogue with authorities. Yet, the faction’s tactics indicate it is playing a long game that could be as lethal as Shekau’s—if not more.

Extremist groups all over the world have a record of adapting to developments that are unfavourable to them.

On 30 April, Reuters revealed that the Barnawi faction, which is recognised by the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, administers swathes of territory across the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe and neighbouring regions of Niger. The report exposed the jihadis’ system of taxation, their enforcement of sharia law, and the way they use offers such as “digging wells, giving out seeds and fertiliser and providing safe pasture for herders” as inducements for people to live under them and cooperate with them. The group uses preachers to recruit people and encourage internally displaced people to return to their communities in a bid to boost the population they control and their revenue.

An article that appeared three weeks earlier in Sahara Reporters, an online news outlet with contacts to Boko Haram, adds to this picture. Following claims by Abuja that the kidnapped Dapchi girls had been released after efforts through backdoor channels, Sahara Reporters ran a story in which ISWAP disputed this claim. Abu Bashir, the head of the movement’s shura, or top decision-making body, was reported to have said the group released the girls to avoid a step that would “cast it in bad light” at a time when “it is struggling to win over Muslims in West Africa, including in Niger”.

These two stories make clear the faction’s mission to establish control over territory and win over local people. It seems to be succeeding on both fronts.

Firstly, the Reuters report estimates the group’s fighters to number between 3,000 and 5,000. This is a stunning upsurge since 2016, when Mamman Nur, speaking for ISWAP, described in an audio recording how he and just seven other Boko Haram commanders had broken away from Shekau and run away at night in fear of their lives. Today, Barnawi’s faction is reported to have twice the strength of Shekau’s.

While the ISIS affiliate is encouraging people to do business, farm and rear animals on its territory, the Nigerian security services are shutting markets, ostensibly to deny supplies to the insurgents.

Secondly, locals interviewed by Reuters spoke favourably of ISWAP, with one saying, “If you are a herder, driver or trader, they won’t touch you—just follow their rules and regulations governing the territory. They don’t touch civilians, just security personnel.” Another said, “They are friendly and nice to those who come to the area, while they indoctrinate other people and sometimes they bring motorcycles for those who want to join them.” A 50-second clip said to have been taken when ISWAP returned the Dapchi girls vindicates this report. It showed residents, mainly youths, hailing the militia and chanting prayers for them.

More worrying is that ISWAP is making these inroads into hearts and territories under the radar of authorities and the international community. In an interview with the Hausa service of Voice of America on 1 May, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, apparently referring to the Reuters report, said, “Even today, I read in some newspapers that Boko Haram are still holding territory. Well, they may still be somewhere in Sambisa Forest, but the Nigerian army has prevented them from coming out.” The fact that the president came to know of this development from the newspapers indicates that Abuja and intelligence agencies have a lot of catching up to do. In what appears to be a tactical move, ISWAP now keeps a low profile and no longer posts clips giving information on its attacks or successes

Nigeria cannot afford to use sticks with locals while the extremists offer carrots. This approach will be very dangerous in the long run.

As the Reuters report indicates, locals feel protected from Boko Haram by the ISWAP militia rather than by state security. Providing public services in an area devastated by conflict, poverty, shrinking rivers and expanding desertification, and with little government presence, seems to have been a winning formula for the extremists.

While the ISIS affiliate is encouraging people to do business, farm and rear animals on its territory, the Nigerian security services are shutting markets, ostensibly to deny supplies to the insurgents. On a recent visit to Yobe state, one of the epicentres of the insurgency,  I found that weekly business activities in all major markets in the north of the state had been suspended by the military. Local merchants spoke to me about the devastating consequences of the closures on them and their families. Alhaji Bala Gayu, a businessman in the town of Gashua, told me,

For about five weeks now, we could neither buy nor sell anything. The government has shut all major markets in this area, and this is happening at a time when people cannot go to remote villages to farm for fear of Boko Haram. The consequences are devastating as we have been rendered unable to feed our families. We barely survive now. We are terribly suffering. We are calling on the government to have mercy on us.

Nigeria cannot afford to use sticks with locals while the extremists offer carrots. This approach will be very dangerous in the long run. Abuja and its local and international partners must take action to provide local populations with basic amenities and support them in their livelihoods. Authorities must step up their offensive against ISWAP to ward off its sinister motives. The military should make efforts to establish and secure a presence in the remotest areas of the affected countries to deny the extremists the opportunity to grow and flourish. This is essential to reverse the gains made by ISWAP and prevent the further spread of extremism in the Lake Chad area.

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